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 Left-Hand Lord of Hvalsey: A Tale for Up-Helly-Aa

There was a man in Orkney named Erik Red Hand, generally well-thought-of, though said by some to be over-ruthless.

A dispute arose between this Erik and a man named Ketil Asmundsson over which of them was the rightful owner of the island of Hvalsey.

The dispute went back and forth until finally they reached an agreement. At sunrise on the last day of Yule they would both set sail from Torshavn ("Thor's Harbor") Bay to Hvalsey. Whoever reached the island first would become its rightful lord.

Next morning they set off at the appointed time. It soon became clear that Ketil's ship was the faster of the two and would be first to land.

Seeing this, Erik Red Hand took up his ax, laid his left wrist across the gunwale, and chopped off his hand. He lobbed the hand to shore over Ketil's head, and in this way became first to reach the island.

His descendants still live there today.

This was in the days of the Norse land-take in Orkney.


Up Helly Aa ("holiday all up"), originally Thirty-Ninth Night (3 x 13), is now officially observed on the last Tuesday in January.


Callum G. Brown, Up-Helly-Aa: Custom, Culture and Community in Shetland (1998). Mandolin.



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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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