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.

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The Great Quake of '89

My senior year of college at the University of California at Santa Cruz was the Loma Prieta earthquake.  It was not a spiritual experience, but it greatly affected the course of my life, caused me to invest magic in my truck, and led to a significant event in my life as a heathen. This year is the 25th anniversary of this event.

Quotes from my memoir:

     “Most of my memories are fuzzy about the time and date on which they took place, but there is one I can date to the minute:  October 17, 1989, 5:04pm.”

 “…the plate glass sliding doors in the living room rippled like water…”

It was the great quake of ’89, its epicenter in Santa Cruz County. I have a detailed description of what happened in my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts. After a week of sleeping outdoors because the buildings were not certified safe, I thought:

      “If I had dad’s truck with me, I could sleep in it.  No freezing soccer fields.  No worries about rain.  I could have all the supplies I needed right in there, ready for me any time I wanted them.” 

      “…The only coherent thought I had all afternoon was, “This is not going to happen to me again.  I am not going to depend on anything or anyone outside myself.  I can’t depend on the water always turning on and being fit to drink.  I can’t depend on the buses always running and the stores always being open.  I was depending on the government.  Now I’m going to depend on myself.  Alone.”

When I returned to Santa Cruz from the family home in Sonoma, I was driving the truck. The same one I still drive, which my mom had named The Warhoop Wagon while it was still my dad’s: an ’84 Chevy Silverado. Longbed. Two-tone brown and cream paint job like a palomino. Camper shell on the back. Freshly stocked with supplies from survivalist catalogs. Not just a vehicle: a place I could live in.

      “Before we left I walked around the truck, simultaneously conducting a safety check and casting a spell of protection.  I imbued the truck with energy to journey safely and to prevent harm to myself and others on the road.  To my inner eye it glowed with the armor of my directed will, but beneath that was its own personality, a protectiveness like the best qualities of its previous owner.  Driving my truck—my father’s truck—was a holy act of inheritance of ability.”

Over the years, I have reinforced and enhanced the safe-journey magic and the truck's own personality grew stronger. Its formal name is still the one my mother gave it, but I more often think of it as My Faithful Truck. It's hard to explain to non-pagans why I won't give it up; I usually just tell them it's lucky.

The first place I drove it was to a pagan ritual in the middle of rubble-strewn San Francisco, in the hard-hit Marina district which was still blackened and choked from gas main fires: the Spiral Dance. I brought my mom with me, and that was how I came out as pagan.

Back at college, I found myself in a spiritual battle for which I did not feel at all prepared. That is another story, coming in the next post.

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The Berserker Trance

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, when I was studying at the University of Kalinin (now Tver), USSR, I experienced the berserker trance during a street fight, although I had not yet begun studying the martial art of Bersarkrgangr. This was one of the events in my life that qualified me to study it. 

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault

It was broad daylight, and I and another American were walking to the post office. Tale of the tape: I was 5'3" and weighed about 117 lbs. My opponent, whom I only saw briefly before going into a berserker trance but whom I will never forget, was about 5'10" and about 170 lbs. 

A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:

     “The crowd pressed in on all sides, so I had no warning alarms go off in my mind when a man came very close.  He grabbed me by the left breast.

     Light.

     A flash of light, and nothing else.  No sound, no sensation.  Bright white light.

     I was inside the post office.  I was standing in the lobby, busy people flowing all around me.  I stood staring at a police officer sitting on his stool.”   

I still have a total blank where any memory of what I did would be, but I guessed that I had run away. I may or may not have punched or kicked him or did any other martial arts moves, but I had to have run off because I was out of breath and a block away when I came to awareness again, with a wave of berserker fury crashing over me. It bothered me that I had run. I had this self image as this badass kung fu fighter, and the berserker in me ran away.

I only considered reporting the incident to the policeman for about a second. This was a Soviet militiaman, there to guard the post office in the midst of the anarchy of what was obvious even then was about to be the fall of the Soviet Union.  This was a city where the black market traded openly in the daytime and street gangs ruled the night, zipping along on their motorcycles with AK-47s they had bought from corrupt soldiers who were trading them for food because the army’s pay was worthless in the middle of a currency collapse. I had already witnessed numerous assaults on the street and knew that street crime might as well be the weather for all the attention it was going to receive. Plus, I was an American, and was not someone they would automatically protect. So I just went about my business.

Later, this was one of the life experiences that the teacher of the martial art of the berserkers considered one of my qualifications to learn Bersarkrgangr. Bersarkrgangr was a traditional martial art of the heathen culture, and still is, although it has undoubtedly changed over time. Learning it was one of the major experiences of my life, and this street incident was one of the things that led to my learning it, so although I started having flashbacks to the childhood sexual abuse after that incident, on the whole I actually have to say it was a positive turning point, although it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. From the perspective of 25 years later, I look back and think, four things happened after my dedication to Freya that felt very dark when I was going through them, but which I see now shaped me into the person she wanted me to be.

The first person I ever really talked about this incident with was the Bersarkrgangr teacher, several years later. I expressed my embarrassment at having run away, but he relieved my guilt about that. He said, "Erin, you won that fight. When I was in Vietnam, I sometimes went on scouting missions. We weren't supposed to engage the enemy, just go out, look, and report back. If they came too close, I hid. (He told a story about climbing a tree and pretending to be a bird while the enemy passed beneath him.) It's not cowardice. It's completing the mission. You weren't there to fight anybody. Your mission was to go mail a package at the post office. You used only the amount of force necessary to disengage, escaped unscathed, retreated, and accomplished your mission. That's what warriors do." 

I've written a paper about Bersarkrgangr, which is available free here: https://www.academia.edu/8013139/Bersarkrgangr_The_Viking_Martial_Art

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A Piece of My Father's Soul

Continuing my story of my personal journey, this post is about my father’s death. Here I’m going to talk about visiting dad before my junior year of college, which happened before the events of the previous post in which I became a sworn priestess of Freya, and then go forwards to dad’s death at the end of my junior year. His funeral was on Father's Day, June 17, 1989. 

I had a problematic relationship with my father. He abused me in many ways. His death was one of three three traumatic things that happened right after my dedication to Freya, and I think she removed him from my life so that I could eventually heal. But he was still my dad, and his death affected me in more ways than getting a toxic person out of my life. He was not only the dad who touched me sexually while telling me I was too fat to ever get a man; he was also the dad who taught me to fish. He was not only the dad who hypnotized me and tortured me in ways that he had picked up from his North Korean captors during the war; he was also the dad who taught me how to communicate with the land spirits. 

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The Day I Swore Myself to Freya

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, 1989 was the year when everything happened: my formal dedication to Freya, my father’s death, my study abroad in the Soviet Union, and finally the earthquake. I went out in the woods that day fully intending to swear myself to Odin. Since I was drawn to heathenry via rune magic and he was the patron of the runes, it seemed natural. Also, although I had not yet encountered the idea of sacred wounds, I felt close to Odin because of growing up visually impaired. When I was ready to dedicate myself to a patron god, Freya showed up instead. It would take many years before I understood why. I believe now that I was opened to Freya by sacred wounds, also, but at the time I could not even remember what had happened to me as a child.

I’m going to lump all the stuff about my dad into my next post, even though some of it happened the summer before my junior year and some of it happened at the end of my junior year. At the time, I didn't associate my father's death with becoming dedicated to Freya; now I wonder if she removed him from my life so that I could heal in time.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Thank you!
  • Amber Drake
    Amber Drake says #
    I have nominated your blog for a blog award. Se more details about it here: http://darkamberdragon.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/blog-a
  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Thanks and you're welcome! When Anne discussed with me what sort of blog I should do, what she had in mind was a look at what it a
  • J'Karrah
    J'Karrah says #
    A beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it

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Seeing My Own Death in the Runes

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, in college I discovered that I could advise other people with rune readings, but when I read for myself, all I ever saw was my own death. I was still a teenager the first time I foresaw my death, and it scared me. At the time, I was studying Russian Studies and Soviet Political Analysis at UC-Santa Cruz. I wanted to be an intelligence officer after I got my degree. Actually I wanted a military career, but my eyesight and asthma precluded that, and I thought the closest thing I could achieve would be to become an intelligence analyst. I had already been a freelance writer for several years, and those were the two career paths I asked about when I tried to read the runes for myself.

A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:

     “I did a lot of rune readings for myself, friends, and people I met at parties.  Acquaintances brought people to me to read runes for them.  One evening I decided to read for myself and ask about future courses of action.  Was I on the right road?  I asked the runes, “What will happen if I join CIA?” and they said, You will die.  I was frightened, so I asked, “What will happen if I become a writer?”  You will die.  “What will happen if I take some third course of action?”  You will die.

     My fear evaporated.  I laughed out loud.  “Of course.  Of course.  Whatever I do, I will eventually die.  I am not a god.  Of course I will die.  It doesn’t matter what I do, the end is the same for everyone.  So I should just do what I want to do, and let the end take care of itself.”  I resolved to make my decisions based on what I really wanted, and never again ask the runes for advice in deciding a course of action.  In the coming years I would sometimes think of asking for advice making decisions, but I always remembered this lesson, and chose without the runes.”

In a way, knowing about my own death since my late teens has been a positive experience, because it has allowed me to act fearlessly. It's not comfortable knowledge, though. Most of the time I ignore it. What I ignore tends to become an unconscious issue that comes back in my fiction writing, and the question of what prophecy is and what it's for and whether it can be changed is one I'm currently exploring in the heathen mythology based novel I'm currently writing.

About 20 years after seeing my death for the first time, after I had been teaching my Rune Seminar for many years, I decided to make a Rune Seminar video and include sample readings. I got several people I know to be in it, with me doing readings for them. I also figured I might as well do a sample self-reading. I had not tried to read for myself since college, but I thought I was prepared for what I would see, since I knew I would see my own death again. This time I saw more than that. This time I saw past my death, and caught a glimpse of my own afterlife.

Since I became a sworn priestess of Freya in 1989, I had expected to go to Freya when I die. When I read for myself again in my 40s, I saw the face of Odin. I only saw it briefly, but it was unmistakable. There was a light like a white cloud in front of the sun, and his white-grey hair and beard were made of that cloud. He had one eye with a light in it like the sun piercing through the cloudy sky.

I was frightened again. Odin had been my original patron and was the god I had actually intended to swear myself to the day I went out in the woods and ended up with Freya instead. But by this time I had been hers for decades, and I associated an Odin-centric afterlife with death in battle, which is not what I foresaw for myself. Even if I did die in battle, Freya takes half the slain so I could still end up with her. But I saw Odin. I was disturbed thinking I had my vision all wrong all this time and I was with the wrong god or things were not going to happen the way I had foreseen after all. I decided to edit that whole sequence out of the video, and just ignore the whole vision, and file that glimpse of Odin in the place where I file experiences I can't explain and don't want to think about too hard.

Link to Rune Seminar video: http://www.amazon.com/Rune-Seminar-Magicalrealist-Gallery/dp/B003KZ5UGG

I don't have any of my self-reading in the video, I cut the entire thing, because the video is supposed to be an upbeat teaching tool and I didn't want to show myself having a negative experience on it. I actively ignored what I had seen and went back to expected to go to Freya after death. Only very recently have I come home to Odin and know that I saw the truth that day. But that's getting ahead of my story. Returning to the chronological order of my journey, next time I'll write about the day in 1989 when I went out in the woods to dedicate myself to Odin and ended up a Priestess of Freya.

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Spiritual Experiences Abroad in England

In the summer of 1987, when I was 18, I studied at the University of Warwick, England. The quotes in this post are from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts.  I visited the British Museum, cried when I saw the real original Beowulf, and encountered a real rune stone.

     “It was taller than me and must have weighed more than a truck, and unlike the ancient tome I’d perused, it was not protected by a barrier.  Cautiously, I touched its surface, traced the carved design, looking for traces of old paints.”

The only psychic impression I got off of it was great age. I did receive strong psychic impressions from places I visited in England, though. Object reading and place reading was not one of my natural powers, but I had developed it through reading the set of runes I had made.

The image that accompanies this post is of Avebury, a henge more primitive than Stonehenge. About 4,500 years old, it's the largest stone circle in Europe.

In the following quote from my memoir, mom and I had rented a car and were traveling around on the weekend when we did not have classes. Mom was taking a class at the University of Warwick, too, a graduate level course for professional development for her career as a public school teacher.

      “Mom and I went to Stonehenge, but it was fenced off, and tourists were kept so far back it was like looking at a picture instead of being there.  I stretched and stretched with my mind but I couldn’t get any impressions off it; it was out of my range.

     Then we went to Avebury.  Not just people but sheep as well were allowed to wander among its stones.  There I felt power.  Each stone was a spearpoint piercing the sky, a conduit by which earth and wind, rain and sun spoke to each other.  The ditches and roads, the circles and lines, formed a web that radiated unto infinity.  Life-force, numina, mystery, magic, god, these were the words invented for such a feeling.  Solid stone, green grassy earth, the caesura in the movement that was an old green ditch, filled with emptiness, by these symbols the ancients did invoke the holy.

     Then there was music.  It flowed like fog across the greensward, ancient instruments, young women’s voices, words hovering on the edge of intelligibility, like a forgotten mothertongue.  It fit so well with the mood of Avebury that for a moment I did not did realize it was real physical sound waves, and not something originating in my head.  Then the words switched to English and I caught, “ancient ring, magical ring of stones.”  Drawn as if by elvish minstrels, we followed the music to its source:  a little shop at the edge of the fold, built of the ubiquitous golden brown stone.  The tape playing was Clannad:  Magical Ring.”

Somewhere in England, I had a profound spiritual experience in a Christian church.

      “In some town or other, mom and I went into an old church, in the idle way tourists will enter any old building.  I was not trying to sense anything, being uninterested in Christianity, but the power hit me as if walking in its threshold were like plugging into a socket, eight hundred years of history flash-downloading.  My eyes noted high, arched windows, and wooden pews mostly empty, but my mind saw bare earth, a grove of trees, a holy place long before the Christians came.  Then the foundations were dug, and it surprised me to feel no animosity between the pagan and the Christian ways of using this place, as if both were mere costume-changes in the same play.  Stone by shaped, grey stone, bit by bit and pane by pane of colored glass, over generations, the loving hands of simple craftsmen and the gold and silver of merchants and lords built high toward heaven a defining structure.  The brightly colored banners on the walls spoke of armies, soldiers and knights contesting outside these walls, but inside coming to beseech their god for victory, or afterward, for forgiveness.  All the hopes, all the pain, all the fear and joy and guilt of every villager who passed within these walls welled up within me in an instant, discreet from each other yet massing like an army of the ancient days.  Then times changed, the clothes on the villagers, the soldiers, and their betters changed, and there was more joy, more grief, weddings and funerals and births and confessions, and then times changed again.  The lords and ladies, knights and wealthy merchants went away.  The villagers became townsmen, sophisticated and agnostic.  The ranks on the pews thinned.  Then the tourists came.  In the church bareheaded they came, with cameras and laughter, more interested in the building than in the purpose for which it was built.  It was so sad, so sad, I couldn’t bear it.  I swayed on my feet, and had to sit down, there on a wooden pew.”

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  • Veronique
    Veronique says #
    Hi Erin, I am currently living in the UK , this feeling you had , I have had two similar , one in Scotland at Stirling it is incre
  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Thank you!
  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven says #
    Hello Erin, I am originally from England, so much of what you say really resonates with me at a visceral level. Several years ago

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Of college, cats, poetry, and Odin

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, my spiritual experiences in college continued both my newfound heathen path and the experiences with animal totems I had been taught as a child. The first day I moved into UC-Santa Cruz, I saw my spirit animal watching over me.

 The quotes in this post are quotes from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts, which covers my first 30 years on the Earth. (I'm now 45.)

      “I had never ridden a [city] bus before.  I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize my stop, and would end up down in the city of Santa Cruz, wondering what to do in the big scary city.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cat out in the field, but when I turned to look there was nothing there.  “A cat spirit,” I thought.  “There’s a cat spirit watching over me.” 

 I started having past life memories. Two of the three of them were in Russia, and I started to think that maybe it had not been purely the coincidence of seeing that someone was studying some exotic and challenging language at the point in high school where I was expected to start learning a foreign language that had led me to learn Russian and to go on to study Soviet Political Analysis at UCSC.

     “I had three images in my head that seemed more real than dreams, but belonged to the wrong context to have been this life.  I cast them in poetry.  Memories from Nowhere #1, “I stand in a reddened room./ Gold stone glitters on the wall/ Lacquered sandstone lying lies/ Of wealth no one has ever known.”  I danced in this desert temple to the music of “the pipe gourds of peasants/ and shaking metal sheaves.”  In #2 “I am the root woman, the old witch of the woods” in the far south of old Russia, by the look of the house and the weather; such a wooden peasant cot with its painted shutters could have been built in the 9th century or the 19th.  In the third vision I am some type of wanderer, also in old Russia by my felt boots, searching the Steppes for evidence of the second lifetime, and finding the old stone foundations of a village fallen into ruin for 300 years.  “Stone and pottery, beads of glass/ Were yielding to the growing grass.”

Poetry and writing were the way I related my dreams and visions to others, and they were also the way I worked through how I thought and felt for myself. Most of my poetry and writing were hard work using my skills, but sometimes I felt my poetry was inspired. It was a special feeling, and I can only describe it as a state which is part meditative trance and part compulsion, with a splash of religious ecstasy. Because I primarily related to my heathen path through poetic inspiration and rune magic, which are both powers of Odin, I felt closest to Odin. I also related to him in his warrior aspect, since I had grown up in a martial arts school. I still practiced both the physical forms and the meditations I had learned in kung fu, and I was comfortable with the idea of a god who was both warrior and wizard. 

I was sure that he was the god who would become my patron. I was both wrong and right, but I would not know that until thirty more years had passed. I'll tell both the story of how wrong I was and the story of how right I was, when I get to those parts of my tale. Taking my story in chronological order, my next post will be about my spiritual experiences when I spent the summer of 1987 studying in England. 

Since I've been talking about writing poetry and the fall equinox is coming up, I'd like to conclude this post by sharing a short poem. This was first published in The Sonoma Index-Tribune in the early 90s and reprinted in my poetry chapbook Renaissance Woman.

Fall Equinox

Light goes before dark and follows after,
And now suspended from a rafter
In the great barn which covers Earth
Is a lamp of Death and a lamp of Birth.
The farmer opens the barn door wide,
And in walks springtime's loving bride,
Grown old and wise and full and fat,
And on the Birth-lamp hangs her hat.

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