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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The Gidden and Robert Cochrane

While rereading the surviving letters of Robert Cochrane (1931-1966), the father of the contemporary Old Craft movement, I was surprised to observe (not having noticed it in previous readings) that he references the Old English word gyden (“goddess”) in at least two of them.

In his third (unfortunately undated) letter to Norman Gills, Cochrane writes:

I think a certain amount of physical discomfort is essential so that the ‘Muse,’ or to give Her proper Name, the White Goddess, can descend and inspire. Likewise the (Alba) Guiden is a harsh Mistress in return for Her gifts (149).

To avoid repeating "White Goddess" in two consecutive phrases, Cochrane (in characteristically allusive style) translates the phrase into a Latin adjective and an Old English noun.


Similarly, in April 1966 he wrote to Joseph Wilson:


You will die many times to be reborn in this religion, and each little death (in French ‘petit mort’ is a synonym for sexual orgasm) is the resurrection of new hope and spirit. Whatever Madame le [sic] Guiden has in store—the law is that you will overcome—and in overcoming find spiritual strength (43-4).

Here the presence of French in the previous sentence has playfully pulled ‘Guiden’ into its linguistic orbit, making her literally (along with the grammatically incorrect masculine definite article) ‘my lady the Goddess.’

I initially wondered whether Cochrane’s idiosyncratic spelling of Old English gyden were simply a function of his tendency to cite (probably because citing from memory) mythological names imprecisely (e.g. his portmanteau-esque rendering of Welsh Merddin as ‘the Wizard Merridwen’ [32].)

The fact that he repeats the same spelling in letters to two different correspondents makes this unlikely. It seems to me probable that Cochrane’s spelling ‘Guiden’ actually reflects his pronunciation of the Old English word. Although the y of OE gyden would seem to have been pronounced as an umlaut, roughly equivalent to Modern German ü or Modern French oeu (as in boeuf), it would hardly have been unusual for Cochrane, no student of ancient languages, to have pronounced an Old English word as if it were Modern English instead.

Why should he choose a phonetic rendering over retention of the (to an informed reader, more recognizable) Old English spelling? I suggest the distinct possibility that Cochrane chose this spelling because it reflected orthographically his sense of the Muse’s—Gidden’s—role as guide to her poet.

Such a word-play, simultaneously visual and auditory, seems to me likely to have appealed both to Cochrane’s impish sense of humor as well as to his highly-developed poetic sensibility.

As to why Cochrane should use a word so unlikely to be recognized by his readers, I suspect that we need look no further than his habitual technique of intended obfuscation, what he was wont to call ‘that old gray magic.’ In both cases cited above, context makes clear that the meaning of ‘Guiden’ is ‘Goddess’; Cochrane is very careful that this should be so. The word does indeed have a mysterious, ‘witchy’ quality to it. And to the informed reader who recognizes the word as Old English—especially abetted by the modernized spelling—the presence of the word implies (but does not state) historic continuity between Anglo-Saxon times and Cochrane’s purported family tradition.

Almost one suspects Cochrane of using the word Guiden as bait: just waiting for his reader to ask, so that the wily old witch-master can spring the trap. One wonders whether either Ellis or Wilson took the bait. 

Robert Cochrane, The Robert Cochrane Letters: An Insight into Modern Traditional Witchcraft (2002). Evan John Jones and Michael Howard, eds. Milverton [Somerset]: Capall Bann




















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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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