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.
The Year the Yule Tree Saved the Coven Jewelry

The coven had been together for not quite a year when we all decided to move in together. Hey, it was the 80s.

Soon our second Yule together rolled around. Naturally, we had our discussions about whether or not it was ethical to kill a tree just for purposes of decoration. Like I said, it was the 80s.

Some felt one way, some another. As it turned out, though, we didn't have to kill a tree for Yule. Instead, one offered itself.

Just before Yule, an early blizzard blew through town, dropping lots of heavy, wet snow. The weight of the snow snapped off a tall, slender arbor vitae in the back yard.

(By the way, for those of you who didn't happened to grow up speaking Latin, arbor vitae means “tree of life.” Interesting.)

So we dragged the tree into the house and decked it out. Goddess will provide.

This being early on in our pagan careers, we didn't have much in the way of Yule ornaments between the lot of us. So we hung the tree with jewelry instead. Pagans, of course, have lots of jewelry that looks good on a Yule tree. Interestingly, the German word for Yule tree ornaments—Tannenbaumshmuck—means exactly that: fir tree jewelry.

So that was our first coven Yule tree together. But there's a coda to the story.

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In the Castle of the Holly King

Nou Is Yole Comen: A 15th-Century Yule Carol

 

The “secular” carol is no new thing. Most of the oldest surviving Yule carols are thoroughly non-religious, describing the earthy joys of the season with little (if any) religious content.

What follows is a 15th-century English carol, set to music by Early Musicologist Shira Kammen on her stunning 2003 album The Castle of the Holly King: Secular Songs for the Yuletide. For those of you who didn't happen to grow up speaking Middle English, a modern English rendering follows.

Note that personifying holidays as guests who come to visit is an ancient Indo-European poetic trope with its roots in deepest antiquity. Note also the playful AAAB rhyme-scheme, and that the poet uses only two rhymes through the entire song. That's a pretty bravura performance.

 

Nou is Yole Comen

 

Hay, ay, ay, ay:

make we merry as we may.

 

Nou is Yole comen with gentil chere,

of mirth and gomen he has no pere;

in every londe where he comes nere

is merthe and gomen, I dar wele say.

 

Now is comen a messingere

of your lorde, Ser NuYere—

biddes us all be merie here

and make as merie as we may.

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  • Chris Sherbak
    Chris Sherbak says #
    Excellent pointer! I still cherish my 'Pro Dea' Winter Solstice songbook you all published so many years ago.

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A Real Old-Time Yule

 Augusto S. Cacopardo (2016) Pagan Christmas: Winter Feasts of the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush. Gingko Library.

 

If you've ever wondered what Yule used to look like back before it got Christmasized, I've got good news for you: it's not too late to find out.

Numbering about 3500, the Kalasha are the only remaining Indo-European-speaking people who have practiced their traditional religion continuously since antiquity. Living in three remote valleys in what is now northwestern Pakistan, they are famed for their wine-drinking, the beauty (and freedom) of their women, and their overtly polytheistic religion with its sacred dances, animal sacrifices, sacred groves, and (in the old way) sanctuaries both "roofed" (indoor) and "unroofed" (open-air).

Their most important holiday of the year is (surprise!) the Winter Solstice, known in Kalashagrom as Chaumós (chow-MOSS). This complex of festivities, with its feasts, bonfires, sacred songs and dances, sacrifices, and torchlit processions (any of that sound familiar?) lasts for nearly a month.

Heretofore, the only major resource on the rites of Chaumos available to English-speakers was Jean-Yves Loude and Viviane Lièvre's 1986 Kalash Solstice, a valuable study limited by poor translation from the original French, and by the fact that only about half of the book actually deals with Chaumos itself. In addition, the book was written after only two seasons of fieldwork, which—for a festival as profound and complex as Chaumos—can hardly even begin to plumb the depths.

So thank Goddess for Augusto S. Cacopardo's 2016 Pagan Christmas: Winter Feasts of the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush.

Cacopardo is an Italian anthropologist who has made a lifelong study of the peoples of the Hindu Kush, a cultural region which he rather charmingly calls Peristan, “Fairy Land.” (Belief in the mountain fairies characterizes all the local cultures of this region.) He has made a particular study of the Kalasha, and attended his first Chaumos many years ago as a young man. Since then, he's been back many times and, as a result, can offer us a treasury of lore which will, I promise you, enrich your Yule celebration in ways you never dreamed possible.

Pagans being pagans, even in a society of fewer than 4000 people, the Chaumos celebrations of the three different valleys that the Kalasha inhabit differ significantly from one another. Previous studies had focused on solstice celebrations of the Rumbúr and Bumbúret valleys, but Cacopardo focuses on Birír valley which, as he clearly demonstrates, preserves the old Chaumos traditions in their purest and most archaic forms.

Much will sound familiar here to the New Pagan reader: bonfires, torch-dances, decking with evergreens. (“The gods love the smell of juniper,” say the Kalasha. "When they smell it, they draw near.") The bean-feasts, the drumming and dancing, the sacred ball-games: Chaumos is, in many ways, very much like Yule as we know it.

Let one story suffice. One night, the last of the holiday, Cacopardo is privileged to witness—although not, as an outsider, to hear—the recitation of the ghach, the secret prayer known only to a few elders, which actualizes and directs the energies of the entire Chaumos celebration. Cacopardo notices that the old man reciting the ghach is holding a green branch in his hand as he does so.

“What's he holding?” he asks his informant.

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Warlock Carol

English composer Peter Warlock ( Philip Heseltine, 1894-1930) wrote this mysterious little carol, a variant on the traditional I Saw Three Ships, in 1923. It didn't get its pagan words until nearly eighty years later, but—considering Warlock's lifelong interest in the occult—we can be sure that he would be delighted to know that the witches were singing his carol at their Yuletide festivities. Absolutely delighted.

As for the meaning of those three mysterious ships...well, all will be revealed.

Just watch this blog.

The Sycamore Tree

 

As I sat under a sycamore tree,

a sycamore tree, a sycamore tree,

I looked me out upon the sea,

a Midwinter's day in the morning.

 

I saw three ships come sailing there,

come sailing there, come sailing there:

the Horned One and His Lady they bare,

a Midwinter's day in the morning.

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The Mother Jars

Check out this 6000-year old storage jar from ancient Ukraine. Standing nearly 2½ feet tall, it's a product of the Copper Age Trypillian culture.

I saw this jar myself some years back at a traveling exhibit of artifacts from what archaeologist Marija Gimbutas calls the “Old European” cultures. What may look at first like abstract designs soon emerge as an owl—you can see the eyes and beak on the jar's upper register—and, strikingly, the back of the jar bears exactly the same patterns. This is a janiform owl, double, looking you directly in the eye no matter what direction you're coming from.

We don't know what was stored in the jar, but we can make a good guess. The people of ancient Trypillia raised all the staples of the Neolithic diet: wheat, emmer, barley, peas, lentils. The advantage of agriculture is that it produces lots of good, nourishing, storeable food with which to feed your family through long, cold Central European winters.

The disadvantage: stored grains and legumes draw rodents.

Hence the owl. Marija Gimbutas would have it that we are here in the realm of the Bird Goddess, Lady of Death. Perhaps. But, as my friend and colleague Helga Hedgewalker pointed out at the time, owls are good at keeping down vermin, whatever your mythology. Thank you, Mother Owl.

The breathtaking mastery of the ceramicist who made this jar is apparent only when you get close. From a distance, the patterns of the “head” and “body” of the jar look very similar. It's only when you get close that you see that they are, in fact, quite different. The owl's face—faces—are painted; the running spirals along the body are engraved. The potter has used two different techniques to achieve the same visual effect. Artistically speaking, it's a bravura performance.

We know from the house models that the Trypillians buried beneath their hearths that a row of just such storage jars stood along the side wall of every house: the Mother Jars that feed us through the winter.

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The Blessing of the Crows

With a sinking feeling, I hear the voices of hundreds of crows raised in pre-dawn “f**k you” chorus.

Oh no! We've received the blessing of the crows!

Crows are savvy. During the leafless season, November to April, they roost together by the hundreds and thousands every night. Lacking the camouflage of leaves, this gives them twice hundreds and thousands of eyes to watch out for potential trouble.

Being under their late afternoon flyway, as I was the other day, can feel pretty ominous. And at night, when the trees of a given block fill up with hundreds and thousands of cawing, excreting corvid bodies, the feeling is downright Hitchcockian.

And then, when they fly off, raucous, next morning, they leave their blessing behind them. Lucky us.

I try to keep a pagan attitude about it. Dung fertilizes. Last year the South Minneapolis murder avoided us all winter and, sure enough, the haul from the garden this summer was pitiful.

Even so, the acrid smell of guano lingers for weeks. Cars you can wash—I sometimes wonder if the crows are in league with the car-wash owners—but not sidewalks or roofs.

Fearing the worst, I look out the window. Sure enough, the cars parked on the street are painted, polka-dotted, with mutes.

I put on my shoes and go out to the driveway to check my car. I gasp.

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Does Planet Earth = Goddess Earth?

One day, while Mother Earth was visiting Athens...

So begins a story from Robert Graves' Greek Myths. Theologically speaking, I find these words profoundly disturbing. I thought so when I first read them years ago; decades on, they still trouble me.

The same problem arises in Isaac Bonewits' Litany to the Earth Mother:

R: You who are called Gaea among the Greeks....

V: Come to us!

R: You who are called Tellus by the Romans....

V: Come to us! etc.

So let me get this right: we're calling Earth to come to us. Call me opaque, but if there's a logic here, I fail to see it.

In both cases, we proceed from the presumption that, in some sense, Earth-as-Goddess is different to, and distinguishable from, Earth-as-Planet.

Such a view, I suspect, is premised on a binary body/spirit worldview: Planet Earth as the Body of Goddess Earth.

But are the gods spirits? If so, what does that mean?

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  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Mr. Posch, I follow the Divine Iamblichus' beliefs on the nature of Godhood. Mother Earth governs the physical matter of the surf
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I tend to view Spirit as quintessence the fifth element. Along with Earth, Air, Fire, and Water I see it as part of the matrix of
  • Chris Sherbak
    Chris Sherbak says #
    This dichotomy/tension continues in ADF today: there's a spot in the Core Order for "The Earth Mother" and I regularly have issue

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