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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Where Summer Lives: Recovering Pagan Sweat Traditions

Och, it's the hairy armpit of Winter.

Here in the North, Winter has a cold armpit. The lakes and streams are all frozen, and who wants to strip off in this cold anyway? Get wet and face hypothermia.

Even for those of us fortunate enough to live with central heat and hot running water (and thank Goddess for them both), bathe or shower too frequently and—in our Winter Desert air—you'll shred your own dry hide with the itching.

That's why the gods gave us saunas.

The sweats that I've attended at festivals have all been structured along Native American—in fact, Lakota—lines. There's a reason for this.

The sweat is a Circumpolar tradition. When those very first ancestral Americans entered this continent, they brought their sweat traditions along with them. Time was, pretty much every Indigenous People here had their own.

But when the missionaries come in, the sweat bath is always one of the very first things to go. (Christians have long romanced the Dirty. After they closed the public baths of the Mediterranean world, Europe was dirty for a thousand years.) I suppose you just can't have people sitting around naked together. That way lies danger.

By the early “20th” century, many First Nations had already lost their original sweat traditions. A number of Lakota elders, around the time of the First World War, had visions that they were to go among the other indigenous peoples and teach the Sweat.

That's what they did. So it is that many contemporary Native sweat traditions derive, ultimately, from the Lakota sweat.

But of course, in each case what was originally a Lakota tradition is now being reshaped to fit the local lore. That's how these things work.

That's how it should work in the pagan world, too. If you have ancestors who came from Northern Europe, you've got ancestral sweat traditions, too. It's well worth asking what those may have looked like.

Americans are mostly familiar with the Finnish sauna, but there's a strong sweat tradition in Russia, too. In Russian folk tradition, as a place of betwixt-and-between, the sweat-bath (banya) is a place where you work magic. The best book in English about Russian folk magic is even titled The Bathhouse at Midnight.

So Who are the gods of the sweat-house? Who built the first one? Who taught us its proper use?

Well, womb-like, it's the Mother's place, of course. It's the natural place to give birth. In the sauna, you whip yourself with birch twigs: birch, the Northern birth-tree.

A number of indigenous Siberian traditions associate the sweat-bath with the Antlered, Master of Animals. Since the first sweat-baths would have been covered with hides, this makes good sense. Terry Pratchett aficionados will recall a memorable encounter with His Horniness the God of Witches—horns, big tonker, and all—in His subterranean men's sweat in Lords and Ladies.

The sweat-house is an important part of our inherited ancestral spiritual technology. There's work to be done here, stories to be told, but hey, that's what we're here to do.

I stoked up the sauna just before sitting down to write this. By now it should be nice and toasty.

So ciao for now: it's back to the womb for me.

The womb of the Earth: where Summer lives.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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