One-Eyed Cat: Slavic Paganism / Heathenry
Exploring the wider Eurasian influences on central and northern European religion, including Norse, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Siberian, Mediterranean and ancient Indo-European beliefs and applying them to contemporary practice.
What Odin Taught Me About Connection
This blog post also appears in print with more photos in Sacred Hoop Issue #85.
Central Albuquerque, New Mexico USA. Seen from the sky. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
"Look wide, and look far. Look upon your city. This is your community. These are your people, all of them. The people you know and the people you will never meet. Even the ones you don't like. Good or bad, rich or poor, status and class and family don't matter. Politics don't matter. They're still all your people.
"You are a part of this, and your wyrd is tied together, for as long as you live here..."
This was not the lesson I thought Odin was teaching me, one unseasonably warm February afternoon, when I climbed up into the Albuquerque foothills to get some exercise and solitude. Usually, by action more than words, he shows me the subtle ways of soul magic and healing, of seidhr craft.
My hiking lessons as a seidhkona, a Norse seer and shaman, started in November with Odin asking me, "What do you see?"
I sense more than see the King of Asgard, flickering impressions: hair the grey of a heavy sky roils about his shoulders. A wide-brimmed traveler's hat, tipped down over his face. Eyes clear and sharp, despite his apparent age. There's a lean muscularity to how he moves, even if I don't get a full mental image of his form. He looks nothing like a bass singer out of Wagner.
The Old Man, his voice jagged as a raven's croak, frequently walks by my side as I explore the wild space overlooking the city. His lanky strides are far longer than mine— for Odin is, as all the tales say, very tall— sometimes stepping a little ahead of me, sometimes hanging back to look up at the broad azure sky, or down at something I can't see. But mostly he shares the dusty path with me, keeping pace as my steps crunch along.
Funny that a God famous for being "one-eyed" and solitary would be the one to teach me to look closer at my surroundings, and in so doing grow closer to others.
What do you see? has become a frequent question, inviting me to stop climbing and sit on a warm, sunlit boulder or in the shade of a dry, rocky, brush-covered slope. I usually sip some water (a necessity in the desert) and catch my breath (the air up here is very thin) as I pause to more deeply bond with my surroundings.
In answer to that query, I've been amazed to see the energy trails that radiate up from bristling cholla, ground-hugging patches of prickly pear and wind-carved juniper after snowmelt. Bright, flickering streamers, shimmering like a heat waver, lance both skyward and to the ground in a straight line from their branches and leaves. I can't see auras. Couldn't, rather. They're subtle things, in my experience, very close to the skin, not at all the psychedelic color fields that New-agers and Kirlian photography enthusiasts describe.
Cholla after an early December snowfall in the Northeast Hills.
I think for a moment that I'm seeing a retinal shadow— the almost glowing afterimage burned by water-darkened trunks against a paler sky— but it doesn't follow the shape of the trees, and it's gone when I look away from them.
Odin shakes his head.
"That's the joy of the plants," he says, smiling quietly (for he is, also, a lord of green things in his youth). "They don't feel it in the same way as humans, but they feel deeply, too. They take joy in the warmth of the sun on their leaves and skin, the rain seeping into their roots, the taste of the soil and damp air. And the joy of their companions."
These last few months, under his mentorship, I've learned how to spot the paths that water takes down a mountain— not just by the physical grooves in the earth, the lines of clean-washed rocks dotting the hillsides, or the twisting ropes of greenery— but by seeing the energy trails, carrying a potent mix of the earth and the sky's power with them. I don't know how to describe it. It's not like they glow or obviously stand out. The eye is just drawn to them, in a quiet way, catches on them as you look across the landscape.
They're more present, somehow.
Most supernatural things are like this, in my experience.
"Shhhh," Odin whispers, as my boot comes down and scrapes a rock. "Stay very still."
No sound warns me. Just his words.
I look up carefully, sensing motion. First, a hint of downy antlers; then a gray flank disappearing silently amid dry, sage green brush above me.
"Ask the Earth for permission to approach. And the spirits of the deer. Thank Her and ask to see the deer without frightening them."
Them? There's more than one?
I kneel, touching the gravel, and quietly leave an offering of water from my bottle.
"Crouch down onto your hands and the balls of your feet." Is he playing a joke on me, promising a view of more wildlife? His sense of humor is wicked, and he's not above pranks— or playing the fool himself. In an area laced with cacti, the occasional piece of broken glass, and wickedly thorny goat head seeds, this is not an effortless task, and I choose my position carefully.
"Stay low to the ground and move forward quietly."
As I do this, feeling the weight of my bag shift on my back, a change in consciousness sweeps over me. I move my gloved hands forward like paws, my knees bent and my head closer to the scent of the sand, my limbs configured to carry my body in a way I don't expect—
Careful, gradual movements—
And delight that I feel like a stalking cat. My pulse quickens, despite the slow pace.
How far do I climb like this, shifting from sand to scree to rock, paw over paw, knees and belly held downward? Not far. But far enough. I stalk over a little ridge, to rock and juniper, spotting faint cougar prints and pellets of old, grey deer spoor along the way.
I am not the only one to walk this path.
"Rise slowly. Keep your head beneath the cover of the bushes."
I am excruciatingly aware, in this altered state, of each and every tiny sound I make. My boots hissing on scree, the creak as I grip the rough holly branches for support on the steep incline.
Fifty feet. One Hundred.
I must be near the buck now, I think. But I don't see him.
A rustle. My head does not snap up. I stay still, remembering Odin's words. A doe, nestled among the scrub hollies, walks out into the open. More. A head. A flank. Four of them. A half-grown fawn, shaggy with its winter fur, shadows its mother.
"Say thank you. And move in slowly. You'll be able to watch them, now."
The deer look up, ears pricking, sensing me.
"Don't stare at them. Trust that they'll stay there."
This part is the hardest— so close, so close, I want so much to watch them. They're watching me.
"Thank you," I say, quietly.
I hear his wry, lopsided smile. "Believe me now?"
I grin, keeping the deer in my peripheral view as I approach. The herd shies away to another cluster of bushes, but it doesn't bolt. One of them— several does, in turn— always keeps an eye on me while the others cautiously graze. I sit on a nearby rock, gently lowering my backpack. Awed and thankful, I watch them for an hour.
Surprisingly, the herd is not led by the buck, so young his velvety antlers are sparsely pronged, but by a larger, elder female. He stands in the center of a loose circle, watchful but inexperienced, looking from doe to doe in turn, as if he's still learning something. All the women seem to guard him.
I think of the majestic stag, who is the sacrificial emblem of my God in his youth, as Frey. Another season under their watch, and this buck just might become one.
One day, as I come up around a bend in a canyon, I feel Odin grinning.
"Stop. Look up."
Standing in the shadow of a boulder, I see the massive stair steps of rock I longed to climb with the steadying help of my staff.
Movement. Horns scrape against the sky. But not physically. Someone, his back turned to me, wades in the deep, golden pool of sunlight formed by the sheltered hollow of the canyon. And I mean wades. He's not sunbathing.
His head is the size of a massive boulder. Shaggy fur spills down between his shoulder blades, hair and mane, bison and man, inseparable.
"Ask if we can approach," Odin whispers.
"Hell-lo!" I venture, awkwardly, waving. (I'm talking to a giant. Naked giant! This is not a trance!) "Am I bothering you? Can we keep going?"
The Jotun, who I have met (but not seen naked), turns and blinks at me.
Looks at me pointedly.
"I'm bathing here."
"Oh. Right. Errr…" I frown. There's no water here. "How are you doing that, sir?"
He smiles down at me.
"In the sun!"
And, indeed… he is washing in the light, soaking up to his waist in it. Humming as he scoops it up and rubs it on his skin, glittering.
He has a good sense of humor, the Foothill Giant, but he still asked me to find another way out of the canyon. So I had to climb around him. Or up his physical body, the adjacent hill. I'm not sure which.
Would you like someone hanging around while you took a bath?
As I walk uphill, my back respectfully turned, the Giant calls out to me and asks for an offering, and teaches me how to give one, in kind, for the local Earth itself: water poured into the weathered hollow of a rock, spilling over, splashed three times on the hot stone.
I thank him and throw his share of my offering over my shoulder, without looking back.
Good manners make good neighbors, after all.
A change overtakes me that winter, as I become more intimately aware of the land. I frequently surprise doves and other birds along the trail, coming within a foot upon them. They flee loudly upward, however, at the approach of distracted joggers twenty feet away.
Another time, deep looking, I see why one of the great wights of this land had left. The short, strong oaks he belonged to, which once held water onto those dry slopes, had long been stripped away by settlers, leaving the mountains vulnerable. The irony is, my city is named for the old, Roman-descended Spanish duke of white oak. Very little of those native trees survive here. With no shade cover for the valley below, strong seasonal winds whip up gouts of sand and dust. In the trees' place grow thorny, nettled plants: cholla, sprawling nests of cacti, and tangled brush.
The Hills have been waiting quietly for Oak to return, when the environment heals. Our presence here does not matter: it can delay, but it won't prevent his coming back.
The answer to what do you see?, is rarely immediate, even as I catalogue the physical details— the character of the sky, the movements of wings and wind, the scars to the land— my observations and connections going deeper, layer by layer, as I continue to look.
Usually, just as I'm about to give up, I take one look back when I see something startling.
This was not one of those days.
I'm stiff and my ankles ache from the climb.
I wonder why I went up this short knob of a foothill now, instead of turning in the other direction, away from the development. It wasn't a wise choice at this time of day, around four in the afternoon. There are too many people out, having just gotten off work or school, trying to enjoy the last bit of winter sun. I sit on a summit among some big, rounded rocks, wanting to write in my journal, but it's too noisy here—
And the snacks I brought to bolster my walk are deeply unsatisfying.
Odin sits next to me, and I can barely stay conscious of his presence with all the sound and city-spawned motion below. This is not a very holy wilderness setting, is it?
He leans close to my ear. "What do you see, lass?"
Some jerk left a crushed Gatorade bottle up here. There's a faded, dirty oversized pint of beer wedged into a place I won't be able to safely reach to remove it. At least they didn't shatter a glass bottle. Some days I take an entire backpack of bagged trash out of here, my offering to the land spirits.
"Too many people," I say, bitterly. The city population is only growing, and the dwindling and polluted aquifer can't support us. I am one of those "too many", and I know it.
Odin says nothing, patient.
Traffic whooshes and blares half a mile away, too loud with rush hour, carried by the wind several streets down over the neatly gridded houses, disrupting my thoughts. Brakes squeal. Angry horns. What was I thinking, coming up here?
Movement pulls my gaze closer.
A pair of men in track suits jog the wide path that straddles the arroyo below me, talking. They look like they're from the Indian subcontinent, and while I can't understand a thing they're saying, the cheerfulness of their back-and-forth exchange doesn't need a translation—
For a moment, I smile.
A loud knot of teenagers, coming down the path from the other side, ragging on each other—
What do I see?
One of the teens shrieks laughter, the way kids do, mixed with howls of protest. I wince at the noise, compounded by an airplane's low path, circling into the "sunport", and a siren blaring off somewhere to the right. It's a hazard of climbing too close to the neighborhood below. I usually go up into the other foothills instead, deeper into the open space, or sheltered from the close view of houses by the bends in the hills.
Vapor trails cut the sky. A haze— dust mixed with smog— hangs over the horizon, smearing the western volcanoes and edge of the city a dull, burnt orange. The air smells dirty, too.
"I see a land that's ill-used."
Dog-walkers. Wandering the trails and neighborhood sidewalks, as if there is no difference. I like dogs, and it's their nature, like all animals, to leave poop. But I don't like the owners who know better and don't clean up after them, despite the city leaving signs about the health hazards, along with plenty of free bags and waste baskets at the parking lots. Sometimes they even bag the poop— and helpfully leave it right beside the trails. Ten feet from an empty garbage can.
Forget the friendly dogs and the irresponsible humans. The city stretches out, in neat grids of houses and broader, tree-rimmed roads. I pick out the house of a friend. A larger building with green around it that must be one of the local schools. The faster thread of movement— traffic along a highway.
There's a playground not too far from the arroyo, and it's late enough in the afternoon that both parents and children have come to use it.
"Generations of people living here, and it's too fragile to support all of us."
Gods, the noise really is putting me in a dark mood. So is my headache.
Odin doesn't put a hand on my shoulder, but he might as well have. The tone of his voice is like a cloak laid over my weary back by a friend. He lifts his head, craning toward the horizon, and I follow his serious gaze:
"Look wide, and look far. Look upon your city. This is your community. These are your < people, all of them. The people you know and the people you will never meet. Even the ones you don't like. Good or bad, rich or poor, status and class and family don't matter. Politics don't matter. They're still all your people.
"You are a part of this, and your wyrd is all tied together, for as long as you live here."
Wandering the Albuquerque foothills, I have met my neighbors— the fellow writer assembling a trail guide who I talked with at twilight, the wilderness steward up the street, the other hikers and dog-walkers— as well as the people of rock and rivulet, the animal people, the plant people. The majestic guardians of the hills themselves, much older than all the rest of us, who knew I walked with a God, long before I was aware of their gaze. Wights who I proved my worth to over time, through bravery and kindness, who became my protectors and friends.
In all the quiet contemplation and observation while hiking, I thought I was getting out alone to deepen my relationship with nature and myself, strengthening both my body and spirit along the way. But I wasn't going out to be alone. I was just spending time in (mostly) non-human company, out where I could see and hear surreptitiously prowling coyotes and shyly bobbing lines of quail, follow the hawks circling over places I would later reach adventurously by foot, and watch the ashy ravens glide from wild place to walled back yards with aplomb, chatting as they flew. The foothills teem with as many residents as the neighborhoods below. You just won't see them if you don't learn how to be a living part of the landscape, as they are, instead of just moving across it, earphones and fitness goals firmly plugged in.
And there was rarely a day, in all that walking, when I did not hear or sense Odin accompanying me, even if we did not speak much— usually, at a certain point along the path, there'd be the tap of a staff back behind my left shoulder, and I'd get a sense of a tall man tipping the brim of his hat down against the bright New Mexico sun. And at the same point, going back, he'd nod to me goodbye and remain along the trail as I walked on.
My utgard, the "outside place", always led back to the innangard: my friends' home and my own community— some days wiser, and some days simply tired from the walk and the drive back.
As a wandering God who can change into animal forms, and a master of human disguises, Odin's stories inevitably carry him along paths from lonely, wild places to company. Whether he appears on a promontory to a boatful of saga warriors, shows up at the hamlet of Otter's father, or bores his way into Gunlodd's isolated mountain room and escapes home to Asgard again by a hair's breadth, he's always in the thick of it.
In the end, solitary Odin always comes back to a community.
We think of community as something artificial and human-centered that we construct. But community is the relationship of all of the inhabitants of a place— the humans and animals, microorganisms and plants, the Gods and the dead and the very spirits of place— weaving together in a unique spiritual ecology. Whether we're aware of those other residents or not, we're linked to them in the causal and energetic web of wyrd: all that is, has been, and will potentially become.
Wherever you live, you're a part of it.
All of you.
All of us.
I'm writing a book about my close relationship with Odin-- patron of heroes, the God of story, wisdom and magic-- and what he's taught me directly as a seidhkona. This is one of the chapters.
You can find out more about what I do as a seidkona at staffandcup.com, and other journeys in the blog here and at Eternal Haunted Summer magazine.
All photos are by me except the opening aerial shot, courtesy of Wikipedia.
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