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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The Holy, the Wye, and the Rumanian Treasure: Being a Brief (but Deep) Excursion through the Ancestral Mind

In colloquial English we tend to think of holy and sacred as being vaguely synonymous, but to the ancestors they were two distinct, if related, forms of being.

The original meaning of holy—Old English hâlig—emerges when we examine its sister-words deriving from the same Old Germanic root: hale, healthy, whole, hail, wholesome, hallow. Holy denotes an intrinsic state of being characterized by radical completeness in self: wholeness, entirety, unbrokenness.

The first observation to make about sacred, on the other hand, is that it derives from Latin rather than Old English. Possibly Latin sacer replaced Old English wîh (or wêoh) because of the latter's pagan associations. If so, they don't seem to have had this problem on the Continent, where the old Germanic word still survives in the Modern German name for Christmas Eve: Weihnacht, “holy night.” (It's worth noting that modern German-speaking pagans refer to Yule as Weihenacht, an archaic form of the same word.)

But in fact both the Latin and Old English words refer to the same concept. What is sacer or wîh is something that belongs to a god. Hence, to sacrifice (literally, “make sacer”) something is to give it to a god. Sacrilege is the theft of something that belongs to a god: in the eyes of the ancestors, one of the most terrible of crimes.

(In a recent landmark case in India a man accused of sacrilege—he had stolen something from a Shiva temple—argued that he could not be guilty of theft because gods do not exist and hence cannot own anything. The court decided that a god—whether he exists or not—does indeed constitute a legal person and hence is, in the eyes of the law, fully capable of ownership. Guilty as charged.)

This same distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic states, radical entirety and belonging to a god, turns up in other Indo-European cultures as well—it's the difference between both Latin sanctus and sacer and Greek hágios and hierós—and may well date back to proto-Indo-European times, some 6000 years ago. Clearly, these are useful concepts.

Although different, the two concepts are, in the divine economy of pagan praxis, reciprocally related. Only what is hâlig is fit to be given to a god, to become wîh. And in turn, contact with the wîh—what belongs to a god—can return us to a state of holiness.

In fact, the two concepts can be conjoined. This is the origin of the word sacrosanct: originally, something in a state of radical wholeness which belonged to a god.

In fact, the precise Germanic equivalent of this word survives in one of the very earliest-known inscriptions in any Germanic language.

In 1837, two Rumanian farmers discovered beneath a limestone boulder a hoard of 23 gold objects dating from circa 250-400 CE. Known as the Pietroassa treasure, it includes a gold neck-ring engraved with one of the oldest-known runic inscriptions, identifying it (in Gothic) as wihailag: sacrosanct.

As indicated, Old English wîh did not survive into Modern English.

If it had, perhaps we would today speak of the wye along with the holy.

Not to mention the wye-holy.


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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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