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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Song of the Crow Man

he wold com to my hows top in the shape of a crow, or lyk a dear or in any uther shap now and then, I wold ken his woice at the first heiring of it, and wold goe forth to him and hav carnall cowpula[tio]n w[i]th him 

  [Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie, of the Devil (1662)]

For just a moment, I thought that somehow I'd driven onto a set from Hitchcock's The Birds.

Sunset, Christmas Eve 2000. In the stillness of the Yule-frith, the only things moving were me and the stoplights, as I drove to work in downtown Minneapolis.

And the crows. Thousands of crows, literally, filling the trees that lined Park Avenue. Hundreds, raucous black fruit, in each tree, silhouetted against the sunset sky. 

“Seems like it should mean something,” says my neighbor, and one has to agree. There's something deeply disconcerting about seeing the entire crow population of South Minneapolis all at once. Well, signify it does, but not as an omen. What it means is that it's Winter. From mid-November through mid-March, the crows that summer in small family groups gather in their thousands as the Sun goes down, and woe worth you if they choose to bless your block with their roosting. In pagan thinking, dung is a blessing, fertilizer, prime symbol of fruitfulness, yes. All the same, you may want to move the car.

Crows. In the world of Romantic Paganism, where every buck's a stag, every big black bird's a (don't forget to roll the R) Raven, but here in Minneapolis the common crow is all we've got; the Ravens are all up north.

[Discursus Alert. In Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, Chas S. Clifton's metaphor for Wicca's advent to US shores, "How the Ravens Came to the Lake," strikes the only false note in an otherwise incisive work of scholarship. Clifton is ringing the changes here on Rick Fields' account of the spread of Buddhism in America, How the Swans Came to the Lake (1981). We see here the complexity inherent in borrowing from one symbol system to another. Even if we were to accept the raven as the "pagan" bird, the fact remains that ravens, unlike swans, are not water birds. If these particular ravens are coming to the lake to drink, surely such a pedestrian event makes for an inapt metaphor. In the literatures of pagan Europe, a gathering of ravens generally means one thing: battle and carnage. Perhaps the pagan ravens have gathered to feast on the carnage of the Christianities? Certainly one would wish pagans to know their natural world better.]

Crows are Old Hornie's birds. They say you can recognize a Man in Black by the crow's feather he wears in his cap. (When Men-in-Black meet, it's called the Crow Feather Council.) The crow that perches on the Old Un's shoulder is whispering secrets, sure. (You know how things migrate from one mythology to another.) Mayhap you've seen him in his shimmering black-and-rainbow crow-feather cloak.

They call him the Crow Man. He figures large in Joseph D'Lacey's post-apocalyptic dystopian diptych, Black Feathers (2013) and The Book of the Crowman (2014), set in a post-industrial Britain in which the ecocidal industrialist forces of the Ward are pitted in a life-or-death struggle with the eco-terrorist forces of the Green Men. The Green counter-insurgency is driven by prophecies of a coming messianic figure who will teach his people to live in harmony with the world. They sport crow's feathers in their long hair, for their Horned One is the Crowman.

One of my favorite scenes from Neil Gaiman's American Gods involves corvids. Having fallen in with a mysterious one-eyed stranger who calls himself Wednesday, our hero finds himself followed by a pair of ravens everywhere he goes. Finally he turns to one of them.

"Hey, you: Hugin or Munin, or whichever one you are," he says, "Say 'Nevermore.'"

"F**k you," says the bird, and flies away.

Here in Witch Country, we don't, as I've said, have ravens. But witches are common here.

Common as crows. 

"The Crowman said he'd live on in all of us, that he'd keep the land strong if we kept his story alive."

Black Feathers, p. 54







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Tagged in: birds Crow devil Horned God
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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