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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Our story so far:

Since the 17th century (at least) the rising of the Sun on Yule Morning has been greeted in Shetland with the plaintive and darkly beautiful fiddle tune The Day Dawn. For four hundred years (at least), the tune had words no more than the birdsong which greets the same dawn.

Then, a few years back, Jane Hazelden wrote lyrics for The Day Dawn. They're good, maybe even very good: as good a nutshell definition of Yule as any that ever I've heard and, indeed, better than most.

But they don't quite fit the tune.

To fit her new words to the old fiddle tune, Hazelden has truncated some of the musical phrasing, notably certain repetitions and, in so doing—to my ear, at least—thereby diminished something of the tune's integrity, and dulled something of its luminosity.

(Forgive me, giver, if I destroy the gift, the Goddess once, through Laura Riding, told Robert Graves: It is so nearly what I want, I cannot help but perfect it.)

So I've tweaked Hazelden's lyrics to fit the original tune by matching verbal repetitions to the musical ones.

Well, you be the judge. Maybe you're a fiddler and don't need words at all to sing the Sun his Old Song.

But out on the bridge, singing the Sun up out of the Mississippi valley on Solstice morning, these are the words that I'll be singing myself.

So join me if you will.


The Day Dawn

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A Siberian Witch's Tale


On the banks of a great river there once lived a poor fisherman. One day he made, from river clay, a clay man, and left him out in the Sun to dry.

The Sun shone, and the Winds blew. When the clay man was dry, he went to the fisherman's cottage and began to tap on the window.

Tap, tap, tap, he tapped.

The fisherman's wife arose and went to open the door, but the fisherman said:


Ignore the man of clay,

and he'll surely go away.


The fisherman's wife sat back down, but the clay man did not stop his tapping.

Tap, tap, tap, he tapped.


Ignore the man of clay,

and he'll surely go away,


said the fisherman again, but the clay man still did not stop his tapping.

Tap, tap, tap, he tapped.


Ignore the man of clay,

and he'll surely go away,


said the fisherman a third time, but finally the fisherman's wife could bear it no more, and she rose and opened the door.

The clay man entered the cottage and swallowed the fisherman's wife. Then he swallowed the fisherman, and all of their children.

The clay man went through the entire village, eating everyone that he could find: infants in their cradles, children at play, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers. With every person that he ate, he grew larger and more voracious.

Then the clay man saw the beautiful elk. So wide did he open his mouth that his lower jaw reached Earth and his upper jaw Heaven, and he stepped forward, to swallow the beautiful elk whole.

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It's an age-old question: Why are some people witches, and some not?

Well, I'll tell you. The answer is simultaneously very simple, and utterly outrageous.

We're witches because Old Hornie sires us Himself.


A witch once asked her mother if she could remember anything about the circumstances of her conception.

Oh for godssakes, her mother said. How could I possibly—?

Then she paused. When finally she spoke, it was in an undertone, as if to herself.

So that explains it, she said between her teeth.

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The advantage of any given language is that, in it, you will always be able to draw distinctions that you couldn't make in any other language.”

(Deer Stands Up, 1996)


OK class, take out your Witch-English dictionaries, please.

Now: I want everyone on this side of the room to look up Lede: L-E-D-E, lede.

On this side, Thede: T-H-E-D-E, thede.

Ready? Go.

Got it? Good. Rowan, would you give us the definition of lede, please?

OK, everybody got that? “A tribe, a people, a nation.”

Fritha, have you got a definition for “thede” for us?

Good. “A tribe, a people, a nation.” Two words, same definition. Now, we know that, in any given language, there are no true synonyms; all synonyms are only partially synonymous. There's always a shade of difference between the two: otherwise, why have two words?

So what's the difference here? How is a thede different from a lede?

Well, let's take a specific example. Robin, what's our thede?

Right: we're Witches, of the Tribe of Witches.

Ash, what's our lede, then?

Pagan, yes. We're Witch by thede, Pagan by lede. So “thede” is a sub-group of “lede.” Both are peoples, categories of being, but one term is more inclusive than the other. In any given lede, there will always be many different thedes.

Siffrith? Oh, good question. Did everybody hear that? If in any given language there are no true synonyms, then what's the distinction between “thede” and “tribe”?

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Maybe it's the Norse influence.

Up in Shetland, where Yule is Yule, and no one ever bothers with that newfangled southron Christmas business, there's one tune that says “Yule” like no other.

It's called, variously, The Day Dawn or The Day Dawns Well (in Shetland dialect, that's Da Day Dawe, but if you're not a Shetlander, for gods' sakes, please don't try to say it that way), and of all the days of all the year, it's played on only one.

Yes, of course: you guessed it.

It greets the rising of the Sun on Yule morning, the bittersweet dawn song of one lone bird, and throughout that first day of the year, you'll hear it again and again.

And then, for a year, no more.

Shetland being fiddle territory, it's a fiddle tune, of course, and this much we can say: it's old, old; no one knows just quite how old. Seventeenth century, perhaps?

It's a haunting tune—you can hear it (played on concertina) here—expansive, horizon-gazing, with all the knowing sadness of the worldly-wise. Oh, bittersweet Yule.

I've always wondered: if, of all the days of the year, The Day Dawn is played only on Yule, how then do you learn it? How do you rehearse?

But there's an answer ready enough to hand. (We do the same with the song for the dead, which you only sing through when you mean it.) Play, rehearse, as you will, but never entirely through. That's for one day, and for one day only.

Though the tune has never historically had words, a few years back Jane Hazelden wrote some, and they'll do, they'll do.

So here's your song with which to greet the newborn Sun on Solstice Morn.

Well, you've all of a month. If you start the learning now, my friend, you'll have it down, and well down, by then.


The Day Dawn

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Why do so many of the “clay ladies” of the ancient world have triangular arms?

Let me mention three—not necessarily mutually exclusive—possibilities.

The first is schematization. For the sculptor, especially in friable clay, arms are problematic. Detached arms invite breakage, but when attached—held against the sides of the body, say—they tend to disappear visually.

So stylizing the arms into triangles overcomes both of these problems, while still faithfully depicting the body in its fullness. It's worth noting that, in many of these figurines, the legs and feet have also been schematized into a single, triangular form.

(Remember this salient point; we'll return to it later.)

A second possibility is that what we're actually seeing here are bent arms. A cursory glance over the corpus of these figurines will show that, in a certain number of them, the woman has her hands cupped beneath her breasts, offering.

In this case, the tip of the arm-triangle would actually depict, not stylized hands, but elbows.

Lastly, let us take a step back, and view the triangular arms as part of a visual entirety. Thus viewed, the whole body below the head is outlined, triangularly, by its three outermost points: the two arms and the joined feet.

Thus the body, viewed as a whole, reflects—in large—the sacred delta at its center.

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