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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 Did a Woman Die Mistaking an Odd Roadside Scene for the Rapture? |


“Oh my gods,” says my friend.

We're stopped at a red light behind a car sporting an unconsciously hilarious bumper sticker.




I snort, and shake my head. Oh Evangelicalism. My friend puts it into words.

“I'd say that driver was unmanned a long time ago.”

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Did the Runes Originate With an Act of Gay Sex?


James Kirkup's scurrilous, and surprisingly tender, poem “The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name,” in which a Roman centurion makes love to (and with) the dead body of the crucified Jesus, has been twisting the nuts of pious Christians since 1977.

Behold, the heathen iteration.


If you've been pagan for more than 16 minutes, you will no doubt be familiar with the famous Rúnatál (“Song of the Runes”) from Hávamál, in which Óðinn discovers the runes in a heroic act of literal self-sacrifice, cited here in Carolyne Larrington's 1999 translation:


139 I know that I hung

on a windy tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear,

dedicated to Óðinn,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which none man knows

from where its roots run.


140 No bread they gave me,

or a drink from a horn,

downwards I peered;

I took up the runes,

screaming I took them,

then I fell back from there.


In the standard reading, Allfather hangs himself from World Ash Yggdrasil (“Steed of the Terrible [One]” presumably Óðinn himself), and runs himself through with a spear: the standard manner of human sacrifices offered to Óðinn. It is this terrible sacrifice which enables him to discover, and seize, the Runes, those mystic building-blocks from which what is, is made.

But how if what the Rúnatál describes is no literal hanging, with branch, rope, and swinging corpse?

What if Rúnatál is actually describing (in a very graphic sense) an act of impalement?

What if the destructive-creative act that gave us the Runes was also an act of ergi?


In the surviving literature, ergi (noun) and argr (adjective) are terms of abuse, in a semantic field encompassing translations like “shameful”, "unmanly", “effeminate”, and “cowardly.”

As any web-search will show, in our day the terms are not infrequently associated with receptive male-male intercourse, the assumption being that, to those über-butch vikings—as in machismo cultures to this day—it would have been shameful to be (willingly) penetrated.

Whether the Norse-speaking ancestors saw it this way or not has yet to be proven. Still, for the sake of argument, let us grant the premise.

What, then, are the implications that—as anyone conversant in Norse literature knows—Óðinn is himself not infrequently accused of ergi?

Might it be for this that he became known—surely one of his more enigmatic heiti, or by-names—as Jálkr, "eunuch"?


Certainly we can say that the Norse found the practice of seiðr by males to be argr: presumably because opening oneself to be a “passive” receptacle is analogous to permitting sexual penetration.

Óðinn, of course, is also said to have (transgressively) practiced seiðr.


That the act of receptive intercourse can be an initiatory experience, generating profound, transformative insights, I would be the last to deny.

Did it also—possibly even historically—give us the runes as well?


The remaining question here can only be: granted the rest, on whose “tree of life” is Óðinn “hanged”?

To anyone conversant in the lore, there can really be only one answer: whose else but that of his ettinish oath-brother, whose argr credentials—as himself the mother of Sleipnir—are surely ungainsayable? thus rendering their joint act doubly transgressive.

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 Deer Tracks vs. Other Animal Tracks: What Do They Look Like?

In Which Our Intrepid Blogger Comes to Paganistan and Finally Meets Some Pagans


Q: Why did it take a pagan to invent mathematics?

A: Because monotheists can't count any higher than one.


I emigrated to Paganistan in 1979: ostensibly to attend grad school, but in reality looking for my people.

It took me a year to find them.

Things moved more slowly in those pre-internet days than they do now. Back then, basically, you had to know someone to get in.

The first lesson every hunter must learn is persistence. For a year I looked, finding the occasional trace, but no real trail.

Then, one unforgettable evening, I walked into Lind Hall and saw, posted on the wall across from the door, the blue-stenciled mimeograph sheet that changed my life.


Are you interested in Wicca?

Paganism? Druidism?


Children of the Night

Student Pagan Organization



7:00 p.m.

2XX Lind Hall

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 Theirs and Ours


If you followed the coronation of un-bonny King Charlie—as I hope all you aspiring ritualists of Pagandom did—you'll have seen the Sacring (lit. “making sacred”), i.e. Anointing, of the Sacred King.

Or, rather, you won't have seen it, since it was performed behind Ye Olde Anointyng Screene to protect Ye Royal Privacy (that's prih-vacy, with a short I).

Not to worry: it's all right there in the ritual script.


The AB of C (that's Archbishop of Canterbury) anoints the royal hands with holy oil.

“Be your hands anointed with holy oil,” he says.

Then the breast (“Be your breast anointed...”) and lastly the head (“Be your head...”).


Sacred kings are a big deal in the history of the Craft—take a look at Katherine Kurtz's Lammas Night* if you don't believe me—and we have our own version of the Sacring, which we call (in Witch) the Hallowing.

The accompanying verbal formulas I'm not at liberty to disclose, but the king-signing marks are there for all to see: right there in—incredibly enough—the slightly faded technicolor of the movie pagans love to hate, The Wicker Man.

(You can see it here. The Hallowing begins at 16:58.)

Our story so far:

The people of Summerisle strip Sergeant Howie (naked bodies don't scare pagans), ritually wash and dry him.

Then they anoint him.

  • Right breast (right and left here are from the king's perspective)
  • Left breast
  • Right breast (again)
  • Sternum
  • Solar Plexus
  • Brow

Why these five places? That, you'll have to figure out for yourself.

(To do so, you can start here. The King-making of Artos the Bear in Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset will also give you a good leg up on inner meanings.)

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The yard-work can't wait, but the weather-oracles say rain, and when I go out, the sky doesn't look promising.

So I face West and pray.

“Thunder, hold off long enough for me to get this done, and I promise you a pouring tonight.”

(A gift for a gift, the ancestors always said.)

Tradition holds that the Big Guy likes his libations, especially the strong stuff.


Now, do I actually believe that Thunder is a big, cute bearded guy up in the sky who hears what I say? Do I honestly think that the forces that drive this planet's weather give a flying f*ck about what I want? Do I truly believe that the Universe makes deals?

No, no, and no. Nonetheless, I make my prayer and, eventually, my offering, as promised.


  1. Because I'm human, and humans are social animals that have always treated with the non-human world as if it were human, too.

  2. Because it keeps me connected with the Great Out There, which, in these days of screen-induced h. sapiens narcissism, is a state devoutly to be wished.

  3. Because, in my experience, it actually works. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about operative mechanism here.

Soon after, I feel the first drops. Then it begins to rain hard. Oh well, I think, it never hurts to ask.

A friend of mine who grew up Baptist always tells me: Prayer is always answered. It's just that sometimes, the answer is “No.”

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 Monarch Butterfly

 A Ghost Story?


My friend remembers the day that they brought up the Edmund Fitzgerald's bell.

She witnessed it herself.


For her, the story immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot's unforgettable song was a personal story. Having grown up in Duluth, she remembers the terrible storm, and the terrible fear that she felt when she—she was he at the time—heard that the Fitz had gone down.

Her best friend's father worked the Lakes, and she that knew he was out at the time. When she first heard the terrible news on the radio, she immediately jumped onto her bike and rode straight to her friend's house.

Her friend was able to confirm that, no, his father was not on the Fitz and, so far as they knew, had ridden out the storm just fine, as indeed later proved to be the case.

In the welter of speculation that followed, she can remember hearing the old Great Lakes sailors who knew freighters and knew the Fitz discussing the matter. They all agreed on what had caused the wreck: the ship was too long. "She broke right in half," they said.

When, decades later, the Fitz's final resting place was located on Superior's cold floor, they were proved correct.


My friend was present, 20 years later, for the raising of the ship's bell.

“There are two things that I remember about that day,” she told me recently.

A small flotilla of private boats had gone out with the rescue ship to witness the historic event. My friend was on one of them.

When the raised bell first broke surface, it rang.

For the first time in 20 years, it rang.

Once, it rang.


We discuss the ethics of taking things from shipwrecks. We agree that, in general, one shouldn't. Wrecks belong to the sea-gods, and to the dead: they, and what they contain, should be held sacrosanct.

But those who brought up the Fitz's bell did what one should do in such circumstances: they replaced it.

A gift for a gift, the ancestors always said.


“You said you remember two things about that day,” I remind my friend. “What was the second?”

There's a pause.

“There was a butterfly on the boat that day,” she says.

We're both silent as we consider the implications of this. Superior is a huge lake, with winds to match. One just doesn't see butterflies out over Superior.

I think of all those stories that liken butterflies to souls. I think of the monarch butterflies of late Summer and early Autumn, like fluttering little pieces of Samhain come early. I think of how they return to their Wintering grounds in Mexico every year around Día de los Muertos, and are thought of by folks thereabouts as the homecoming spirits of the dead.

“Was it a monarch butterfly?” I ask after a few moments.

“Of course,” she says.


Down the long years, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, but there's just one that everyone remembers.

They remember because of the song.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer says #
    He was an amazing songwriter and singer. Such emotion.
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    It really has become a folksong in its own right: truly an impressive achievement.
  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer says #
    The first song my husband ever introduced me to was "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". RIP Gordon Lightfoot.

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Flamenco Nut <hr id=

 “Second, Mother of Third”

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