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 Language Remembers

Tiw. Woden. Thunor. Frig.

Until recently, no one in the English-speaking world had worshiped these gods for a thousand years. But all this time they've been hiding in plain sight. Their names are on the tongues of every English-speaker whenever we say the days of the week.

The language remembers.

The Old English word ós, cognate with Old Norse áss (singular of æsir), designates a '(pagan) god,' and so fell out of use after the coming of the new religion. But all those English names that begin with Os—Oswald (“god-rule”), Osbert (“bright god”), Oscar (“god spear”) among them—have kept the word alive.

The language remembers.

For centuries, Christian parents have been naming their children Dionysios (“belonging to Dionysos”), Isidore (“gift of Isis”), and Thorkel (“cauldron of Thor”). One of the greatest saints of Coptic (native Egyptian) Christianity is St. Menas; boys are still named for him. Menas bears the name of the ancient god Min, the god of abundance generally shown sporting a god-sized erection. One wonders just how the celibate Menas, whose father was a priest of this god, may have felt about this.


In the 13th century, Icelander Snorri Sturluson wrote about the Ragnarök, the “doom (rök) of the gods.” (He also called it, more famously, the Ragnarökr, “twilight [rökr] of the gods.”)

The word for “gods” (or maybe better, “Powers”) here is interesting. The Norse word regin (a neuter plural; ragna is the genitive), means “rulers.” Most other Germanic languages, including Old English and Gothic, the oldest attested Germanic language, have cognate words, generally meaning “rule, counsel, advise.” It stems from the same root that gave us the word right, and ultimately (via Latin) royalregal and reign.

The Anglo-Saxon verb rénian, “prepare, arrange, order,” did not survive in free-standing form. But here again, names preserve the word: we see it in the Norman-derived names Reynold, Reginald (“rule [wald] of the gods”) and Raynor (“army [here] of the gods”).

We have no evidence that the Hwicce—the Anglo-Saxon tribe said by some to be ancestral to today's witches—used this word to refer to the gods. But if they had, and if they'd continued to use the word, we might today when speaking of the gods call them (with some influence from Danish and Latin) the Reign. As an all-inclusive term, it has the advantage of being gender-neutral.

Humans may forget; we can fail to see what is hiding in plain sight.

But the language remembers.


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Tagged in: Hwicce
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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