Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious / spiritual experiences, modern life on a heathen path, community interaction, and general heathenry.

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Erin Lale

Erin Lale

Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, American Celebration, and other books. She has been a sworn Priestess of Freya since 1989, and recently also formalized a relationship with the triple Odin. She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is the Acquisitions Editor at genre novel publishers Damnation Books and Eternal Press. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office as an out heathen.
Substituting As Gythia At a Baby Blessing

Hoarfrost sparkled on the dark ground, reflecting harsh nearby ballfield lights that did not illuminate the tree-dotted lawn of the park. It was winter 2009. Local heathens of the Las Vegas area gathered to welcome a new baby, who was wrapped in a large fur blanket against the winter cold. The kindred sponsoring the event consisted of a core group of heathens among a larger a group of non-heathens in a Renaissance Faire guild, so, some of the people gathered there wore modern dress, some were in Renfaire or re-enactor garb, and some wore a mix of both.

The kindred’s godhi, or priest, was going to perform a baby blessing and naming ceremony. The godhi was having a bad time with a chronic health issue right then, and did not feel up to calling power, so he asked me to perform the blessing.

I was there as a community member, so I did not have any of my ritual stuff with me. I looked around for things I could use, and saw that there was a bottle of mead for toasting (sumbel) and blessing (blot.) The baby’s family’s sword was firmly stuck point first in the ground. I could work with that. That would be the conduit for the ancestor honor transfer. The ancestors were under the earth, and the sword was part in the earth and part above it. In heathenry, there are many different traditions about where the dead go and what they become after death, since heathenry draws on a vast time period and many different, although related, cultures. In many of the ancient cultures, there was no clear line between the grave mound and the elf mound, and that idea survives in the modern saying that the dead have gone to stay with the elves. An early story about the interior of a grave mound showed the dead fighting each other in endless war, very much like the Viking age depiction of Valhalla. So, the direction of the ancestors is down, in the earth.

I mentally tallied what was and was not essential among the things that were not there. I could do without a blotbolli (blessing bowl.) I would pour the mead from the horn directly onto the asperger. I had to have an asperger, a tool with which to sprinkle the blessing liquid on the baby. Many dark shapes of pine trees stood out against the stars. I would cut a pine branch, except that I did not have my ritual knife with me either. Years ago, when I had been asked to make a rune stick for a friend, I had pulled on an oak branch and a stick had snapped off in my hand, cleanly as if cut. I resolved to repeat this feat tonight.

I went to a pine tree, and caressed its needles. I spoke to it, and asked it for the use of its branch for the holy ritual. The branch snapped off in my hand.

We gathered together for the ritual. In an Asatru baby blessing, the mother has already given form to the child, body from body, and now it is time for the father to give to the child. I directed the baby’s father to place one hand on the hilt of his family sword, which was firmly stuck in the earth, and one hand on the baby. I narrated, “You are the link between your ancestors and your child. The might and main and the honor of the ancestors is coming up from the earth, through the sword, through you, and into your child.”

All those gathered there toasted the child with mead in the sumbel ritual. I asked the parents what they named their child. I poured mead over the asperger and blessed the child by his name in the names of the gods, the ancestors, and all wights (spirit beings) of good will. As we did not have a blotbolli to pour out to the land wight, I poured the rest of the bottle to the land wight. I returned the pine branch to the land. The ritual was done.

Image: graphic by Karen Arnold. via publicdomainpictures.net

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The Last Ravenwood: attending a festival in the woods in a wheelchair

2015 was going to be the last Ravenwood. Prudence has been putting on Ravenwood since the early 90s, with her local group Freya's Folk, and at first under the umbrella of the national organization The Ring of Troth, and then the American Vinland Association, which was one of the two successor organizations to the old RoT, the other one being The Troth. Using a state park for heathen festivals had always been intended as temporary, and Prudence had bought land farther north years ago. She has been slowly improving the land at Folkvangr over the years and is almost ready to pass it on to someone who will start holding festivals on it. This campground in the redwood forest held a glow of nostalgia, but it was time for the last one. 

I was very invested in going to the last Ravenwood, both emotionally and literally. Emotionally invested, because Ravenwood had been my first experience of the heathen community. It was the place where I first met other Asatruars, after having only known Wiccan Pagans in high school and college. Ravenwood was a heathen festival held on Mt. Tamalpais in California, near where I used to live in Sonoma. I had not attended since I had moved to Nevada in 1995. Literally invested, because I intended to sell my books there, I had bought copies of my new book No Horns On These Helmets, and of my nonfiction books, to sign and sell at a vendor table at the festival.

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Drumming

A drum appeared in front of me out of the darkness. Someone stood behind me as I sat singing along with the jamming fiddlers, guitarists, and autoharpist by the snapping campfire. I took the drum. Someone's hands showed me how to hold the drum, and how to play the three notes of the dumbek: dum, tek, ee. I put my hands on the hairy hide. I started to play, and magic welled up inside me. When I drum, I feel the vibration of the universe, I hear the music of the spheres, and my hands thump out the rhythm of the heartbeat of mother earth.

That was how I acquired Mr. Hairy Goat, the gourd drum. That was how a long-dormant connection to the Native spirituality I had grown up with. Although the drum was a Middle Eastern style, and I had been an Asatruar for decades, and the festival I was attending was not even a pagan festival but a folk dance and folk music festival I went to because my mom wanted to go, somehow drumming connected me to a note of Native American spirituality; the rhythms that came to me naturally sounded Native. I had largely stopped trying to pursue Native spirituality (except for relating to the land spirits as my father had taught me) after events of the year after I left college. Now it came to me. Mom and I were camping in my truck at a folk music, dance, and storytelling festival in California. Mom was doing the dance program. I sometimes dance with her and her folk dance group, but at this event I had signed up for the singing program. It turned out, the someone in the dark was a drum vendor at the festival.

As a child, I had tried to learn the violin, even though the teacher said I was too old to start (I was about 10 I think.) Maybe she was right, because I never got very good at it. I had played my grandfather's violin, and had given it up when braces gave me jaw pain so bad i just couldn't hold it properly. I had hung onto the violin itself for years. I had planned to pass it on to my future child, and had even pre-planned an entire ceremony for calling my grandfather's musical talent into my future progeny, which I intended to do as part of the naming ceremony. I gave up the dream of ever having children in order to receive medical treatment that solved a decades-long on-again-off-again disability. One of the things I did to let go of that dream was to sell grandpa's violin. Shortly after that, the drum came into my life. I think that by letting go of the violin, I then had my interior music-place open and ready to connect with a new instrument, and that is why the drum came to me.

I got so into drumming that I was asked to become the conductor of a drum circle I participated in, SageWomen. I felt the need to have a Native American style drum as well as Mr. Hairy Goat, and I made my own frame drum from white oak and elk rawhide, and named her Grandmother Elk. I sang and played the drum in a short-lived Celtic folk-rock band named North Wind, which once played at Las Vegas Pagan Pride Day. I led the drum circle at Unity Center, a local interfaith-friendly church.

I drummed for a Native American flute maker who was performing in a Las Vegas art gallery to promote his double flutes, which they carried. The next time I went to a powwow, he was there, and from then on I felt welcomed and connected with the Native community in the local and greater Southwest area. I dug out my old powwow regalia, which was now too small, untied the seams and put in extra panels to expand it to my new size, and wore it to powwows to dance the intertribal dances. I danced at the Las Vegas Honoring Veterans' powwow. I danced at Snow Mountain.

One day at a drum circle, some of the other women were doing reiki healings on each other. I was apparently the only person there who was not a reiki healer. They asked me to try doing a blessing with my drum, so I did. Magic flowed. I had never had any powers or talents for healing before, though I had attempted various systems. This was utterly natural. I just directed the open end of Mr. Hairy Goat at my target person and drummed. They all said they could feel their own energy lifted up into the drum, changed, healed, and then put back inside them at a higher level of energy. The next time the drum circle met, some of them said I had improved their conditions. People started asking me to perform drum healings every time. I learned that I couldn't do it too often, and I also eventually learned that I had to turn the drum on myself when I was done performing healings for the day or I would have a low-energy hangover with achy sleepiness the next few days. I learned through trial and error that to do a healing with the greatest chance of success and least personal energy expended, I had to wait until the drum circle had already done a few drum songs and raised energy and entrained with each other and then have them do a simple rhythm that I could follow along with doing a simple one-beat heartbeat rhythm, just a plain dum dum dum dum dum, and that while I was doing the healing it would work best if I did a slow beat regardless of how fast the rest of the circle was going. I learned to pull energy from the rest of the circle and direct it. All this, I learned entirely by doing it, sometimes doing it wrong, and doing better next time. I also learned that although he didn't mind if someone else played him, I couldn't have someone else drum for me with Mr. Hairy Goat and try to get any of the healing effects for myself; it just didn't work right, even though I felt like I wasn't really the one doing the healings, I was just the legs that carried the drum around, I was apparently necessary in some way to make the energy flow right.

Mr. Hairy Goat is a sacred healing drum, but Grandmother Elk is a sacred drum, too. She is a drum for leading a drum circle and getting everyone to entrain on each other and find a common rhythm, and to do conductor things like making everyone louder or softer and getting everyone to stop at the same time. She has a loud voice. Last year, I led the drum circle at my local Pagan Pride Day. I invited attendees to drum, provided instruments, collected their energy, and channeled it to the healers performing the ceremony. The leader of the healers said she could feel me throwing major energy. All this, because I went alone for the ride when I had the opportunity, and took what was literally put right in front of me.

Photo caption: me with my drum Grandmother Elk, at the labyrinth at St. Rose. The activities organizer of the local Catholic hospital asked me to drum for their Labyrinth Walk.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Thank you! That's really cool.
  • Molly
    Molly says #
    Loved this! It was giant powwow drum at the Gaea Goddess Gathering in KS that called my heart several years ago. I want to work mo
When My Book Was Pirated: Asking Tyr for Justice

Some people in the heathen community seem to approve of piracy, what with the whole Vikings rah-rah. Successful pirate societies don't pirate from their own. Today's Somali pirates don't pirate Somali ships. That's how it worked in the Viking Age, too; Vikings raided across the sea, not across the street.

This is an account of a ritual I performed asking Tyr for justice. My book Asatru For Beginners had been pirated shortly after the print edition came out. I was originally going to tell the entire story of what happened, and how chasing pirated versions of my book all over the net eventually led me to the file sharing section of a site engaged in immoral activities, but at that point the story really becomes about non-religious matters, so I'm just going to blog about the ritual I performed once I had done all I could do by regular means.

The type of ritual I performed is the most common of heathen rituals, the sumbel. Sumbel is a toasting ritual. It is often performed in a group, for a holiday, but it can also be performed alone. It is very simple, with a Germanic efficiency that I see as elegant like something perfectly engineered, a type of beauty completely different from flowery excess.

I assembled the things I needed for the ritual, which were my portable altar, which was necessary to hold the other things, my drinking horn, and a bottle of something to put in the horn. I chose to offer him Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin, a drink made from evergreen tree needles. The reasons I chose that drink are: 1. because it is a traditional drink from Alsace, where some of my ancestors are from, thus it has a personal connection with me, 2. because evergreen has a clean, strong flavor which seems masculine to me, and I think of Tyr as manly; 3. evergreen is also symbolic of the eternal life of the gods and of nature, so it seemed appropriate as something to offer a god, and 4. because it is a rare and special drink.

I wept as I summarized the situation briefly and asked him for justice. I ended the toast with "hail Tyr," and drank to him. What was left in the horn after the toast I poured out on the ground.

Back when I was new to heathenry, some other Asatruars said that heathens don't pray, but I realize now that they were reacting against Christianity, not following the example of historical heathens. There are numerous examples in the lore of people asking the gods for various things.  We might not pray in the way that Christians do, but we do communicate with the gods in our own ways, and we do ask them for help when we need to. When I had done everything I could do myself, I asked Tyr for justice, and he delivered it.

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My Glamorous Author Life

This is a photo of my campsite at Pagan Spirit Gathering in 2010, the year it was in Missouri. Pictured: my solar clothes dryer, strung between a shady tree and my truck, and socks that I washed in ice chest melt-water. That year, my book Asatru For Beginners finally had a print edition, after 8 years as only an ebook, so I went on a book tour.

I met a lot of wonderful people along the way. I had some truly awesome spiritual experiences at the festival, and some weird unplanned experiences too (one was: my truck decided I needed to be off the road at a specific place and time and broke down; the next morning's local paper showed a highway accident with a pickup truck exactly where and when I would have been.)

I spent a lot of time in the river at Pagan Spirit Gathering. I knew before I left that it was going to be hot, and I thought I was used to heat because I live in the Las Vegas valley. Ha. It is not the same at all. I started spending my afternoons in the river because of the heat, but when I took up current riding, it became something more. Current riding is floating down the river with no flotation device but my body, my lungs filled like a fish's swim bladder, arms and legs positioned to maximize contact with the water surface, which supports weight through surface tension. I learned what "going with the flow" really meant, both literally and figuratively.

I boondocked as much as possible. Boondocking is camping in a vehicle in an undeveloped area. Some of the vast tracts of empty federal land in the American West are approved boondocking areas. These can be located on maps by looking up boondocking. One of my planned boondocking overnights was the US Army mountain infantry winter training camp in the Rockies, which is approved for boondocking in the summer, but I ended up staying in a hotel in Colorado because of needing to fix my truck, waiting over the weekend for a part to be sent up from Denver. That was after the last stop on my book tour, and by that time I had totally worn out a purse, 5 hair clips (well, 1 of them I lost), a straw hat, 3 bathing suits, a tire, a camper shell strut, the truck's AC, and then, that part, too, all of which had to be replaced along the way.

I was on the road long enough to need to dye my hair again; I waited for one of my splurges on a room with running water to do that. No matter how tired I was when I stopped driving for the day, I always checked the truck's oil (to be checked with the engine hot) and checked the coolant in the morning (to be checked with the engine cold.) I carried hoses and belts with me just in case. For driving directions, I was depending on printouts from Google Maps that I printed before I left. I stopped and hiked in several places to take a break from driving and to connect with the land I was traveling in, and also did a lot of swimming.

People ask me once in a while if I was afraid to travel by myself because I'm a woman.  Whenever I camped in the back of my truck, I was sleeping with my hand on the hilt of my Viking longsword. On my book tour stops, I displayed it as a heathen related cultural item, but I was fully ready and willing to use it for self-defense, too.

When I arrived at PSG, I built a small stone land spirit altar in my campsite, and managed to get along well with the local wildlife. I was there when Mama Gina wrote the PSG song. Lots of people attended my Rune Seminar. There was a ritual in which people were invited to honor the sun in the manner of  their tradition, and I raised a toast to Sunna. Hearing "Hail Sunna" echoed back by what had to be a thousand people was one of the peak experiences of my life. Although I made a bit of a joke with this post by titling it "glamorous" and then talking about covering my gray roots in a motel bathroom before one of my public appearances, the spiritual experiences I had and the wonderful people I met on my trip were worth every moment of the not so great times.

This year I'm going on a book tour again, although with only 2 scheduled booksigning appearances. Tom N. and I are traveling to the last Ravenwood, a Northern California heathen festival we used to go to. I haven't been back since I moved from Sonoma to Las Vegas in 1995, and I'm looking forward to seeing old friends. I'll be signing my latest nonfiction book, American Celebration, as well as the new fiction anthology I edited, No Horns On These Helmets. I'll have copies of Asatru For Beginners along to sign as well, and some back issues of Berserkrgangr Magazine.

I'll be signing No Horns On These Helmets at WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, which is in Spokane, Washington this year, where I will also be visiting family. My brother says he's going to rent a fog machine to hide his raspberry bushes so I don't eat them all. I told him I'll bring along a fan.

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  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Thanks and you're welcome!
  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer says #
    Gosh, if only most realized how decidedly UNglamorous it is to be a Pagan author... Thank you fo r sharing your experience with u
Running for Public Office While Openly Heathen

I had been looking for a job for about a year when I decided that I was going to take the next opportunity I was offered, even if it was volunteer work. I sent out a very clear intent that I would accept whatever I was offered the next day. The universe having a sense of humor, the next day the Libertarian Party asked me to run for public office. So I did.

That's how I came to run for Nevada State Assembly in 2010.

I've been completely out as a heathen for a long time, and I've always published under my birth name, even as the publisher and editor of Berserkrgangr Magazine in the 90s. The print edition of Asatru For Beginners was just hitting the presses, and I was publicizing the new edition, so when I ran for office, I knew that a few seconds with a search engine would bring up the words Asatru, heathen, and pagan. Sometimes reporters covering the election asked me about Asatru, and included a short quote about it in the election coverage. Sometimes heathen and pagan reporters reported on my campaign as news of interest to heathens and pagans. Other than that, it didn't really come up as an issue during my campaign.

Most people were far more interested in what I could do for them than in demographic details of my identity. Other than organizations for a specific religion, ancestry, sexual orientation, etc., the only demographic that seemed to matter to most people in my local area was that I was a woman, and that was a plus. It was such a plus that I adopted a more feminine style for my campaign style than I use in my real life. In real life I'm a little non-binary. In the campaign, well, being female is good for an extra 5% of the vote, and one of my campaign's major goals was to show that women had a place in the Libertarian Party, so I made sure I always photographed as female. My hair was always down, and I wore a lot of pink.

I ran again in 2013, for Henderson City Council. Again, my religious affiliation didn't seem to matter much to anyone but other pagans and heathens. After the campaign was over, I heard that one group decided not to endorse my campaign because of my religion, but I only heard about it because a supporter told me.  I got support from a wide array of different local groups and individuals from various points on the political spectrum. The City Council race was a 4 way contest, and I received over 15% of the vote.

Over the course of my two campaigns, I became deeply connected to the local community, as well as becoming much more well-known in the heathen and pagan communities nationally. I don't know how much of my new fame came from my book tour and how much from running for office, since I did both in the same year. I learned a ton, influenced the local conversation on issues, and made lots of great friends, and I'm glad I did it, but I am never, ever, ever running again.

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Witches' Tower, San Diego, California

This pentagram is built into a small tower in Presidio Park in San Diego, California. The pentagram is on the tower roof, open to the air, which is reached by climbing a staircase.

The official name of the Witches' Tower is the Pattie Memorial, commemorating the first American to die to California. It is supposed to be built close to where a historical guardhouse and jail used to be. The Pattie Memorial is a storage building. Presidio Park is very convenient to the hotels on Hotel Circle. Multiple layers of candle wax on the pentagram attest to its ritual use.

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