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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How Do You Say "Karma" in Witch?

Belief in reincarnation came into the modern Craft—probably via Theosophy—with Gerald Gardner.

Interestingly, though, there does seem to have been a word for 'karma' in old Witch vocabulary.

Karma in Sanskrit means simply 'act, deed, work,' from the verb karoti, 'he makes,' 'he does,' but has come to mean by extension the sum total of actions throughout one's various lives, and the effect of these deeds on one's present and future lives.

Similar in meaning is the Old Norse word ørlög, usually translated 'fate' or 'destiny.' Ørlög is the sum total of actions and events: everything that has gone on before which brings to bear on events of the present. To the Northrons of old, as in contemporary heathen thought, in addition to ørlög writ large, individuals, families, and nations all had their own ørlögs.

This seems an eminently pragmatic way in which to view the world. What is done is done, shapes everything that comes after it, and cannot be changed. But likewise, every new deed that is done lays down ørlög of its own. 

The word itself is a two-part compound. Lög is cognate with English law, which itself derives ultimately from the verb lay. Law is what has already been laid down, rather like geological strata. We still, of course, talk about 'laying down the law.'

I long thought that ør was cognate with German ur, 'primal,' and thus that ørlög was 'primal law.'

But in fact, the first syllable of ørlög is a prefix that in Old Norse meant 'out.' So originally ørlög would have meant what was 'laid out,' and hence fate, since fate derives from the sum total of what has been laid down before.

The same prefix existed in the Old English dialect spoken by the Hwicce, the Anglo-Saxon tribe which (some would say) was ancestral to today's witches. It survives in Modern English in a single word: ordeal, originally that which has been 'dealt out.'

Christian theology having no use for concepts of Fate, Old English orlæg did not survive into our time.

But if it had, witches today—depending on which dialect of Witch they speak—would say either orlaw or orlay.

As some of us still do.






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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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