Monday, December 21, 2015

The Yule Bear

As usual, getting ready for Yule has knocked me for a loop, so I haven't been writing anything much, except cards and letters and last minute projects. But as the Solstice approaches, I share with you a traditional Norwegian folk tale for the holidays--may you have frith and plenty all during the Twelves, and may you have a prosperous and productive new year.

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The Yule Bear

Once upon a time there was a man up in Finnmark who had caught a large white bear. He decided he would take it to the King of Denmark as a gift, so he set out for that country. When he reached the Dovrefjell, it happened to be Christmas Eve. He came upon a cottage and decided to stop and ask for lodging for the night.

The man who owned the house, Halvor, told him they couldn't possibly take any guests that night because every Christmas Eve a large band of trolls took over their house, and even the family was forced to move out.

"Oh," the man said, "if that's all, you might as well let me stay in your house. My bear can sleep by the stove and I'll sleep in the pantry." The man begged and begged and finally got leave to stay the night. When it got dark, the people of the household moved out, just as Halvor had said, but before they left, they got everything ready for the trolls. They set the table with the cream porridge and fish and sausages and everything else needed for a proper Yule feast.

After everything was ready and the people had gone, the trolls arrived--some large, some small, some with long tails, some with none, and some with very long noses. They sat down at the table, and they ate and ate and drank and drank, until they had tasted everything there.

Then one of the younger trolls happened to notice the white bear lying beneath the stove. He put a piece of sausage on a fork and went over and poked the bear's nose with it, shouting, "Here, kitty, kitty, do you want a sausage?!"  The bear, whose nose was burnt by the hot sausage, did not like this at all. He got up from beneath the stove and rumbled and growled, and then he chased all the trolls, large and small, around and around the room, until he finally chased them out of the house altogether.

The next year Halvor, the householder, was outside on Christmas Eve chopping wood for the feast, because he was once more expecting a pack of trolls to arrive. While he worked, a voice shouted out of the woods, "Halvor! Halvor!"

"Yes?" answered Halvor.

"Do you still have that big white pussycat of yours?"

"Why, yes," said Halvor. "She's at home now lying under the stove, nursing her seven kittens, who are all even bigger and fiercer than their mother."

"Then we'll never come to your house again!!" shouted the troll in the woods, and since that Yule, no trolls have ever again eaten their porridge at the house of Halvor on the Dovrefjell.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Scandinavia, as well as in many other cultures, the burial mound was an important aspect of death. Used since the Stone Age, they continue to show up well into the Viking Age, along with the better-known cremation rituals. Many sagas and other lore depict scenes where a person would lie or sit on a grave mound and there commune with the dead and sometimes receive gifts from them. Drink offerings were sometimes poured on the clan's mound to honor the ancestors at certain times of year.

In these modern times, not many of us have a family grave mound on our property where we can make such observances. My mother's family is buried in a Lutheran cemetery which is on land originally given to the local church by my great-grandfather--since about 2/3 of the people there are related to me, it's about as close as I can get to a real mound. However, sitting out overnight on one of the graves would probably be frowned on (especially since some teenaged vandals tried doing some weird stuff a few years back--it's now illegal to be there after dark, and if I got caught, it would get back to great-great Aunt Someone once removed and third cousin What's-His-Name, and I just don't want to go there...)

So, my alternative for the mobile 21st century--I have a a little earth from each of the graves of my significant relatives on both sides of the family--parents, grandparents, great-grandparents--as well as small rocks from Norway and from Yorkshire, England--in a small antique glass medicine bottle that belonged to my father. I have it on a dresser where I keep pictures of my departed relatives and the rocks I make drink offerings to the álfar and dísir. 

That is my portable "mound." I can't lie down on it, but it functions pretty well for family rites and for magical workings. It also makes me feel connected to my family when I look at it. And some days, when things are getting me down, it makes me happy and comforted to see it while getting ready for bed.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Generations of the Clan

What follows is a part of a longer ritual for the dead and the gods and goddesses of death. Close to the beginning of the rite, light a large, long-burning candle, preferably putting it in a glass container so it can burn down safely. In the candle, you can carve (in rune staves, if you know them) the initials of those kinfolk who have died during the past year, and the names of the major family groups on both sides of your family. After the rite is ended, share the two libations with your kin, and then end the ritual by bidding them farewell. You can then leave their candle burning all night, if you have a safe place (the bathtub can work, if it's made of metal), or at least throughout the feast that follows.

The "Cup of Mortality" and the "Cup of Rebirth" included in the ritual were intended to represent the two sides of death. To be born, to live in this world carries with it the ultimate destiny of death--and yet, isn't life worth it? The drink representing death is usually contained in a dark cup or a rough drinking horn, which contains a dark, yet sweet, beverage--a sweet red wine to represent blood, or a mellow, dark ale, for example (you can also use nonalcoholic drinks, if desired, fruit juices being best).

The drink representing life, on the other hand, is held in a beautiful, bright metal or glass cup, or a decorated horn. Despite its lovely appearance, it is a clear but sharp or bitter drink--a dry white wine, very dry mead, or a sharp beer. This represents the fact that death, which we usually fear and loathe, often contains comfort and beauty, while life, although we love it, has a touch of bitterness to it.

Here, then, is the text of the ritual:

(The candle for the dead is lit)

The generations of the clan
Are like waves on the ocean.
For a moment they touch the Earth,
Then return to their beginning,
To be followed by the next,
Each separate, yet part of the whole.

Oh mighty dead, 
Who are with us always,
You whose names
Still live in our hearts,
We call you now
From beneath that sun
That shone on you,
That shines on us,
That will shine on the children yet to come.

Be with us here
Within this circle;
Share our rite
And share our feast.
We light this candle (these candles) in your honor;
Know that you are still remembered.

(Pick up the cup of death)
This is the Cup of Mortality
Which all on the earth must taste.
This is the caesura of life,
The end and the beginning;
For as life is the passage to death,
So death is the passage to life.
Let us drink to death;
Let us drink to the passage. (all repeat)
(All share the "Cup of Death" and pour a libation)

(Pick up the cup of life)
This is the Cup of Rebirth,
Which all who are mortal will drink.
This is life's motion and meaning,
The destination of all journeys;
Each cycle returns to where it started;
The wheel continues to turn.

Let us drink to life;
Let us drink to the beginning. (all repeat)
(All share the "Cup of Life" and pour a libation)

(at the end of the rite)
Oh mighty friends and kinsmen,
We big you farewell now.
Return to the realms from which you came,
But know that you are forever here,
Living in our memories.

The ritual may be followed by a feast and, if desired, a sumble to honor the dead. In that case, the last stanza would be performed at the end of all activities.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Winter Nights

In the Old Norse calendar, mid-October marks the beginning of winter, and that period was known as the Winter Nights (Vetrnætr). This time is associated with the álfablót and the dísablót. Both of these were more private, household-oriented festivals honoring local and family deities and spirits.

The dísablót was a ritual or sacrifice held in honor of the female spirits or deities, and its purpose was to enhance the harvest and ensure continuing fertility. It was presided over by the woman of the household. The dísablót was also celebrated in spring, and the sacrifice at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, where it became a great public ritual.

The álfablót was a ritual held in late autumn, when the crops were in and the herds were fat and ready to be culled for winter. It was a local, private celebration held in individual homesteads and as such, little is known about it. It was probably in honor of the ancestors and the local spirits and land wights and strengthened the life force or luck of the family. The poem Austrfararvísur tells the story of a Norwegian skald sent on a diplomatic mission to Sweden who was rebuffed at numerous homesteads when he tried to claim guest-right along his journey. The people refused to let him in and told him they were making the álfablót there and strangers weren't allowed. It is possible that the fact that the skald was Christian may have been part of the reason the people didn't want him at their holy rites.

It's a little early down on the Gulf Coast to be ready for winter, but the idea of ancestor worship certainly blends well with all the Halloween celebrations going on. And historically it does manage to get a little cooler around the end of October, which is something to be thankful for in a hot climate.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Bread Season

I was thinking the other day about bread (maybe it was the smell from the local bread factory in my old home town). There are a lot of first grain harvest ceremonies from a lot of cultures in the late summer/early fall, but I'm not aware of a strong Scandinavian equivalent (if there is one, my Norwegian ancestors neglected to carry it with them to Texas).

Norway has such limited agricultural land (only about 3% of the total land mass, which consists largely or steep slopes and has heavy precipitation), and it also has a relatively short growing season due to the cold climates in  many areas. But none of this stopped Norwegians from loving their porridge and bread! (it just makes it that much more special...) That's why the height of festivity on Yule eve was a bowl of porridge. And pieces of bread have been found in Iron Age graves, possibly as left as burial gifts.

Porridge was the main means of consuming grains (initially barley and rye, and later wheat and oats) until early in the Common Era, when Norse mercenaries picked up baking tips from the Roman armies they served with and brought them home. And Scandinavians have been bread crazy ever since. In fact, it's said that Norwegians probably eat more bread than any other Europeans. They've even got some breads including potatoes, the labor-intensive lefse being the most notable.

My favorite, probably because it's the one my family always had on special occasions, is the humble flatbrød (flatbread), a type of traditional unleavened bread. It's dry, flat, and crispy, and we used to have it during the Yule season. It was actually originally the bread of farmers and peasants, and was a popular winter bread because you could make a great batch of it in the autumn and it would last through the winter (or even longer, if the weather was dry), stored in barrels or stacked on shelves. In fact, it's said by some that the older it is, the better it tastes (something I can't verify, because my mother would have never let me eat something that old).

The processes of both brewing and baking have something of the holy and mysterious about them, even today. One takes these seemingly inert ingredients, —grain and milk, honey and water, —and adds this magical substance known as yeast (in reality the living cells of a small fungus), and after a period of hours or months, the original ingredients have mysteriously changed, transformed themselves into something else—the bread rises, the ale or mead ferments. In earlier times, when fermenting was left to the mercy of wild yeast from the air, this change must have seemed even more miraculous.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Here Comes the Sun

One of the things about Norse Paganism that is hard to really internalize is the concept of a feminine Sun and masculine Moon. Oh, that's one of the things you can easily read about, but if you were raised in a standard modern Western culture, with its underlying dependence on Greco-Roman mythology, plus a little Celtic folklore on top, it's very hard to not think of the Moon as a "she."

But it's pretty clear that in most of the Germanic cultures, the Sun (Sól) was the "she" and the Moon (Máni) was a "he." This is born out by the languages--even modern German has the masculine case for "der Mond" and the feminine for "die Sonne." Then there's the good old Man in the Moon with his dog and bush (even Shakespeare talks about him).  But there's all that acculturation saying otherwise--poems about the moon almost always present it as feminine, most of the myths and stories we were taught as chikldren do the same thing, and modern Paganism and New Age studies have carried that forth into popular culture.  So how do you reset your thinking to a mindset where the "Man in the Moon" is not, after all, a lady, but a guy?

I paid lip service to this idea for years, but in my heart, I still kind of saw the moon and sun the way I had grown up seeing them. Part of the problem was I had no alternative images to replace them with. Then one year someone gave me this really lovely desk calendar with various images of the sun illustrating each week--everything from ancient images to photographs from space. And one picture had this image of a partly-naked woman sitting amid various plants and animals, gazing at a small moon-orb which she held in her hand. She was beautiful but obviously beneficent. In her other hand she held a fish in a bowl, and it seemed clear that the picture was meant to show that the sun gave life and light to all the plants and creatures on the earth (as well as lighting up the moon). This, suddenly, gave me a picture of a sun-goddess that I could grasp.

And it makes sense, really, that people that lived in the northern climes, where winter was so long and so brutal and the nights so long and dangerous, would regard the sun as a nurturing, life-giving figure. Going out at night to dance by the light of the moon is much less appealing in a climate where you  might get frostbite doing so (or perhaps be eaten by a wolf). The night was the dangerous time, when wild animals and dangerous creatures and spirits were out and about. If you were going to hold a festival, you wanted to do it in the daytime, amidst the trees and flowers and wonderful, warm sunlight.

There are some folk sayings from Scandinavian countries that picture the sun as a beautiful young woman whose jewelry gave out light, possibly something similar to the solje jewelry worn as part of the traditional dress, or bunad, in Norway. This jewelry, made of silver, features many little cup-like disks that hang from the main piece and reflect the sunlight. It was thought to protect against the huldrefolk, a type of seductive forest creature, and therefore was particularly worn at threshhold rituals like naming ceremonies and marriages, when people were thought to be particularly vulnerable to attack. I really like the image of a young queen glittering in all her jewelry for Sól.

Both Sól and her brother drive across the sky in wagons, pulling their respective orb (a common image in a lot of European mythology). In their case, they are driving rather swiftly because behind them are two wolves, Skoll and Hati, who run after them, hoping to swallow them up. This side of Sól is rather more aggressive and tough, and I like seeing her this way, too.

In Sól's wagon, according to some legends, there is another figure named Svalinn, whose job is to hold a shield between the sun and the earth, to keep its hot rays from scorching everything. I am kind of thinking Svalinn must be on holiday this summer, with the heat index up the way it's been. In fact, there have been some days when I've almost been rooting for the wolf...

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When shall we three meet again?

Well, I've been away a while, it seems. I was recently in a production of Macbeth, among other things--playing a Witch! (it had to happen some day...). It has long been traditionally held that a curse is attached to The Scottish Play, and that bad luck haunts any company that performs it. This has led to numerous superstitions about saying the name "Macbeth" except under special circumstances (which vary from company to company and from person to person). I can tell you that many, many actors believe in this very seriously and get quite upset if you say the word at the wrong time, which is hard to avoid doing (see my previous comment).

There's that scene in the fourth Act that most people are familiar with, where the weird sisters brew their potion to call up spirits to delude Macbeth. This reminded me of something a former housemate told me once--that she'd read a thesis or scholarly article which claimed that all the horrible ingredients named in that chant were actually nicknames for herbs and things, and that if you actually brewed the ingredients onstage, that it would counteract the curse. I don't know about that, and think it would be pretty hard to do onstage, even in the Elizabethan theatre (which were mostly of wood and straw and prone to burning down), but the idea of herblore being hidden that play is interesting.

Here's some of the possible meanings of the ingredients (but PLEASE don't try this at home--even if they're not actual body parts and such, many of them are still quite dangerous--Monkshood (or Aconite), for example, can kill you just from brief skin contact):

Toad Venom--Bufotenine, thought to be mildly psychoactive; or, the plant Toad Shade (trillium sessile)
Eye of Newt--Mustard Seed
Toe of Frog--Bulbous Buttercup
Wool of Bat--Holly Leaves, Hairy Mullein, or Wooly Faverel
Tongue of Dog--Houndstongue
Adders Fork--Adders tongue
Blind-worm's sting--Wormwood
Lizard's Leg--Ivy or Tarragon
Howlet's Wing--Cudweed (called "Old Owl")
Scale of Dragon--Dragon's Blood (daemomorops draco)
Tooth of Wolf--Monkshood
Witches' Mummy--Witch Herb (artemisia vulgaris)
Shark's Maw and Gulf--could be literal stomach and throat of a shark; dried shark's intestines are still sold as food ingredients.
Root of Hemlock
Jew's Liver--Jew's Ear, or Cuckoo-Pint
Gall of Goat--Goat's Rue
Slips of Yew
Turk's Nose--Great Mullein
Tartar's Lips--Sour Cherry
Baby's Finger--Foxglove Blossom
Tiger's Chaudron--Tiger Herb (centella asiatica)
Baboon's Blood--Dill
Sow's Blood--could be literal pig's blood
Grease from the murderer's gibbet--Felonwort or Bittersweet
A Hawk’s Heart: Wormwood
Ass’s Foot or Bull’s Foot:  Coltsfoot
Bear’s Foot: Lady’s Mantle
Calf’s Snout: Snapdragon
Graveyard Dust: Mullein
Sparrow’s Tongue: Knotweed

My personal take on the Macbeth curse is this--there are a lot of speeches calling on dark powers in this play, mostly uttered by MacBeth, Lady MacBeth, and the Weird Sisters. These are very, very well-written speeches and, delivered by a good group of actors with great energy and strong intention, would be quite powerful. More powerful than a lot of rituals, if truth be told.

I played Lady MacBeth in my 20s in one of my early jobs up in New England. This was also around the time I was seriously starting to practice magic. I remember one night when we rehearsed her first scene, with the speech, "Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here...", over and over and OVER again. I was thrumming with energy as I walked home, and I remember thinking, "I wonder how spirits and elementals and such know that this was a play and not a real ritual," and then it struck me that they probably didn't. And I had just been calling on some pretty dark forces over and over for the past three hours. So when I got home, I did a banishing ritual.  And all through the rehearsal and performance period, I did a brief ritual at the beginning of each session to the effect of, "What follows is only a play, please disregard," and another banishing ritual at the end to get rid of anything that might have inadvertently gotten called up.  We suffered no ill luck during the entire run.

This could be as superstitious as not saying the name Macbeth offstage, or in the theatre, or whichever variant of the superstition you follow--but I think, if you believe magic is real, that it's not an unreasonable assumption. There really is not much difference between good theatre and ritual, except that in theatre you are evoking parts or forces within yourself, while in ritual you are calling on gods and beings without. Some beings are not that bright and could easily get the two confused.

"Peace! the charm's wound up!"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Placebo Effect

Well, I see I've been lazy about posting to the blog the past month. I've been doing a lot of traveling and I tend to get preoccupied with other, offline, things when I venture from home.

While at a conference in Washington, D.C., I read an interesting article in the free newspaper they left on my doorstep.  It's titled "A New Way of Looking at Placebos" by Tara MacIsaac, from the Epoch Times, and it discusses the placebo effect in healing, something that has puzzled people for quite a while.

A placebo is basically a fake treatment--something that is simulated or is medically ineffective--which is given to some patients in medical testing to create a control group to compare to the people actually getting the real treatment. But sometimes the people given the placebo have a perceived or an actual improvement in their condition. In fact, sometimes patients who know that the treatment they're getting isn't genuine, but a placebo, will still do better than other patients who aren't given anything at all.

It's been assumed that the placebo effect is caused by the relationship between the mind and body in healing and that it's the person's thoughts that must affect the body in some way. But according to the article, the effects of placebos have been increasing over the past decades, to where this phenomenon now accounts for as much as 70 percent of an effect in a medical trial.  Two researchers who have been studying this effect, Dr. William Tiller (Ph.D.) and Dr. Nisha Manek (M.D.), have begun considering the idea that human intention physically changes the placebo in some way, causing it to have the beneficial effect. Tiller has conducted various experiments to test this idea, such as a study that has shown that intention  may be able to change the pH-levels of water. The two published some of their findings in a paper titled, "A new perspective on 'the placebo effect': Untangling the Entanglement (Medical Hypothesis, 2011).

I find this a really interesting idea from a magical perspective, because it suggests something that many practitioners have already experienced, that we really can shape reality through ritual and magic.

(Yes, this is the kind of thing that goes through my mind at library conferences, what can I say--the afternoons are long and those darkened rooms make the mind wander...)

P.S. If you want to take a look at the article yourself, it's at:

Friday, May 1, 2015

Book has arrived from printer!

I had been planning to post some musings on the process of editing, and English usage vs. American usage, but I was sidetracked by the excitement of finding a box of copies of my book from the printer (auspiciously enough they came on Walpurgisnacht).  Somehow I never really feel a project is real until the end product is in my hand. I should be working on something else this weekend, but I suspect I will be spending tonight with my new "babies" and a glass of champagne.

If you want to take a peekk at what these might look like, check here:

Friday, March 27, 2015

Just a quick update--the final proofs for my book have gone back to the publisher, so now it's just a matter of waiting.

Also--I'm being interviewed on Intrepid Radio this Sunday (Mar. 29) starting at 9:00 PM Central Time (see link below)--am pretty excited (and also hoping I don't say something stupid!)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day festivities

Valentine's Day is often fraught with anxiety for those who don't have a significant other to celebrate with (and the scope of the expected celebrations has grown exponentially over the years--used to, you could make do with a card and maybe some flowers or candy, but now a night of romantic excess seems to be expected).

But for a while now, I've found a way to ensure that Valentine's Day doesn't fall flat for me, and that is by using the occasion to to a ritual in honor of Freyja. Not a traditional Norse holiday, but there is a record of the Dísablót , a sacrifice to the female powers called dísir, at Uppsala in Sweden, so it's not totally out of place.  Plus--well, Freyja, and love (and lust!) and all those things--surely it fits into the occasion (plus, all those little hearts, looking oh so similar to a pair of buttocks ♥

And doing a ritual to the great Goddess of love and later endulging in a little wine and seafood amidst some fresh flowers certainly beats watching a cheesy chick-flick while eating an entire carton of ice cream. Try it--you need never be alone on Valentine's Day again.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Happy Thorrablót!

So, tonight I'm going to celebrate Thorrablót by honoring the god Thor and consuming what remains of the Yuletide eats and drinks.

The Þorrablót is actually a modern festival that started out in the mid-1800s when a group of Icelandic students in Copenhagen got all excited about Icelandic nationalism and held a dinner party honoring their country's traditional foods and customs. They also honored Thor, probably because his name sounded kind of like Thorrablót.  The festival later became popular throughout all Iceland by the mid-twentieth century and is still celebrated today. Some modern followers of Asatru also celebrate the holiday in honor of Thor.

It got its name from the historical Icelandic calendar name for the month of Þorri, which covered the period from mid-January to mid-February.  The Orkneyinga saga mentions a legendary Norwegian king named Þorri ("frost"), the son of Snær ("snow"). Other sources claim that the Kvens (a Finnish population in northern Norway) celebrated a yearly sacrifice at mid-winter.

However, sadly, etymologically the name Þorrablót has nothing to do with the Norse god Þórr, despite the similarity in their names. And it was never a truly ancient, traditional Heathen festival. So all the modern celebrations are non-traditional.

 If you really want to celebrate in the traditional Icelandic manner, folklore has it that on the first morning of the month of Þorri, the head of the house would go outside in the cold only partially dressed: barefoot, dressed in only his shirt, and partly barelegged (one trouser-leg went on his leg, while the other trouser-leg dragged on the ground). He then proceeded to hop on one leg all around his house and bid Þorri welcome to his home.  (Then his wife treated him specially nice the rest of the day, which is also known as Bóndadagur, or "Husband's Day").

Then you can feast on such traditional Icelandic treats as hákarl (rotten shark's meat), svið (boiled sheeps head), blóðmör (congealed sheep's blood wrapped in a ram's stomach), or súrsaðir hrútspungar (the testicles of rams pressed in blocks, boiled and cured in lactic acid), along with a healthy draught of Brennivin (a type of Icelandic aquavit also known as Black Death--you'll need it to wash down all that food).

But it's winter, and it's cold and wet, and all the fun of Yule and my birthday are over, and I really have to get seriously back to work now, and hey, I need a festival. And Thor is just fun, you know? So, here's to pork and beer, here's to Thor, and a big Texas welcome to Þorri!!