History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity
Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.
The Warrior's Grief
I ease my students into Beowulf by having them read the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Wanderer' first. It's a great introduction to the warrior ethos that the longer narrative celebrates, but in a short form. It's a poem about grief but the first thing we'll notice is that the loss mourned isn't a partner, child or parent, but the narrator's leader.
Wyrd bið ful aræd! Fate always goes as it must!
The center of the warrior's life is a relationship the Roman historian Tacitus named comitatus when he first observed it in the continental Germanic tribes. A leader gained followers by offering them praise and treasures for courageous behaviour in battle. They rewarded him with their loyalty. It was the center of their lives; it also took a central role in the poetry of the era.
We're accustomed to poetry and other popular art forms celebrating romantic love, but this culture valued the comitatus much more. The extreme example may be the portrayal of Jesus in The Dream of the Rood, where the cross (who narrates the poem) makes him the leader of a comitatus who actually climbs up on the cross as any warrior would do.
In "The Wanderer" the lonely man bemoans his lost lord, his lost kindred and the cold sea and icy shore around him emphasizes the coldness of life without that protection, but also the inconsolable grief of the loss. While it may seem strange to mourn your 'boss' so emotionally, the poem makes clear how the grief weighs on the wandering one. He speaks of needing to bind his thoughts because there is no one with whom he can share them, being friendless.
He offers his opinion on the ideal warrior (patient, never too impulsive, and as in Beowulf, knowing the difference between words and actual deeds). In the end he concludes that as all things pass away, beloved lords included, the only sure thing is to put your trust and confidence in the greatest lord, god. The twinning of the earthly leader and the heavenly one (the word is the same, hlaford) is often used by poets to emphasise the need to see your self as a loyal thane of god. You offer your loyalty, he rewards you with riches. Unlike mere gold, his riches are eternal.
The Anglo-Saxons carved out their own version of Christianity that had a healthy dose of the pagan warrior ethos (though they wouldn't have seen it that way). Grief throws us all off track. For some it calls for an outpouring, other find it necessary to 'bind fast' the thoughts in their breast.
I recently stayed with a friend who's going through unexpected grief after sudden death took her husband.
[On a personal note, my friend is a priestess of the Fellowship of Isis and runs Universal Pathways, an amazing retreat center. She's now facing financial difficulties and I would like to ask anyone who has advice about how to better use the facility to put it on more sure financial grounds -- or who has had experiences running a similar facility successfully -- to pass along wise words and I will relay them to Mary.]
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