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.
A War on Women: An Open Letter to the Legislators of 'Heartbeat Bill' States

Dear State Legislators of Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, and Alabama:

You've made your position clear. Your anti-choice legislation constitutes nothing less than a War on Freedom, and a War on Women.

...
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What I Saw in the Woods, or: Stepping Into the Firelight

I was 17. I didn't know much, or anyone else, at the time, but it was Midsummer's Eve and, dammit, I was going to do something. So at sunset I went down to the woods that lined the cliffs above Lake Erie.

I knew these woods well; they were my refuge. At night, when life was too much to bear, I would stash my shoes under a log and walk the deer-paths for hours. (Bare feet will always find you a path in the dark.) Those woods saved my life.

I had no ritual, no plan, that Midsummer's Eve. As darkness grew, I followed the deer-paths farther and deeper into the forest than I'd ever gone before.

Then suddenly, through the trees: firelight. Drawing nearer, I saw that it was a large fire, very large.

I heard the violin, and the voices of people, many people. Cautiously, through the underbrush, I approached. Some were standing, talking. Some were dancing, a ring-dance around the fire. Old people, young people.

I'd gone out to find Midsummer's Eve, and I'd found it. I was fascinated. I was terrified.

I don't know how long I watched. It felt entirely natural that this should be happening: all very Old Country, somehow. Finally, moving quietly as well I knew how, I turned and made my way back through the woods.

Midsummer's Eve of the next year I went back, hoping to find them again, hoping for the courage to step out of the woods and into the firelight.

Who are you? I wanted to ask.

But that year they weren't there. I never saw them again. Who they were, or why they were there, I don't, and never will, know.

Years went by. Now I'm one of those ring-dancing around the fire, knowing full well as I do so that there are new young eyes out there among the trees, watching and waiting.

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The First Walpurgisnacht

Folks, we have a problem.

It's the Eve of Beltane. The time has come to go up to the top of the Holy Mountain and enact the ancestral rites that bring Winter to an end and assure a fruitful Summer to come.

Well, but: the king has turned to the new god, and forbidden—on pain of death—the Old Gods and the Old Worship. He has sent soldiers to ring the Brocken, our Holy Mountain, and ordered them to kill anyone who attempts to ascend.

But the ancient rites must be enacted, lest the Wheel should cease to turn.

So what do we do?

 

This is the story that the poet laureate of German Romanticism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), tells in his poem Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, “the First Walpurgisnacht.” Goethe's poem was later set to music by composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) in a pagan cantata of the same name (Op. 60), which premiered in 1843.

In Germany, Walpurgisnacht looks a lot like Halloween does here in the States: it's a haunted time, a night when the ghosts and monsters come out. How did it change from Holy to Haunted? That's the tale that Goethe and Mendelssohn tell in Die Erste Walpurgisnacht.

 

OK, so here's what we're going to do.

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Fain

 “...ye who are fain to sorcery...”

 

There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to sorcery, yet have not won its deepest secrets: to these shall I teach such things as are yet unknown.

So speaks the Goddess of Witches to her people in Doreen Valiente's foundational masterpiece, The Charge of the Great Mother.

Valiente's evocative phrase is based, nearly word-for-word, on Charles Leland's English rendering of “Madalena”'s Tuscan text: She who fain would learn all sorcery yet has not won its deepest secrets, them [ i.e. the deepest secrets] my mother [i.e. the Goddess of Witches] will teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown.

Fain. Already in 1899, when Leland published his Aradia: the Gospel of the Witches, fain read archaically, mysteriously.

Don't confuse it with fane: that means “temple,” from the Latin fanum. Nor (speaking of homonyms) is it the same as feign, “pretend, fabricate” (< French feindre). (Which is not to say [snarkiness alert] that we all haven't met some who are feign to sorcery.)

No, fain is a good Old English word. In the dialect of the Hwicce, the original Anglo-Saxon Tribe of Witches, faegen (pronounced, more or less, fain) meant “glad, joyful, rejoicing.” (The Old Norse cognate, feginn, means “joy” tout court.)

As a verb, fain means “to rejoice in, enjoy; to take to gladly.” As an adjective, fain is “disposed, inclined or eager toward, willing.”

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How to Remember Anything

Of all the Indo-European-speaking peoples, only one has practiced their traditional religion continuously since antiquity.

The Kalasha, some 4000-strong, live in three remote valleys in what is now northwestern Pakistan. There they worship their ancient gods with wine, animal sacrifice, and sacred dances.

To honor these courageous people, I want to teach you a word in their language, Kalashamon: pooch, “penis.”

Some years back, it so happened that an English tourist came to visit the Kalasha valleys. (When you're the last surviving pagans of the Hindu Kush, the tourists will certainly come.) Being English, she naturally brought her dog with her. (“A priest in Ireland, a dog in England,” goes the saying, answering the question “What's the best thing to be?”) Of course, the dog's name was Pooch.

One day Pooch ran away. To the great amusement of the Kalasha, the distraught woman wandered through the village calling “Pooch! Pooch!” and explaining to anyone who would listen that she had lost her Pooch and just had to find him.

The story may or may not be apocryphal. Likelihood aside, it very much has the feel of something that an amused Kalashamon-speaker learning English might make up.

But if by any chance you should happen to find yourself in the secret mountain valleys of the Lost Pagans of the Hindu Kush, you'll know at least one useful word in the local language.

You will have remembered it, you will find, because I've taught it to you in the traditional way, which—in the days before literacy took all human knowledge hostage—the ancestors utilized in every aspect of life.

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Walks-Into-the-Sky

See that grayware jar there on the sideboard? The tall one, with the swirling black spirals?

That's for my ashes.

Bring it to the first Grand Sabbat after I die. (You might want to seal the lid with beeswax first.) On the first night, set it at the foot of the altar. Let it stand there throughout the gathering.

On the night of the Sabbat, when you remember the dead, call my name. When you pour for the dead, pour for me.

(Pinot noir by preference, but you know me: anything but mead.)

And then the Old Buck's last Grand Sabbat.

(Be careful not to kick the jar over during the Grand Sacrifice. You know how frenzied those can get.)

On the last morning of that first gathering of the tribe of Witches after I die, when the Horned comes for the last time to lead the people up out of the forest and into the sunlight, bring the jar.

When, at the foot of the hill, he turns in final farewell, set it in the crook of his arm.

He'll take it with him up the hill then, as he sinks (in a pillar of white flame) into the Earth, as he walks into the Sky.

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American May Song

Called the “father of American music,” Pittsburgh-born songwriter Stephen Foster (1826-1864) wrote more than 200 popular songs, including such classics as Camptown Races, Way Down Upon the Swanee River, and Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.

Sharing both a name and a hometown with him, I grew up with Foster's music: I sang his songs at school, and on road-trips with my parents and grandparents. I learned to play the piano from a book of his music.

Much of Foster's repertoire sang of life in the Old South, which makes it an uncomfortable fit today. Much of it, frankly, makes for difficult listening. To his credit, one must at least acknowledge that, in his songs, Foster again and again sympathetically depicts the humanity, dignity and deep sorrow of the enslaved.

In The Merry, Merry Month of May we see Foster in age looking back nostalgically at his youth. It's not his best song, but it is, nonetheless, an American May song.

And you gotta love that “May/gay” thing.

 

The Merry, Merry Month of May

(published by Daughaday & Hammond, Philadelphia, 1862)

 

We roamed the fields and river-sides

when we were young and gay;

we chased the bees and plucked the flowers,

in the merry, merry month of May.

 

Oh yes, with ever-changing sport

we whiled the hours away;

the skies were bright, our hearts were light

in the merry, merry month of May.

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