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 Old Ways Endure

A rural Anabaptist commune in mid-20th century Manitoba seems an unlikely time and place for a sacrifice to a river.

But that is the story that journalist Mary-Ann Kirby tells in her autobiography I Am Hutterite.

Some memories, it would seem, live long indeed.

The Hutterites are a radical Protestant sect, kin to the Amish and Mennonites, that originated during the 15th century in the Austrian province of Tyrol. Their pacifism and communal lifestyle made them personae non gratae in Europe and the US, and eventually they settled in western Canada. Their folkways, assiduously passed down through four centuries, preserve much of the flavor of the late medieval/early modern culture of their original homeland. 

As Kirkby tells the story, one hot, humid July evening in 1969, a young man—against his father's express wishes—goes for a swim in the Assiniboine River, known for its treacherous undercurrents, and is drowned before the eyes of his companions. Days pass and the body is not recovered.

Finally, the elders decide that the best way to recover the body is to offer the river a quid pro quo.

They slaughter a pig of the same approximate weight as the young man that was drowned, and place the carcass into the Assiniboine on the spot from which he disappeared (138).

Shortly thereafter, they find the youth's body.

This is a quite remarkable action. If it originates in pragmatism (“let's throw in a body of comparable mass and see where it fetches up”), it is pragmatism with all the appearance of sympathetic magic, if not actual sacrifice.

Coincidence? Old Germanic folk practice? A spontaneous re-emergence of the archaic? All of the above?

My old high priestess back east used to say, “If you killed all the witches today, tomorrow there would be just as many.”

Because the Old Ways inhere in who we are.

That's why they will always return.


Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage (2010). Thomas Nelson.



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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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