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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An Older, Realer Paganism: The Life and Times of a Saami Shaman-Poet

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

 the guests had one month fewer

they do not speak the language of nature


We take ancient gods and goddesses, revive them, and think that that's paganism.

But that's not paganism; it's a cartoon, a caricature, of paganism.

For an older, realer paganism, read the work of Saami poet Nils-Alsak Valkeapää (1943-2001).

Here there's a life lived so thoroughly among the old gods—the Sun our father, Earth mother of life, the Moon, the Winds, the Lake, the Mountain, the Reindeer—that there's no space between: a living relationship with a living world.

Listen to his shaman's song:


I fly away


come back and tell

the people


and their lives make

the visions true


but they asked for it themselves


In this world, non-Saami are “guests.” Here we see the bind of indigenous peoples everywhere. The Old Ways are the ways of hospitality. The others are our guests, but—to our undoing—they themselves are constrained by no such laws. The incomers take and take, giving in return only nightmare.


I lived

lived a complete life

one day followed another

rose sank disappeared arrived

I migrated, rejoiced

with the reindeer

to the summer lands to the winter lands

I kept sacred



and now

I am supposed to believe

that this is work

with sweaty forehead

a cursed condition


a sin even to be alive


believe that everything in my life is worth nothing




In the end, though—as they must—the Old Ways endure:


you speak of eternal life

without knowing

what eternal is

what life is


The primary Saami art-form is the yoik, the chanted poem. Valkeapää's poems are written yoiks, calling to be sung aloud. His poetry has the concision, the pith, of proverb.


a shared bed is warmer


His life among Europe's last surviving indigenous tribal people gives him a voice that many of us who call ourselves pagan will readily recognize:




each to his own


is there anything emptier

than an empty fair ground


Anyone who has ever remained on-site after a pagan festival will know exactly what he's talking about.

Don't just read his book The Sun, My Father (ably team-translated from the Saami by Ralph Salisbury, Lars Nordström, and Harald Gaski) which both begins and ends—how not—with yoiks to the Sun our father and Earth, mother of life: circular, like everything else that we know.

Listen to it. Sing it.

Learn it.


I sit down

cross legged

remain to see


push words away





that nature



straight through



Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, The Sun, My Father (1997), DAT






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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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