Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Steven Posch

Steven Posch

Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

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The Vocabulary of Witchcraft

"English is the sacred language of the Witches." (Stephen Warlowe)

Every word's a story.

The vocabulary of modern Wicca, like the religion itself, is late and composite.

Wicca < Old English wicca, “magic-worker [male]” That the word retains its Anglo-Saxon form and has been both redefined and re-pronounced (OE pronunciation: witch-ah) shows that this is a modern, not a continuous, usage.

Athame < Med. French atamer, “to cut”

Skyclad < Loan-translation (19th c.) of Sanskrit digambara, "dressed in air"

Coven < Latin

Sabbat < Latin < Hebrew. Murray's frolicsome s'esbattre derivation is non-historical. The term is a wholesale and hostile borrowing from Jewish vocabulary; compare yet another Trial Era name for the witch-meeting, the “synagogue of Satan.”

These two last are both clearly "words from without." What, one wonders, would be our "words from within"?

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Breakfast of Giantesses

The year's first favas are in, thank Goddess. It really must be spring.

Vicia faba. Broad beans. Horse beans. Windsor beans. Under their many names, they are the Original Bean, one of humanity's very oldest cultigens; we've been eating them for the past 12,000 years or so, since the end of the last Ice Age. They're the Old World's only true beans, the ones Jack sold the cow for; all the rest, incredibly, come from the New World. Fava beans.

Once long ago, they say, on the southern Mediterranean island of Gozo there lived a Giantess. One day she decided to build two houses: one for herself, and one for her daughter. She carried her daughter on her hip and the stones—I've seen them myself, and many are as big as automobiles—on her head. From these she built two beautiful big houses, one for herself, and one for her daughter. How did she manage to heft such massive stones? Well, she ate magical fava beans, of course, which gave her magical strength.

Then there came a terrible drought, and the crop of favas failed. The hungry Giantess (and presumably her daughter as well) sank down into the Earth. They are there still.

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Drighten

In her 1974 autobiography Witch Blood: The Diary of a Witch High Priestess (39-40), Patricia Crowther cites as part of her initiation what she calls “the blessing prayer”:

In the name of Dryghtyn, the ancient providence,

which was from the beginning, and is for eternity,

male and female, the original source of all things;

all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful, changeless, eternal.

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Everybody knows that witches don't have leaders. Granny Weatherwax is the leader the witches don't have.

The knock came late. The boy looked scared when Granny opened the door.

“What?” she said.

“Mistress Weatherwax, come quick: the cow kicked Mrs. Brown and she's hurt bad and she's gone into labor early,” said the boy.

“You don't need me,” said Granny, “You need the midwife.”

“It's the midwife that sent me,” said the boy.

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Pocket Gods

I've never much been one for religious jewelry, but that doesn't mean I haven't generally got a god or two tucked somewhere or other about my person. You could call them “pocket gods.”

The Norse called them hlutir and carried them in pouches. (Hlutr is the same as English lot, as in “drawing lots,” which gives one something of an idea of their cultural importance.) The witch-wife Heiðr once told Ingimund the Old, while he still lived in Norway, that he would settle in an undiscovered land west over sea, and that the sign of the truth of her seeing would be this: that the little silver hlutr of Frey that he always carried in his pouch would be lost, but that he would find it again buried in the ground when he dug to raise the pillars of his house in the new land. And so indeed it came to be when, years later, he settled in Iceland.

Which pocket-gods I carry depends on the season and the vagaries of my own thought and mood. Shown above are two that are frequently with me, both worked in Baltic amber: a Sun-disc and a Thunder-ax. Sun and Thunder are two of my best-loved gods, and I like to bear their main (power) with me as I go through my day.

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Thinking in Pagan

 “Think what god it may be."

(Ezra Pound, Religio)

 

In the Baltics, conversion came late and memory of the Old Gods lingered long. Some of Europe's first New Pagan Movements got their start there during the period of national and cultural efflorescence between the First and Second World Wars known as the Baltic Renaissance. Like ourselves, the pagans of Latvia and Lithuania are new pagans, but they have been so for a generation longer than we have, and their experience has much to teach us.

 

The small (11½ x 8 x 3½ inches) inlaid wooden box shown above, from Latvia, dates to the 1920s. It is a cash box, with interior compartments for coins, banknotes, and bills. The inlaid pattern on the outside lid represents the phases of the Moon.

 

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The Fly in the Ointment

In 1547 a woman haled before the Inquisition at Navarre to answer charges of witchcraft managed to outwit her captors and escape.

She had secreted her jar of unguent on her person. Before the incredulous eyes of her judges, she transformed into a screech owl and flew away through a window.

The story is not difficult to understand. The active alkaloids of flying ointment are toxic when taken internally. There is escape and escape.

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