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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The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail of the Lamb with  kneeling Angels - Hubert and Jan Van Eyck — Google Arts & Culture


If I told you that one of the greatest masterpieces of Christian art is actually at heart a depiction of the Witches' Sabbat, would you believe me?

While the imagery of the central and focal panel of Hubert and Jan van Eyck's monumental polyptych the Ghent Altarpiece (completed 1432), known to art historians as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is impeccably Biblical and orthodox, the painting has a haunting and frankly disturbing quality that reads as anything but.

It depicts the worship of the Animal God.

In an idealized landscape, worshipers converge from all directions on a central altar. The altar is encircled by kneeling winged adorants. On the altar itself stands a hornless Ram, white and shining. The god himself gazes outwards, meeting the eyes of the viewer. From his head shines light.

(By the way, that's not actually an extremely pendulous scrotum hanging between his legs, though it sure does look like one: it's his tail.)

Yeah, yeah, the Lamb of God. Yeah, yeah, angels, virgin martyrs, confessors, knights of Christ. Yeah, sure.

They're worshiping a Ram.

Any witch that's ever been to the Sabbat recognizes this scene, though she may not tell you so. The Horned on the altar, surrounded by his coven, with every witchly eye turned towards him. This is the Eternal Sabbat, the witch's true Paradise. We know, because we've been there.

No, I'm not suggesting that van Eyck was a secret member of what Margaret Murray called the “Witch cult.” (It sure would make an interesting story, though, if not a novel.) It is interesting to note, though, that in fact Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was painted at exactly the time—and near to the geographic locus from which—the concept of the Witches' Sabbat, as an iconic counter-worship, first emerged.

No, I'm suggesting something deeper: that van Eyck's mystic painting embodies, under the guise of Christian orthodoxy, an atavistic longing of the human heart, something that will never change because it is intrinsic to who we are.

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  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    If so, sign me up for one!
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I know it's flippant of me and betrays my degree in Art History but I wonder if anyone has made a Jigsaw puzzle version of The Ado

The Cowardly Lion's Wizard Of Oz Costume Was Made Out Of What?

Is it wrong to do something wrong for the sake of a greater right?

Gods help me, I've come to believe that sometimes—sometimes—it is. That's what moral courage is all about.

I could have done it. I could have and, if I had, I honestly believe that things would have been the better for the deed.

But I failed the test. I ducked the burden of doing the wrong, of taking it upon myself to make that sacrifice. In so doing, I did a greater wrong by choosing the lesser right.

In general, I think of myself as a pretty courageous person. Sissy boys don't grow up to be happy, functional adults if they're not among the bravest of the brave.

But this was something different: a test of moral courage that, in the end, I failed.

It's too late to do anything now. If there's any consolation at all, it's that I'll know better next time—if ever there is one. That's why I'm telling you this. For what it's worth, here's my witch's counsel, one to another: for the sake of the greater good, sometimes it's better to make the sacrifice and do what's wrong.

No, I'm not going to tell you what it was; that's mine to me. By shirking one burden, though, I've taken on another, maybe greater, burden: the knowledge that I could possibly have made a difference, and chose not to.

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A couple of weeks ago, I started working on a blog post titled Nine Great Yule Reads. In it, I list nine different books—both fiction and non-fiction—that constitute, in my opinion, some of the best Yule reading around.

It's the kind of post that tends to get a lot of attention. People look to see if their favorites are listed, with the added benefit that you may come across something new and worthwhile.

I haven't finished the post yet—who knows, it may still happen—but, looking over the list that I'd drawn up, I was struck by something both unexpected and profound. With one exception—which I'll get to later—the Land itself figures prominently in each narrative, sometimes to the extent that it could even be considered a major character.

What makes this fact profound is that it's not just a statement about pagan literature; it's a statement about virtually all paganism. All paganism is local. A paganism that lacks relationship to the Land is an incomplete paganism.

In every single one of these books, both fiction and non-fiction—again with that one exception—the story takes place against the backdrop of a particular landscape, and in fact takes place as it does precisely because it is located in that particular landscape. If any of these stories took place other than where they do, they would be different stories.

Any realized paganism is, of necessity, a religion of Place. Anywhere else, it would be a different paganism. You can't practice Hopi religion in Minnesota. Pagan religion is religion that grows out of relationship with a particular place.

As for the exception that I referred to above, Place does not really figure as a character in the same way that it does in the other books because the story is set in an imaginary place.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    That book that you know is set in an imaginary place. If you were not certain that the place in really imaginary; for example tha

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Pagan Nativity


Among the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush,

who alone among Indo-Aryan peoples

still hold to their old pre-Vedic religion,

all expectant women give birth

in the bashali, the house of blood. There

(as always until Enlightenment

doctors, pleading ease of access,

laid them out on their backs)

they squat to push, with gravity

to pull, bracing their labor against

the building's central column:

axis mundi, the typical Tree of Life.

Just so Leto clutched the bole

of a palm tree, bearing Apollo

and Artemis. Even Maryam

the virgin (in Sura xix) brought

forth Isa embracing the self-same

date-palm. Now in these days

of darkness, under the usual

tree of stars, how many

straining mothers crouch

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On second thought, R___, I think that your definition witch = scientist + engineer + poet (which I really, really like) does indeed fit the "hill and holler" crowd. I'm drawing here on Owen Davies' academic study of historic British "cunning folk" (in his book of the same name).

Scientist: Draws conclusions from impartial observation of results.

Engineer: Designs practical applications of conclusions for specific instances.

Poet: Dresses up practical applications to maximalize psychological effect.

That's actually a very good description of how village witches (according to Davies) used to work. It reinforces my sense that it's the cowans that are the believers; the witches may or may not be believers themselves, but the major thrust is to use the belief of others for their own purposes (both for good, and for ill). ("Help when you can, harm when you need to.")

Davies sees this as having been a largely cynical pose on the part of the witches themselves--who, let's face it, were witching largely for gain--but me, I'm not so sure.

Last night my dad was telling me that my niece is having some warts removed today. This led to a discussion of warts generally, and he passed along a folk cure that he'd heard of (I neglected to ask from where, but bear in mind that my hometown Pittsburgh is the northernmost tip of Appalachia) about rubbing warts with stump-water by moonlight. As a practitioner myself, I'd think that one would want stump-water that reflects the full Moon: that way the warts will wane away as the Moon wanes. (And I guess we know which gods one would want to call on; but that's me, thinking in Witch again.)

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It was the afternoon of Midwinter's Eve. The house was clean and decked, full of good smells. All day long, I'd been rushing around: cooking, prepping for the big ritual that evening. But at last everything that needed to be done, was done.

Suddenly, out of the blue shadows of the year's longest night, a voice:


And so the shortest day came, and the year died.


That's the first time that I ever heard Susan Cooper's iconic poem, The Shortest Day.



Newberry Medal winner Susan Cooper (b. 1935) understands magic: she authored the well-loved Dark Is Rising series. (Did you pull the eponymous Dark Is Rising off the shelf this year in the lead-up to Yule? I did.)

The voice that I heard in the darkness of that afternoon was that of John Langstaff, Grand Master of the perennial Christmas Revels. Susan Cooper wrote The Shortest Day specifically for the Revels in 1977, and her ode to Yule has opened that event—not to mention innumerable pagan rituals—ever since.

At long last, her jewel of a poem has received the setting that it deserves. Last year it was released as a picture book, illustrated—illuminated, I really should say—by Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis.

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Don't get me wrong, I'm all for merriment, and making merry—and let us take a moment to savor that fine old phrase, and consider the implications: “merry” isn't something that you are, it's something that you do—is a fine old Yuletide thew (that's “custom” in Witch).

Still, there's something about the greeting “Merry Yule” that, like a shot of vinegar, sets my teeth on edge.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you why. To my ear, it smacks of keeping up with the cowans, which (in my experience) is rarely the best modus operandi. Yule is Yule, its own thing, not something that you write in, having erased “Christmas.”

So, if not a merry one, then what kind of Yule do we wish one another?

The default adjective for holiday salutations in English is, of course, “happy.” There are worse things than a Happy Yule. Colorful, though, it's not. Likewise, since the greeting is often yoked with “and a Happy New Year,” you've suddenly got a “happy-happy” pairing which is, to say the least, infelicitous. Then there's that clunky BUM-bum-BUM meter to it. “Happy Yule” may do the job, but dance on the tongue it doesn't.

Well, when in doubt, consult the kinfolk. Norwegians wish one another a Gledelig Jul, and Danes a Glaedelig Jul: a Glad Yule. (Icelandic is similar: Gledileg Jól.) Now, a glad Yule certainly beats a sad one, but in English there's something forced about the phrase, almost pretentious. It sounds like Translation-ese, which—of course—is exactly what it is. Cognate-for-cognate isn't necessarily best translation strategy.

For Swedes, though, it's God Jul: a Good Yule. Now that I like. Forceful, firm, terse even. (It's cold up here in the North Country: you don't want to go letting all that cold air in. Hence our proverbial Northron taciturnity.) Metrically, it's got that nice, assertive spondee: BUM-BUM. A Good Yule doesn't mess around. A Good Yule tells you what's what. It goes in, does what needs to be done, and gets out again. A Good Yule is lean, and sinewy, and oh-so honey-sweet on the tongue.

It's worth noting that up in Scotland where Yule's Yule and no one has ever bothered with that newfangled Christmas business, it's still Guid Yule, short and sweet.

Well, in the pagan world you'll make up your own mind, and glad I am of it. If you wish me a Merry Yule, or a Happy one, or even a Glad one, I'll gladly take it—as witches say—with both hands.

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