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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Summer's Last Dance

Beneath a sky grown newly vast, where geese call, winged witches, the trees are stripped and naked; their squirrels wear blue vair.

Branches above, branches below. The Antlered also wears his winter blue, his bull-neck engorged with pounding maleness. He quivers, eager to rut his does and witches.

A golden carpet is laid for us, flecked with browns and russets. The cider is poured, the table spread with all the wealth of Summer. The fire is laid and ready to light; the skeleton band tunes up.

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Nine Jars of Compassion: A Folk-tale of the Latter-Day Dobunni

They say that He of the Horns looked upon his people and was moved with compassion at their suffering.

For an age and an age, two ages, he wept, and the tears of his weeping filled nine jars.

And when his weeping was ended, he took these nine jars and, with their waters, extinguished the fires of Hell.

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The Story of Saba and Brychan: A Folk-tale of the Dobunni

Saba was in love.

At fourteen summers, she was ready, and surely she was glad to be second daughter to the chief and not first. For her sister Cordaella, as chief's first daughter, was thereby Royal Woman of the tribe, whose husband would some day be king, and such things cannot be left to chance and mere liking.

Well, Cordaella was newly married and seemed pleased enough with the choice that the elders had made. But Saba, second daughter, could, in the way of things, choose for herself. And of all the young warriors, her eye had turned upon tall Brychan, he of the gray eyes and mouse-pale hair.

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Land, Lede, Lore

What makes a religion pagan?

I'm going to contend that paganisms are preeminently religions of land, lede, and lore.

Land. Paganism is local, intimately related to specific places. Pagans are by definition the People of the Place; when peoples change their place, they bring their mythologies with them, and those mythologies naturalize to the new place. While the term “nature religion” is problematic on numerous levels, the paganisms direct themselves largely to this-worldly concerns, and engage the environment and the non-human beings with whom we share that environment as a matter of primary spiritual course. There are no universal paganisms; or, rather, the paganisms are at their most universal insofar they are most specifically local.

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The Devil's Bird

The Mothers and Fathers reckoned the Horned One as god of animal life generally—what, in History of Religions lingo, is known as a “Master of Animals”—but for all that, he is rarely ascribed a sacred bird of his own. Birds, of course, are given mostly to the Sky Powers: raptors to Thunder, water-birds to Sun and Moon, etc. It's fascinating that these embodiers of the animal god's being should be given to other gods, as if they somehow constitute his yearning for them, as Earth's quartz yearns to the Moon. But to Himself the lore alots the merest avian handful: corvids, perhaps the peacock (see below), the robin (as Promethean bringer-of-fire) and, of course, the cock.

Everyone knows that the rooster—I suppose one really must say “cock” here—is the Devil's bird, (“Men call me the Devil,” he is reputed to have told Scots witch Isobel Gowdie, “but they know not what they mean”), and better it be if it's black. It's a staple of Southern (American) folklore that to invoke the Devil you sacrifice a black cock at a crossroads. Why a cock? Standard etiology would have it that the cock, being preeminently the bird that proclaims the coming of light, is the sworn enemy of the Prince of Darkness, Enemy of Light. But, as one might expect, matters are considerably more complex than that.

The domestic chicken originated in Southeast Asia and, it would seem, first came to the British Isles with the Romans (Yeates 166). Nonetheless, one finds the cock's head associated with the Horned One on the coinage of the Dobunni, the Keltic tribe that in later days morphed into the Hwicce, the “Tribe of Witches.” The rooster has a reputation as the most virile and pugnacious of birds, a fitting emblem for the father and protector of the people, the Pater Hwicciorum (Yeates 165-9). (Interestingly, though, the use of “cock” for “penis” derives, not from the name of the bird, but from the sense of “water-tap.”)

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Entering the Cave of Bones: A Preview of "Doorways to the Underworld"

Through Doorways to the Underworld, the Minneapolis Collective of Pagan Artists' Samhain 2014 exhibit, we enter into the disquieting—sometimes disturbing—dreamscape that is both Samhain and the world of contemporary pagan art.

In Anne Marie Forrester's Bear Priestess, the viewer stands at the mouth of a cave literally packed with skulls and leg-bones. Between us and the cave sits the bear priestess herself, all breasts, belly, and thighs, dressed only in the head and skin of (apparently) a bear cub. She wields that classic shamanic tool, the frame drum, in her role of go-between for living and dead, past and present.

The painting disturbs on a number of levels. Content is one: corpulence, nudity, powerful female eroticism. Another is scale. The priestess' head is too small for her mountainous body, the bear's head that she wears too small for her own too-small head. One cannot help but be reminded of Paleolithic “Venus” figurines, whose heads and feet dwindle into unimportance compared with their massive bodies, the true center of their power. Small as it is, though, the priestess' head is still much larger than the skulls that frame her in the cave mouth. The viewer experiences a dizzying loss of sense of proportion.

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Leaf Man Rise Up

This autumn children's game, a variant of "tag," comes from the old Hwicce tribal territories in England's southwest Midlands. Like many traditional children's games, it is circular, self-replicating, and orally transmitted. The game's ritual structure and deeply mythic resonances will hardly be lost on anyone likely to be reading this post.

Players gather in a circle, hand-in-hand, around a mound of leaves. (In some versions, they circle.) They chant:

 Leaf Man Rise Up Leaf Man Rise Up Leaf Man Rise Up

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