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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A Little Horn of Ointment

Oh, he's a hard god, the Horned: he hurts, but then he heals.

His seal upon you is a scar, your witch's mark. (They say it's the mark of his teeth.) We are the Scarred, the witches: a people like our god. He, too, is Scarred; I know, for I have seen.

Make him unhappy, and he flogs: publicly, at the Sabbat. Back in the hills whence I come, they say that he uses rose canes to do this.

But to each, he gives a little horn of ointment. He hurts, but then he heals: the rose and the thorn. As the Basque witches told Inquisitor Pierre de Lancre (a curse upon his memory), after he flogs, or sets his mark upon you, he anoints you with his special salve, and heals you of your hurts (Wilby 115).

(This explains why, when examined, the Basque witches—confessions notwithstanding—showed no sign of tooth or lash: the Horned's ointment heals all hurts, they say.)

To my knowledge, anyway, it's been long and long since the rose canes came out at the Sabbat; but I've been there myself, and danced, and seen the scarring, and the anointing thereafter.

Nor should you think that what I say is only metaphor.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
What the Eff Is a 'God-Form'?

Sorry, come again: I didn't quite catch that last.

“God-form”?

Sorry, my Cowan's a little rusty. “God-form”?

Do you mean an image: a statue, or something, that bears a god's presence? No? Do you mean a god?

Not quite? How is a “god-form” different from a god, then? Do you mean a hypostasis?

But it's something that you assume, right?

You assume it, but it's not a god. If it's not a god, how is it different from a god? If it's a god, why don't you just say “god”?

Well, what you're describing sure sounds like a god to me. Or at least a god's shadow: something cast over you when you're overshadowed.

Is that right?

Oh, oh, now I get it: it's like “orientate.” It's what you say when you mean “orient” but want to sound Impressive.

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Eyes of a Witch

How do you know a witch when you see one?

According to Catalan witch-lore, it's easy: you look into the eyes. Witches' eyes are distinctive.

(Catalunya's witches—bruixas—are a fascinating lot. Their witch-marks look like two horns, crossed. They dance naked a lot, especially on Midsummer's Eve, especially on Montserrat [Sawtooth Mountain] and Pedraforca [Forked Stone], the two sacred Sabbat Mounts of Català.)

Look into the witch's eyes.

In one eye, you'll see a double pupil.

In the other, a deer's antler.

Friend, can you read these runes?

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The Witches of Now

Witch?

It's a tribal name—theedish, we would say. (In Witch, a thede is a tribe.)

Some 50 generations gone, a people called the Hwicce lived along the River Severn in what is now south-west England. (1400 years later, we still name our daughters Sabrina in Her honor.)

The Hwicce of then, you see, are the Witches of now.

It's not all lineal descent, of course. There are ways and ways of belonging, and bloodlines only one.

(You can adopt in, you can marry in. You can initiate in, acculturate in. Peoples have always been porous around the edges.)

We have our own tribal religion, though it's not witchcraft per se. (Witchcraft is our magic.) Not all Witches practice, of course, but if you're a Witch, it's your religion (and your magic), to hold to or not, as you yourself see fit.

Is it historical, you ask: Old Hwicce to New Witch?

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Check out maverick archaeologist Stephen J. Yeates' The Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and the Hwicce (2008) and A
  • Julie Lovejoy
    Julie Lovejoy says #
    Steven, this is some fascinating information about Hwicce. Would you share sources, please? Many thanks, Julie
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Yeates, of course, is writing from an outsider's perspective. For more from the Inside, web-search my name, "Paganistan," and "Hwi

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
E-Ritual Is Like Phone Sex

Beltane's coming up in less than a Moon, and all over Pagandom, folks are gearing up for the big May Eve Zoom-ritual.

Sigh.

(One wonders what the effect on this year's harvest will be. Hopefully, enough couples will manage to make it out to—socially-distanced—fields that the crops won't be too adversely affected.)

The pagan world is a place of gradation. Skyclad ritual is better than robed ritual. (So say some.) Robed ritual is better than ritual in street clothes. Ritual in street clothes is better than no ritual at all.

To hold a ritual is better than not to hold one. For the most part, collective ritual is preferable to solo.

Is group e-ritual, then, better than solo real-world ritual?

Um: Reply hazy; try again later.

Oh well. We haven't survived for 150,000 years by being inflexible. For now, we'll set up our e-rituals and be glad to have them.

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What Does Isobel Gowdie's Name Mean?

The things that you learn from your students.

A group of us were reading and discussing our way through the transcripts of “17th” century Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie's trial dittays when my then-apprentice asked a stunning question: “What does Gowdie's name mean?”

In 300 years of witchcraft scholarship, apparently no one had ever thought to ask before.

Isobel Gowdie (GOE-dee: rhymes with Cody, not howdy) is arguably the most influential witch in history. Her series of detailed confessions shaped Margaret Murray's idea of what the Craft looked like—covens of 13, quarter- and cross-quarter-days—and from there the rest is Wiccan history.

Naming practices in early modern Lowland Scotland were strikingly different from those of Sassenach-land to the south. Women did not assume their husbands' surnames at marriage; they kept their own family names all their lives. So whatever “Gowdie” means, we can be reasonably certain that it was the name that Isobel was born with.

The majority of surnames at the time were patronymics. Your name identified you as either the son (Mac- or Mc-) or daughter (Nic- or Nc-) of your father. The son and daughter of a man named Donald would then have been, respectively, X MacDonald and Y NicDonald.

(Nicneven—a traditional name of the witches' Goddess—means “daughter of Fury [Nemhain]" in Scots Gaelic.)

In this way—as in contemporary Iceland—a woman, her husband, and their son and daughter could potentially all have had different surnames.

Gowdie's surname, obviously, is not of this type. Throughout Europe, the patronymic was the most common form of surname, followed by occupation names (Taylor, Baker, Smith) and nicknames usually identifying some outstanding characteristic of the eponymous ancestor.

This last is how the Gowdie family got its surname. In Lallans—Lowland Scots—it means “Goldie.”

Isobel must have had an ancestor who was strikingly blonde.

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When the Sun Is Highest in the Sky

Sitting on his front porch recently, a friend of mine noticed an eagle wheeling over the house across the street.

Here in Minneapolis, we're nowhere very far from the Mississippi Valley, and we're blessed with a healthy urban eagle population. Still, it's not exactly common to see them in this neighborhood, where there's not a lot to draw them.

A few days later, my friend saw the eagle—or an eagle, at least—again, over the same house.

A day or two after that, he saw it a third time.

When next he talked with his neighbor, he mentioned seeing the eagle over her house.

His neighbor is Dakota. She hadn't seen the eagle herself, but she didn't seem surprised to hear about it. She asked him what time of day he had seen it.

“Was it around the time when the Sun's highest in the Sky?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact, it was,” he said, “all three times.”

She nodded.

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