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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Easter Witches

In Sweden, the witch is a major symbol of Easter.

I kid you not. Swedish Easter cards feature pictures of witches flying off to the sabbat. Kids—these days it's mostly little girls—dressed as witches (with babushkas and painted-on rosy cheeks) trick-or-treat from door-to-door, collecting their goodies in, not sacks, but coffee-pots.

It's an interesting chapter in the long, twisted story of relations between the old ways and the new. Pull up a stump.

In Swedish witch-lore, Good Friday is the biggest sabbat of the year because, of course, God is dead and the powers of evil reign supreme. So keep those brooms, pitchforks, and billy goats locked up, or some old crone may nab one for her evening jaunt to the big shindig at the Blåkulla, the “Blue Mountain.” Keep a fire burning on the hearth and the windows shut tight, or the mirk-riders may steal your aquavit, cheese, and coffee (!) for their celebration.

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  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham says #
    I so love all your posts, this one is particularly delightful!

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The All-Purpose Oracle

In his brilliant comic novel, The Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), Lucius Apuleius (ca. 124-ca. 170 CE) spies on a witch getting ready for her evening jaunt. She schmeers herself with ointment, turns into an owl, and flies off. Apuleius thinks this looks like fun, and tries the ointment himself.

Silly cowan.

He's transformed (you can't say he didn't deserve it) into a jackass. In this form he is bought by some galli, the itinerant priests of the Syrian Goddess who, whenever they're not taking up collections or screwing as many guys as they can manage to wrap their legs around, tour the countryside going into trances and giving fake oracles.

Eventually the galli get tired of having to come up with new oracles all the time, so they hit on a solution: the foolproof answer to all questions.

Yoke the oxen, plow the land:

tall the golden grain will stand.

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Hunting for Spring

Our evenday (equinox) eve always begins with a hunt.

In the late winter darkness, we light our candles and go through the house with our baskets, looking for spring. We gather eggs—chocolate ones, mostly—but in the end we still have to descend into the underworld to find Spring, and bring her back ourselves. Here in the north, it's what you have to do.

As a ritual planner, I kicked against this part of the ritual for years. I feared it would trivialize what came after. But in fact gathering our baskets of candy is a delight, and the resonances of the act are ancient, deep, and meaningful.

Since the ritual takes place at my house, in after-days I keep finding spring. It happened this morning. Well into summer, I keep finding spring. This is why we use chocolate eggs for the egg-hunt and keep the real ones for the ritual.

Last year I found the last egg during the Yule cleaning. By then, the chocolate was a little dry and oxidized, but it still tasted sweet. Spring is always sweet, whenever you find it.

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Which Came First, the Marshmallow or the Peep?

I can remember my first theological debate. I was 7.

It was spring. My friend Mary Chris contended that Lent is called Lent because that's when you eat lentils. The Stepanoviches were Serbian Orthodox, and ate lots of lentils during Lent.

Clearly, there was a larger principle at stake here. To me, it seemed ridiculous that the larger thing should be named for the smaller. My automatic contrarian position was that lentils are named for Lent because that's when you eat them. (Not that anyone in my family ate lentils during—or even observed—Lent, mind you. But growing up in Pittsburgh, everyone knows what Lent is.)

Lent derives from the Old English word for “spring,” when the days lengthen. Had Harold won at Hastings, our four seasons today might be Winter, Lent, Summer, and Harvest.

Lentil is the diminutive of Latin lens, which meant “lentil.” (A lens, of course, is named for its lentil-like shape.) As we've been eating lentils for the last 12,000 years or so—since the end of the last Ice Age—it's not surprising that they should have their own name.

The words are unrelated. As in so many theological debates, it turns out that we were both wrong.

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  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien says #
    My parents were Great Depression survivors as well, and they never let us forget it. My dad was a farmer, specializing in tomatoe
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    My parents were both children of the Great Depression, so I never discovered the Joy of Legumes until I became vegetarian at 18. N
  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien says #
    Growing up in a Xtian household, albeit both Roman Catholic and Methodist, we did observe Lent for my Catholic dad, and I never ev
The Grateful Witch: A Tale of the Slovenian Roma

While eating lunch one day a girl noticed that, having shelled their hard-boiled eggs, her parents crumpled up the shells before throwing them away. She asked why they did this.

“If you don't, the witches use them for boats,” they explained. At one time this belief was quite widespread throughout Central Europe.

“Witches need boats, just like anyone else,” she replied, and threw her eggshell, uncrumpled, over her left shoulder. A whirlwind caught the shell and whisked it away.

One day the girl was fishing from an island in the middle of a river. Suddenly, due to a heavy downpour upstream, the water began to rise. Before she knew it, her boat was swept away, and soon the rapids were in danger of covering the entire island.

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Tree of Dawn

In Latvian lore, not much is remembered of Austra—the goddess whose sister-selves include the other Dawn goddesses of the Indo-European diaspora: Ushas, Eos, Aurora, Ostara, Easter, among others—except for her name and her symbol.

Each of the Old Gods of the Baltic pantheon is associated with a particular sigil that has been faithfully transmitted through folk-art—in particular weaving and embroidery—down to our own day. Saule (Sun) has a sun-wheel, Mēness (Moon) a crescent, Pērkons (Thunder) the thunder-cross (fylfot), and the like (Dzērvītis112ff.).

Since Austra, by her very nature, does not readily lend herself to depiction—how does one draw a picture of light, of color?—her symbol is Austras koks, “Austra's tree.” This makes eminent sense, since trees capture both the first and last light of the day, even when the Sun is not yet (or is no longer) above the horizon. In Latvian lore Austra's tree is said to have copper roots, silver leaves, and golden branches (Dzērvītis 115).

Read figuratively, this describes the colors of the great Tree of the East as it shines with the new light of dawn. Read literally, the image may sound to the modern ear both artificial and unnatural. But to the ancestors, for whom the natural was commonplace and artifice precious, the image would have expressed the transformation of the everyday into the extraordinary.

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  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    "Dawn, shining raccoon...."
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I remember seeing some mornings back in high school when the early light shown down through the trees. I never met a pretty girl

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A Drunkenness of Birds

Yesterday there were no robins. Today, right on cue—the first day of spring—they're everywhere.

The birds are back, and busily pairing off. Last week I heard the first mourning dove. Today I saw two of them, back in the mulberry tree where they always nest—if one can grace with the name “nest” a few twigs tossed together into the fork of a branch. Actually, there were three doves in the tree, but I'm afraid the third is going to have to look elsewhere. Reputation aside—and they really do lay up to 6 clutches a year—doves are monogamous.

The robins are pairing off too. So are the sparrows and the newly-returned starlings. The branches of the City of Trees are filled with flirtations and love-chases. Mating: the real March Madness.

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