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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Sun Stands Still

Solstice: literally, “the Sun stands [still].”

The Sun is a god of constant motion. Every day of the year, he rises from a different place on the horizon.

But at the solstices, summer and winter, his movement slows. For several days in sequence, he seems to rise from the same place.

Sun stands still.

And while the Sun stands, the world waits.

The 2nd century Protoevangelium of James tells a strange story.

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On the Bridge

For more than 30 years now, we've gathered on this bridge on the morning of the winter solstice to watch the newborn Sun rise out of the Mississippi Valley.

They say that every bridge takes a life in the building. This bridge took the life of a poet. Surely a bridge dyed with the blood of a poet will stand for long and long.

People have been watching the Midwinter Sun rise here for long and long as well. As we turn our faces to the southeast on Yule morning, we will face the site of one of the oldest and largest Winter Villages on the Upper Mississippi. Here families that dispersed during the summer to gather, hunt, and farm, would come together to overwinter. At one time, as many as 20,000 people may have lived here: as many, in fact, as live here now.

On the east bank, the living. Here Big Village was located. On the west bank, the dead. Here a row of eleven mounds once stood, where, since perhaps 700 CE, bone bundles were ceremoniously deposited.

Life and death, and the bridge between. Summer and winter, east and west. Here we stand, between, as we have always stood.

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Carol of the Swallow

In English, it's called Carol of the Bells, and has become a regular part of the December soundscape.

But the Ukrainian original—like folk carols all over Europe—although sung at Christmas, doesn't have anything to do with Christmas.

Or bells.

Instead, it's about spring.

And fertility.

And sex.

Which is to say: it's thoroughly pagan, through and through. Because to pagans, Yule isn't just a self-referential blaze that sits in its own golden halo at the end of the year; it's the first spark of what comes next, a collective turning towards spring, and the growing season to come.

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The Feast of the Sheaf

In the beginning was the Seed.

Before the Yule Tree, was the Yule Sheaf.

Across a broad swathe of Northern Europe—from Scandinavia, through the Baltics, and across Russia—the central symbol of Yule was (and in many places, still is) the Sheaf.

The Sheaf goes by many names. In the Old Language of the Witches, it was called the Yule-Neck (no relation to the body part). In Ukraine, where he's known as Didúkh, “Grandfather,” it wouldn't be Yule without Grandfather Sheaf, with his bristling golden beard.

The symbolism of the Sheaf is rich. He's the crop, continuity, the ancestors, family, community. He's men. He's seed, animal and vegetal.

Men are the seed-bearers. In every generation, we sow, tend, reap, and guard the seed.

Here in Paganistan, the men of the clan will gather on one of Yule's Thirteen Nights—whenever it's convenient, there's no set time—for the Feast of the Sheaf.

Then we pour to Grandfather Sheaf, we sing, we dance, we tell the stories. We eat the traditional pudding made entirely from seeds; we drink, we feast. The power that we raise is for the keeping of the seed through the winter: for its preservation, and for its new growth in the spring. Even now in the very depth of winter, it is our duty to work for the well-being of next year's harvest, for “frith and year.”

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    "We will come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves." Too bad that's the only part of that song I remember.

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Throng of Boars

In the old Witch language, the constellation that we know as Orion was called Eofor-ðring: literally, “Boar-throng.”

We don't know why.

It's likely that there was once a story to explain the name. Doubtless this Ever-thring (as we would say today), this throng of boars, belonged to—or was defeated, or captured, by—some god or hero, and ended up in the sky as a result.

We'll never know.

Boars were meaningful to the ancestors. Their likeness appeared on battle-gear. Boars are fiercely protective, and nothing stops them. You can always recognize a boar-spear because it's got a cross-bar. If it didn't, the spitted boar would drive his own body up along the spear-shaft, just to get at you. Seriously.

In Old Norse mythology, the boar belongs to the phallic god Frey, whom some would identify (controversially) with the God of Witches. His name means “lord.” The Anglo-Saxons had the same word with the same meaning—fréa—but whether to them it also was the name of a god we simply don't, and probably never will, know.

So much has been lost since the old days, like the story of the Ever-thring. What has come down to us has come down to us in pieces.

And thereby hangs a mandate.

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Burning Local

Well, that's it, then: the last of the sweetgrass braided.

Summer braiding for winter burning.

Sweetgrass, cedar, sage: here up North, our trinity of local incenses.

There's copal, of course: exotic resin of the fabled southern Lands of Ever-Summer.

But mostly, we burn local, just as we always have.

Back in the Old World, it was the same. Frankincense, myrrh: exotic imports from the resin-cultures to the South.

Up North, we mostly burned local.

There's no common Indo-European word for incense (the old Witch word was reckels, literally “little smokes”), but if the IE-speaking ancestors did indeed have an incense culture, one could perhaps make a case for juniper, still burned as a sacred smoke in the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides, in Germany on Weihnachtsabend, and among the Kalasha, the last remaining pagans of the Hindu Kush.

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Pagans Are Pagans Everywhere

The Two Arrows

When the Kalasha people first entered Rumbur Valley, their greatest shaman, Naga Dehár, stood at the pass with his back to Afghanistan. He fired two arrows, one red and one black. Where the black arrow landed, they built the altar to Sájigor, still the most sacred place in the Kalasha valleys.

Where the red arrow landed, they built the first bashali—the women's moon-house (Maggi 47).

 

It's as if one were to discover an ancient Celtic tribe living up in the mountains, still practicing their old religion.

The Kalasha are a people some 4000-strong who live in three remote valleys in the Hindu Kush mountains of what is now Pakistan. They are known far and wide for their wine-drinking, for the beauty (and social freedom) of their women, and for their proudly polytheist religion, which in many ways more closely resembles pre-Hindu Vedic religion than anything else.

With their pantheon of gods and goddesses, animal sacrifices, and sacred dances, the Kalasha are probably as close as we will ever come to the Indo-European ancestors.

The more that I learn more about the Kalasha, the more struck I am by just how familiar they seem.

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