Category Archives: Germanic

Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (Review)

Witches and Pagans coverMax Dashu has posted significant excerpts of her multi volume project on the history of witchcraft at her Suppressed Histories website for years, and publication of her research in book form has been eagerly anticipated. This first installment (which Dashu refers to as Volume VII) covers the years 700 to 1100 – a good choice, because this period is critical to understanding the peak of the witch craze in late medieval and early modern times. This is also a period in European history where not a lot of information is available to the average Pagan.

Dashu is explicit that she is writing for a lay audience, but this is a thoroughly researched and referenced work, with a large bibliography and over a thousand footnotes. There are some readers who will think she excessively belabors her points, but there is so much misinformation out there, often written by slipshod academics and well-intentioned Pagans who rely on these academics, that a solid scholarly work was sorely needed. The conclusions Dashu reaches will not be startling to better informed researchers inside and outside academia, but the weight of evidence on which she bases her findings is gratifying in this highly contentious field. No doubt there are many who will be surprised.

The book utilizes linguistic analysis, place names, archaeology, folk customs documented by clerics, early theological treatises on demonology and witchcraft, and mythology of pagan origin recorded by Christians. Dashu is well aware of the shortcomings of each of these methodologies and discusses them frankly. Still the amount of evidence, from many types of sources, leads to well grounded conclusions. This book mentions in passing some of the biases which hamper academic research on witchcraft, leading to often repeated yet erroneous beliefs that have seeped into Pagan discourse.

Dashu informs us that Pagan beliefs and shamanic practices not only survived well into the Middle Ages in supposedly Christianized regions, they were widespread and deeply adhered to, particularly by the lower classes. Shamanic practices and worship of goddesses and nature deities were equated with witchcraft and devil worship by clerics and formed the basis for persecution. Though trials for malefic sorcery also existed in pagan Rome, the intensity and tone of the Christian persecution was different and significantly broader, including for example healing and divination. Aristocratic government and church leadership were intricately connected and both used dispossession of pagan culture along with persecution of witches as a way of solidifying power. The healers, diviners, and keepers of tribal history known as witches were overwhelmingly female, and witch persecutions were part of a pervasive Church strategy to further subjugate women, who were already dominated by men within their pagan cultures. Dashu firmly establishes that for centuries the targets of the witch hunts were shamans, usually female, and that the purpose of witch persecutions was to establish Christian hegemony and solidify aristocratic power.

Dashu also attempts to piece together what those pagan belief systems and female shamanic practices that were under attack actually were, and here her findings must be treated as incomplete. She focuses a great deal on Germanic cultures, and practitioners of the various Germanic traditions will find a wealth of information here. She discusses the importance of the distaff in women’s mysteries and the Norse practice of “sitting out” to achieve psychic insight. She explores the little that is known about northern European goddesses. She devotes an entire chapter to the important Icelandic poem The Volupsa. This is not, however, a definitive look at any Norse tradition, and really to have attempted that would have taken this book too far afield. I have noticed a tendency in witches in my acquaintance to devote their reading solely to authors like Dashu who approach witchcraft from a solid feminist perspective. There would be nothing wrong with that if there were more Pagan writers with a true understanding of feminist theory, but there are not enough of us around to be so selective. If the material here sparks some new interest you will need to draw from a variety of sources on the runes and Norse literature. I was particularly dismayed to hear a friend say she was inclined to cut out any reference to the god Odin from her practice after reading this book. I am a Dianic priestess, and it is more than okay with me if a woman only wants to worship goddesses, but I think we must remember that male as well as female archetypes become distorted in support of male dominance. It is important that we recognize patriarchal bias in our Pagan heritage, but it is equally important that we do not stop there.

Witches and Pagans is slow reading and cannot be tackled in one or two sittings. Dashu’s writing style is clear and straightforward, but the nature of the material is that it is dense. An index would be helpful. There is a web address for an index in the book which took me to a 404 error page. There are quite a few line drawings in the book which add a great deal to the text. This is a great resource with a lot of helpful information. I hope we will not have to wait too long for the next volume of “The Secret History of the Witches.”

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Frigga and Writing

Germane to my post last week on Frigga, here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Divining with Animal Guides.

The origin of Germanic writing is complex. Late Bronze Age carvings and cave markings from Northern Italy to Sweden show some rune-like symbols, their meaning undeciphered. Readable runic script dates to the second century and was presumably derived from the Etruscan alphabet, with which it shares some symbols. The god Odin is credited with discovering the runes, eighteen of them to start, when he hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights. It is essential to understand that runes are not and were not simply signs that could be manipulated to form language, although they certainly were used for that purpose. Runes have always been magical powers in and of themselves. They disclose hidden truths, they protect buildings, they form spells. They are the force behind what words they speak.

Since Odin found the runes while tied to the tree but did not invent them, we have to look deeper for their source. The deities who nourish Yggdrasil are the Norns Urd, Verthandi, and Skuld. They are the Norns we are usually talking about when we say “The Norns.” The Norns water Yggdrasil’s roots from a pool of water at the base of the tree. They are responsible for giving each person their destiny and can reveal the past, present, and future. They are usually the powers invoked when using runes for divination and they are the powers petitioned for changing life circumstances. In addition to tending the tree, the Norns tend a pair of swans who are said to be the parents of all swans in the world. The Norns themselves wear cloaks of swan feathers.

Another Germanic divinatory goddess is Frigga, who knows the future but seldom speaks of it. According to some sources it is she who bestows destiny on every child. Frigga’s distaff is in heaven and the stars revolve around it, which means she controls the calendar. Frigga wears a crown of heron feathers. Her sacred tree is the birch, probably the White Birch or Silver Birch. The white, supple bark of the birch has been used throughout northern Europe as a medium for writing and drawing. Natives in North America used the Paper Birch for similar purposes. Since bark is a degradable material it would be impossible to know how far back symbolic drawing on birch goes; extant pieces from Russia date to the twelfth century. Not much was recorded in Christian times about Frigga, despite her status as nominal head of the pantheon along with Odin, because clerics worked especially hard to erase all traces of her. Those who in later centuries recorded the Norse legends were men who would not have been privy to feminine traditions anyway. While Frigga is not explicitly documented as a writing goddess, information about her points in that direction.

Birch bark writing from Russia, 13th century. This is a young boy’s school lesson.

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Frigga: A short sketch

Grey Heron. Photo: Manfred Schulenburg.

Then said Gangleri: “Which are the Asynjur?” Harr said: “Frigg is the foremost: she has that estate which is called Fensalir, and it is most glorious.”
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson, translated Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur.

Deities tend to become conflated over time, particularly female deities. When a major goddess enters the historical record in an obscure manner, the situation becomes more pronounced. Such is the case with Frigga, possibly at one time the most widely worshipped of the Germanic gods. Often confused with the beautiful and loving Frejya, Frigga is very much a goddess of her own realm.

The term “Asynjur” mentioned above means “goddess” in this case, though it can refer specifically to the branch of Germanic deities known as the Aesir. Marija Gimbutas classifies the two branches as a conjoining of Old European and invading Indo-European pantheons: “The Vanir represent the indigenous, Old European deities, fertile and life giving. In contrast, the Aesir embody the Indo-European warrior deities of a patriarchal people.”(1) I view this assessment, and Frigga’s place in it, not as false but as overly facile. The Vanir was undoubtedly drawn into the Aesir, with the Aesir All-Father Odin the dominant deity of the new pantheon, but the more populated Aesir had probably absorbed other pantheons at an earlier time. I believe Frigga was a central goddess of a matriarchal culture who was absorbed into Odin’s cult by “marriage,” a time-honored way of combining pantheons. Frigga’s marriage to the head of the patriarchal pantheon signals her importance. Her cult seems never to have been entirely subdued, because she retains her own sphere and is more than a match for Odin. In two stories she outwits the All-Father.

While Germanic deities have their own personalities, their individuation is expressed less with symbols and functions, which often overlap, than with territory. Frigga’s place is the slow-moving, marshy river and her glorious estate of Fensalir is an island within the freshwater marshland. The Grey Heron dominates this type of landscape, and Frigga is said to wear a crown of heron feathers. She has also been mentioned as owning hawks, which might be a conflation with Frejya, but could allude to another bird of this landscape, the osprey. I think of her as the great fish eater. She harvests souls swimming in the water of life and so rules over fate.

Frigga’s tree is the European White Birch, which grows well in wet soil along rivers. No doubt her house — or nest — is birch. (For more on this association see my post Frigga and the Birch.) She is the goddess of spinning, with the stars her distaff, which makes her the goddess of the year. Frigga’s status as sun goddess is revealed by her function as goddess of time and her association with gold. If twelve other goddesses mentioned in the Prose Edda are Frigga’s handmaidens, as Diana Paxson maintains(2), this further support the conjecture that she is a sun goddess.

As mother goddess Frigga rules that other fishy place, a woman’s vulva. The sexual connotations of the word “frigg” are derived from her name. (For those who don’t know what frigging is, I explain it here in this video.) Christianity has successfully divided the mother from the sexual being in our minds, thus encouraging the distinction of Frigga as mother goddess as opposed to Frejya as love goddess, yet earlier Pagans knew no such separation.

Frigga is described in the literature as the goddess who knows the future but seldom speaks of it. Herons also walk silently in the still waters, typically quiet except in the rookery. Frigga gives the child her destiny at birth. Her mastery of divination can be traced to her death-goddess huntress aspect or to her spindle which commands time. Birch bark as writing medium ties Frigga to the runes and their association with divination and spells.

While Frejya and Odin divide the heroic who die in battle between them, those good souls who lead a humbler life go to Fensalir after death. This gentle, loving goddess did not rise to prominence in a warrior culture.

I associate Frigga with the smell of fishy water, which I love, and quiet ponds teeming with dragonflies, frogs, and vegetation. She is the stately heron stalking the water’s edge. She is also the beautiful composed matron, the mistress of a rich but comfortable house. She is wise beyond measure, and though we hang on her words she listens more than she speaks.

The fate of all does Frigg know well,
Though herself she says it not
The Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Addams Bellows

 

Notes

1. Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 191.

2. Diana L. Paxson, “Beloved: On Frigg and Her Handmaidens,” at Hrafnar: Twenty Years of Re-Inventing Heathenry

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Get Frigga Video Here

I moved the Frigga video to a separate page so it wouldn’t start automatically. For some reason my WordPress plugin will only play this video on autoplay. Here is the link.

Most of my videos I put on Youtube or Vimeo, which usually works well with WordPress. I was afraid the Frigga video would get my accounts suspended, however, so I did something different for this one.

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Reindeer and the World Tree

Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

 

More from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

The stag of Artemis being in fact a reindeer raises questions about the four stags who nibble on the branches of the Germanic world tree, Yggdrasil. This is the tree that holds the nine worlds, three each in the lower, middle, and upper regions. A snake nibbles at the roots of the tree, an eagle claims the high branches, and four deer browse the foliage. These animals create balance by tempering the growth of the ever-growing tree. The deer are identified as stags in the only source that mentions them, the Prose Edda, so this is not a case of a picture being misinterpreted, at least not in modern times. It is curious that reindeer would not be prominent in the mythology of the Norse, when reindeer memory survives as far south as Greece. Another stag, called Eikthyrnyr, lives atop a tree called Laerad in Odin’s upper realm of Valhalla. Eikthyrnyr munches the leaves of Laerad along with a nanny goat named Heidrun. From the udders of Heidrun flow mead. From the antlers of Eikthyrnyr flow the waters that make up the rivers of the worlds. Eikthyrnyr could also be a reindeer doe. Default male bias being the pervasive affliction that it is, assertions of maleness in animal deities must be entertained with skepticism. The presence of so-called stags where we would expect to find reindeer, amid the absence of mention of any does, suggests either naiveté or a patriarchal rewriting of mythology.

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Germanic Raven Goddesses

corvus_corax_(NPS)

The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress about animal divination.

Despite being extremely social, ravens and crows squabble quite a bit between themselves, fighting over food and territory. They even, rarely, perform “executions,” a practice poorly understood though well documented. Corvids do not routinely harm members of their posse who are ailing and will even protect the disabled and bring them food. The dominant theory is that solitary birds with no allies eventually excite territorial instincts. Whatever the reason, the flock becomes very noisy as a number of birds execute the offender. Once killed, the cacophony abates suddenly and the birds abscond, leaving behind the corpse.

More common than executions of their own kind is mobbing of raptors. Any songbird might take part in a mobbing, but jays and crows are the most enthusiastic, while the larger and less vulnerable ravens seldom bother. Ravens do buzz and snap at eagles, perhaps to draw eagles away from nest sites (although this does not totally explain things). Some ravens hang out around wolf packs, waiting to devour leftovers from a carcass. In the meantime they enjoy teasing the wolves, pulling their tails and scampering off.

The raven-wolf pairing is more conspicuous in Germanic lore than the raven-horse, although both can be found. Two wolves sit at the feet of the god Odin, while two ravens flank his shoulders. The names of these ravens are Huginn and Muninn. usually translated as “thought” and “memory.” Odin the Allfather “sends them out at daybreak to fly over the whole world, and they come back at breakfast-time; by this means he comes to know a great deal about what is going on, and on account of this men call him the god-of-ravens.” There is some controversy over the meaning of “Muninn,” who is mentioned less frequently than his sidekick in extant Germanic lore. Two questions not entertained, to my knowledge, would be 1) Are these ravens really guy-ravens or is this a case of default male bias? and 2) Why two ravens?

The gender of the ravens does matter, since ravens are Odin’s servants and the Valkyries called the daughters of Odin, serve him on the battlefield as well as in Valhalla. In the Poetic Edda the battlefield is referred to as “Huginn’s grove,” so one or both of these same ravens are hovering alongside the fight like the Valkyries. Perhaps Huginn and Muninn are the culmination of a process from a dominant raven-goddess to a raven-goddess subsumed under rule of the Allfather to a subordinate raven deity stripped of feminine association.

That two wolves and two ravens flank Odin is curious. Why not one raven-wolf pair? Why not nine ravens? Two is not an automatically recurring number in Norse lore; nine, and occasionally three, are the most prominent numbers. If this were a story of Semitic origin I would attribute the pair of ravens to cultural emphasis on complementary halves, but that is not the case here. When Odin says he has two ravens, he means that the ravens are two, and we do have to ask, why two?

The idea that the mind of the God is divided into thought and memory is suspect, since this is a dualistic concept that, if it existed at all, would most probably have arisen through Christian influence. The translation of Muninn’s name as “memory” is contested anyway. There are marriages between gods and goddesses, which might explain the raven-pair, though marriages are often ways of blending the pantheons of conquerors with those of indigenous people, so a marriage might not fit with the idea of the ravens as vestiges of an earlier matriarchal cosmology. There are other deities that are commonly thought of in pairs, such as the goddess Frigga and her son Baldur, and the boar-goddess Freya with her boar-brother Freyr. Could Odin’s winged familiars be brother-sister raven deities?

Where the number two arises most frequently is in reference to the Aesir and Vanir, the two branches of pantheons that came together under the reign of the Odin. Feminist scholars theorize that these groups represent an indigenous Old European pantheon (the Vanir) linked to a conquering Indo-European pantheon (the Aesir) . We could also call them two allied Indo-European pantheons – the point is that they represent the confederation of two tribes. This would explain why Odin has two ravens and wolves at his command: they represent the raven-wolf totems of each of these tribes. This is supported by Odin’s revelation in the Prose Edda, “Over the world every day fly Hugin and Munin; I fear that Hugin will not come back, though I’m more concerned about Munin.” To me this speaks of a ruler trying to maintain control of an unruly alliance.

Sources

The Elder Eddas of Seamund Sigfusson, Benjamin Thorpe, trans, (London: Norroena Society) p. 143. Accessed at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14726/14726-h/14726-h.htm February 22, 2016.

Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 191.

Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson: Tales from Norse Mythology, Jean I. Young, trans. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), p. 64.

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