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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Steven Posch

Steven Posch

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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 Life in the cosmos: JWST hints at lower number of habitable planets

Are there sidhe on other planets?

Call them what you will—sidhe, elves, land-wights—wherever humans go, we seem to discover Other Peoples in the Land, the Land's Older Children: not quite gods, perhaps, but of a kind with them, if perhaps a lesser kind.

Resources for answering this question are meager, since in few places does human memory extend to a time before there were humans in the Land. I can think of fewer than a handful of examples.

Still, the stories all agree. When the Norse reached Iceland, land-wights were already there to meet them.

Let me broaden the question. Are there land-wights in Antarctica?

Of course, by the time that humans first arrived in Antarctica, we had mostly ceased to “believe” in such beings, and so did not expect to encounter them. By analogy with Iceland, though, I would expect the answer to the question to be “yes.” Surely, if ever there was a land of trolls and frost-etins, it would be Antarctica.

There was, of course, life in Antarctica before humans got there. Does that make a difference?

Are there land-wights on a planet with sentient, but non-human, life?

Are there land-wights on a planet without sentient life?

Are there land-wights on a planet with no life at all?

Are there land-wights on the Moon?

We have no way to answer such questions.


Who, one might ask, are the land-wights? Are they not, if effect, Nature looking back?

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 famous lines from the Wizard of Oz movie | The Enchanted Manor

Wizard of Oz: The Scariest Moment


As a child, there was one scene in The Wizard of Oz, a film not lacking in scary scenes, that I found uniquely terrifying.

No, not one of the transformation scenes: when Miss Gulch on her bicycle, caught up into the winds of the tornado, becomes the cackling Wicked Witch of the West on her broom, or that awful moment in the Witch's Tower when the one that Dorothy loves best of all, Auntie Em, seen remotely in the crystal ball, transforms into the one that she fears most of all, the Witch herself.

No, nor the moments of sheer weirdness: the Wizard's disembodied head—as green as the WWW herself, be it noted—on his throne flanked by roaring gouts of fire, nor even the “Fly! Fly! Fly!” scene in which the Witch unleashes a skyful of shrieking, flying monkeys.

(Gods: what's creepier than the flying monkeys? So weird. So blue. Winged monkeys, so blue, dressed in weird little bellhop uniforms. And they're so blue!)

No: for me, the moment of deepest fear was existential.


Dorothy, fleeing the tornado, finally manages to get back home. Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and the farmhands have already gone down into the storm cellar. Dorothy stomps frantically at the door, but with all the noise of the cyclone, they can't hear her.

For the sheltered little kid growing up in the protected suburbs that I was, that was the most frightening moment of all. You're in trouble, you finally manage to make it back home, and even there they can't protect you.

Kid, you're on your own.


Masterpiece that it is, WoO (the Movie) is a film about the terrors (and joys) of growing up.

In it, Dorothy's quest is twofold: both finding Home, and escaping it.

(Salman Rushdie remarks in his truly brilliant Guide to the Wizard of Oz that, for a film supposedly about getting back home, the real theme is the simultaneous need to escape home as well. As a boy growing up in Bombay, he knew the film so well that it influenced his dreams. He describes one particularly terrifying nightmare in which, looking out his bedroom window, he sees a broom-riding Miss Gulch morph into—who else—Indira Gandhi. “The Wicked Witch of the West,” he observes wryly, “transformed into the Wicked Witch of the East.”)

The ineffectual father (Uncle Henry/the Wizard of Oz), the over-controlling mother (Aunt Em/the Wicked Witch): these are the parents/un-parents from whom Dorothy longs to escape, and with whom she longs to be reunited.

No, mom and dad can't protect you forever, kid. You've got to grow up and make it on your own.

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 Alpine Strawberry Ali Baba

“Heart berries,” the Anishinabe (= “Ojibwe”) call them.

Don't get me wrong, now: I like commercial strawberries just fine, while acknowledging that, eating them, we're essentially eating petroleum. In fact, I'm grateful for them and—the day is coming, let us admit it the now—when they're gone.

But make no mistake: they're ciphers, no more, standing in for the real thing.

Until a friend recently gifted me with a bag of local strawberries, I'd forgotten just how very good they really are.

They're tiny, real strawberries, especially compared to those styrofoam monsters from the supermarket that you could carve a jack o' lantern from, that seem to get bigger and more flavorless every year. Our local berries, by contrast, are small: the very largest, maybe the size of your thumbnail.

Oh, but all that flavor packed into just one.

It doesn't get much more sensual than real strawberries. These, after all, are strawberries that you have to suck.


How to Eat a Real Strawberry

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File:Flag of a United States Foreign Service Officer.svg - Wikimedia Commons


A Thought Experiment


Were there witches of our kind—people of the old ways—in the Thirteen Colonies?

Objectively speaking, probably not. (Still: a circle of thirteen stars, you say.)

But say there were. For the sake of story, let us just say that there were.

What would they have been like, those witches of the Revolution?


Fleeing the witch-hunts, we came. Seeking the freedom She promised our people, we came.

Forests like we had never seen before: vast, unending. And in them...Him, Him of Hoof and Horn. Him Whom we know too well to fear, already here. (Is He not everywhere?) Here and waiting. Waiting for His people.

“You shall be free,” He told us.

Here in the woods of the “New” World, we were.


What were we like, then, our people? How did we live? Did we know of others of our kind? Did out-folk talk of witchcraft also reassure—"There are others of us!"—as well as put on us the old fear?

How did we fare with those who were here before us? Were we, being ourselves an old folk, thereby the better able to know, to listen, to learn?

Did we not learn the New Land? Did we not learn the plants and animals, the ways and names?

Did we not learn the new ways, along with the old?


When Revolution came, where did we stand? What role, then, did we play?

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Interesting Writing Assignment


Well, now: there's an interesting writing assignment.

A brief autobiography for a forthcoming volume about pagan elders.

Flattering to be asked, of course. Everyone's favorite subject: me, me, me.

Still, there are good bios and bad bios. What makes one biography worth the reading—memorable even—and another not?


The Life and Times of Lord Moonwhistle


“Lord Moonwhistle was born in Peoria in 1942 and graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1960.”

Gee: do you want to read more of that? No, of course you don't.

What makes the story of a life worth reading? Not just the facts, oh no my precious.

What you want is a story.

You want a story that gives you a sense of encounter with someone else. You want a story that amuses, entertains, and is about something larger than just another person and their experiences.

Really, what you want is myth.


My Big, Fat Pagan Career


So I wrote a biography. I started by leaving a lot out.

For the biography of a pagan elder, non-pagan data can be of only tangential interest, insofar as it relates to the life's larger pagan trajectory. So you won't learn much about my career(s), degrees (or lack thereof), or relationships. Those things all happened, and they're all of formative importance, but not here.

Stylistics: I decided to go with third, rather than first, person narrative. When someone is the hero of all his own stories, I usually think: Gods, what a stuck-up jerk. (Cp. AC's "autohagiography.") Somehow or other, a “he” narrative sounds more objective than an “I” narrative.

Yes, it's all smoke and mirrors—in effect, a con job—but that's show bizz, folks.

What you will learn about is my pagan career.

That's way more pertinent than all that other (secular) stuff.


A Good Biography Is Like a Necklace”


Surely a good biography is like a necklace: not just a collection of beads, but of beads arranged into a larger whole.

What we have a right to expect from a good pagan bio:

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I've heard that warriors, charging into battle, get erections.

I wonder if it's true.

Being myself a bard rather than a warrior, I have no personal experience of the matter. Knowing my own unpredictable man's body, though, with a mind (not to mention a sense of humor) of its own, I could well believe it.

Ah, the mysteries of male physiology.

Now, erections are about lots of things—ask any guy waking up in the morning or (again, reportedly) hanged man*—and sex is only one.

But if this nugget of received wisdom is actually trustworthy, I could well understand why the Redcrest legions so feared the skyclad charges of Celtdom.

After all, it's kind of hard not to take an erection personally.

Not to mention the fact that a bobbing boner pointing in your general direction tends to be rather, er, distracting. Charging into battle against a naked, shrieking, woad-stained enemy with a sharp sword in his hand is decidedly not a good time to go losing your focus.

I don't personally know many warriors—in fact, I can't think of any—who have experienced the kind of face-to-face combat that the ancestors did, so there's no one of my acquaintance that I can ask directly. If there's a way to web-search this topic without first getting directed to every porn site on the planet—and believe me, I really don't want to go there—I have yet to find it.

(Porn sites carry lots of computer cooties, and besides, who's going to trust a porn site for information of any kind?)

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 Words Before a Skyclad Ritual


First skyclad ritual? Nervous?

I remember mine. Twenty years old, all jacked up on hormones and excitement. Oh, I was so afraid I was going, embarrass myself.

I didn't. Nobody ever does. I've been to a lot of initiations over the years, and I've never known it to happen. It doesn't happen, because that's really not what's going on here.

And even if it did, this is a men's ritual. Every single guy down there has an unpredictable male body of his own, with a mind, and sense of humor, of its own.

Believe me, we know all about it. If anything, we'd read it as an omen. A good omen.

Funny thing about skyclad: it's only an issue before you've actually done it. Once you have, everything changes. The world changes.

No, seriously. I'm going to make a prediction here. At some point this evening, you're suddenly going to come to, and you'll think to yourself: Holy shite! Here I am, butt naked in the forest with a bunch of other guys, and I'd completely forgotten that I'm naked!

That's Her gift to Her children. That's why we do it. Well, one reason, anyway. This first time is important because it teaches you things about yourself that you'll never learn in any other way.

Once you've seen that power of the mind—years of arbitrary social inhibitions, gone like that—you can't help but wonder: If it can do that, then what else can it do?

That's where witching begins.

So, here are a towel and a bag. Take them up to the bathhouse.

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