One-Eyed Cat: Slavic Paganism / Heathenry
Exploring the wider Eurasian influences on central and northern European religion, including Norse, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Siberian, Mediterranean and ancient Indo-European beliefs and applying them to contemporary practice.
The Eye of the Storm: How I met Loki
This essay appears in Eternal Haunted Summer magazine, where it was originally published. It's part of my memoir about shamanic experience.
I met Loki during a hurricane. He was not the deity I was praying to.
Having spent most of my life deep enough inland and far enough north in the US, preparing for anything worse than a tropical storm was not part of my summer routine.
To make things weirder, this hurricane hit in the autumn, in New Jersey, while everything I owned that did not fit into a gigantically windowed hotel room stuck high up on the eighth floor sat twenty-five miles away, packed into a moving truck we'd parked behind a solid-looking building—somewhere away from big trees and out of the flood zone surrounding the apartment that we were about to move into.
It was not a good introduction to the Jersey Shore, where I spent two years and experienced three serious natural disasters.
While the wind raged outside our room, bending the trees far below like saplings, churning the river and sending leafy sprays hissing across the windows, we pulled the curtains tightly, shut off the t.v., ignoring whatever horrors it was going to yell at us, and hunkered down with our Siamese cat. My then-husband fell asleep. So did Comet, who curled up in the maximum safety of the bathroom's quiet darkness. I did not.
After an hour or so of turning over, curling up and shivering, I quietly slipped out from beside my slumbering love and sat on the opposite bed to pray. The other double bed was barely big enough for two people, let alone one who can't sleep. Our first hotel had lost power before we could check in, and the boarding place called to tell us that no one would be staying there, or evacuating the pets to safer lodgings: leave your terrified cat with food and water at your own risk. In the scramble of a hurricane, niceties like king-sized beds in a place that allowed pets were out.
Praying is not a habit I've been in since leaving Christianity, where it was a nightly requirement. My family's church told us to pray daily, unloading the day's burdens. I had spent a long time without deities I called upon before gingerly beginning to learn about the Norse and Slavic Gods. On rare occasions, I called on some of them for help. If I'd known better, I would have called on Thor, the champion of Gods and humans. But I didn't know better: I was barely a Heathen, let alone religious yet.
The deity who had approached me, who I'd started to get to know, was Freyr. One of the items sitting in that hotel room, along with my illustration portfolio, some beloved framed paintings and my laptop, was an icon of him I'd begun to paint. I'd gotten used to his presence in my life as I sketched and planned and worked on this image, and it comforted me to keep it there, rather than stashed in the truck's cab.
Maybe it was the feeling of vulnerability in the midst of that storm, but a strange thought hit me as I sat down in the darkness on that second double bed. Sitting in my husband's sleep shorts and a flimsy tank top, the last clean clothes we had, I didn't feel covered enough to pray. It wasn't a desire for dignity. It wasn't even modesty. Desperation lodges somewhere far beyond that. I felt… naked, despite my clothes.
I grabbed a long, filmy night-robe that draped my limbs without being too hot.
I still didn't feel covered enough.
Finally, I fished out the large hand-dyed cloth I l usually aid out on my altar and used for tarot readings and wrapped it over my head and shoulders, sheltering in its deeper darkness, further insulated from the howling and lashing of the rain. I felt more relaxed, protected, as I called for aid in banishing the raging anxiety borne of sound and too-vivid an imagination so I could just sink into sleep.
Heat flickered across my back, my shoulders, up my neck. This was not a natural flush of warmth from my own body, but the sudden feeling of flames that licked my skin and yet did not burn. A curiously prickly heat, like nothing I have ever experienced before or since. This was undeniably there, a physical feeling where no physical, visible phenomena existed. I was draped in a fire that would not consume me.
In my mind, I saw two things superimposed, overlapping like an image out of focus. One of them looked like Freyr: radiant, young, hale, the golden God of kingship, peace and vitality who I was painting. But he was like an echo hovering over a tall, lithe, serious man who bent down to slide in through the large window, brushing aside the drapes. Beside him, some massive creature thrust its black and shaggy arm into the hotel room, groping for something at the foot of the bed, but not entering.
"I smell fear…."
"Hush, child," the God said. The creature's voice rasped, but there was something questioning, tentatively, monstrously childlike to it. I gasped and pulled the veil tighter around me. I felt it… snuffling… sensing. Looking for me.
"Can I eat her fear?"
"But I'm hungry…!"
"You can't have her."
It was like a patient mother talking to an exhausted four year-old about to have a tantrum. He patted and stroked the furry arm, but otherwise ignored its whimpering.
Strangely enough, while the monster's hunger alarmed me, it did not seem, well, malevolent. It's hard to classify something that sounds like a little kid asking mommy if it's okay to eat your terror as evil. It's even harder to do when this is who showed up when you prayed for help.
That's not to say I wasn't confused as all hell.
And there was the hurricane. Still battering the hotel, and most of the east coast.
Later, I learned, we were directly in the eye of it as it passed over. Or maybe that was the second hurricane. Regardless, we were in midst of the most furious storm that had hit New Jersey in over thirty years.
To my surprise, the monster retreated obediently, lurking outside the window, unruffled by the natural forces slamming it. Leaving just me and the God who is also a Giant. The man who is a mother. Unclassifiable, undeniable.
You're Loki I said in my mind to the tall man who I could sense in the heat of the flames, but not see.
He did not respond.
He only looked at me, quietly waiting.
Where is Freyr? I prayed to him—
His patience, his calm in the midst of all I was going through was at once soothing and deeply unnerving. Loki, trickster… God of lying and thievery… and… and dishonor, I thought. All my academic readings of myth prior to this were cast through a lens of Christianized scholarship, through the horrible dualistic twisting of pop culture that needs a clever, brooding villain. Loki kills Baldr. Poor innocent, gorgeous, loving Baldr, dead by squishy little mistletoe. Loki advances plot. Loki is cruel and spiteful and dark and all that Freyr is not. Loki is…
Right here in the room with me.
The one who answered my prayer.
I was pleading with him for the familiar, for someone gentle (I thought), who would listen. For the God of sunlight and hope, of summer's growth and all that is not a screaming tempest, a flood of wind and fury, devouring lives and shore and buildings.
"Why did you call me?"
I'm scared. What else was there to say? I'd never been in a hurricane before. I could feel the walls shaking, hear the occasional tree or piece of metal snap and scrape against the building. I'm terribly scared.
"This building is sound. You're safe."
I know that.
Loki stood next to me. The warmth of the fire washed over the chills that shook me. How can you be both hot and cold, I wondered, when you're not sick?
I don't know why I'm so scared. I think it's the news. We shut it off because all it was doing was drumming up fear. Nothing useful. But I can't sleep now. I tried. I've never been in a hurricane before. I don't know if I'll have a place to move into tomorrow. I don't know if the moving truck survived.
It seemed… silly… calling on a God simply because you were frightened, beyond reason. Rationally, I knew I would be okay. Rationality was not banging at the walls, was not the climate of the last two days of insane traffic jams and barren store shelves with food flung upon the floor and trampled, in talking heads and scrolling emergency announcements on every channel warning us of impending doom. He was there and I was ashamed that he had answered me. That he wasn't judging me for cowering. And I didn't even know him. If I'd had another God to choose to help me, instead of Freyr, Loki would have been the last one on the list.
I don't remember what happened next. I remember that we talked, for some reason, about the other Norse Gods, and something that I said made his face twist— in pain or anger, maybe both— that his voice went harsh, but not at me. There was something I didn't understand about the difference between him and Odin. About which of them was braver. Maybe it was my thoughts Loki picked up on, waiting beneath the surface.
I didn't quite trust him, but I was too shocked not to accept his presence, shocked by the physical sense of him being there. I never did see his face clearly. It was just impressions: towering height, calmness, his voice remarkably pleasant. His demeanor, compassionate. Mostly.
I was floored that someone actually came. In all the years I've encountered spirits, I'd never done something that brought one.
What had I sought? I thought maybe there would be some flush of calm. That reminding myself of the God of stamina and peace who I'd been building a relationship with would anchor me in my distress. Snuggling against my husband had not: I couldn't breathe with the weight of his arm on my ribs, and I didn't want to wake him. The day had been exhausting for both of us.
I don't remember most of my conversation with Loki. And I don't know that it matters. What I do remember is this: while we were talking out my fears, Loki pursed his lips and looked at me closely. He told me to lie down. It felt like he reached inside of me, deep into my viscera, gripped and twisted something. It felt strange but didn't hurt. Like he'd spun a switch, the panic in me dialed down to a whisper.
"You can sleep now," he said. "Don't be afraid. The storm won't harm you."
Did he stroke my arm, or cheek or say goodbye? It doesn’t seem like he just left.
Fatigue fell upon me like a pouncing cat. I was barely even aware that my body moved. All I could do was push aside my ersatz veil, tug a thin blanket over me, curl up again and shut my eyes. I vaguely knew that Loki stopped and looked at my sleeping husband, then walked back out the way he'd come.
I slept immediately, deep and soundly, throughout the rest of the night. When I woke up it was late in the morning and sunlight struggled in under the closed curtains. I'd slept through my husband making coffee and assembling a cold breakfast of leftovers, awakened only when he finally turned the television back on to see what had happened, and the yawning cat came out to greet us.
My belongings— and our new apartment— survived just fine.
So did most of New York city.
The state of Vermont, inland and severely flooded, was not so lucky.
I never learned who the monstrous child accompanying Loki was, to whom he spoke so gently. Maybe it was Fear. Maybe it was someone born within the storm itself.
Despite his usual characterization, I have since found Loki to be one of the most compassionate of the Norse Gods. Perhaps because he has suffered so much himself. In Scandinavia and Iceland, unlike the US, he is primarily viewed as a wily, mischievous God, rather than a cruel one.
While I did not know it at the time, the practice of covering up to pray or seek a spiritual presence, what the Icelanders called "going under the cloak" or utiseta, is a time-honored practice mentioned in both Norse and Celtic sagas and carried on by modern Druids and Heathens to this day. It's an effective way to deeply focus during meditation, and historically has specific techniques and safety practices. Just be careful to get enough air long-term, and sit in a safe place.
Please see "Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic" by Jenny Blain (who teaches one form of seidhr) and this article by "The Viking Answer Lady", which gives an overview of several related arts, for more information on utiseta.
Norse scholar Stephan Grundy has also written an excellent and deeply researched article on Loki, which is quite different from the prevailing American stereotype. It's posted by permission and downloadable on another blog, or you can find it serialized in Idunna magazine, issues 93-96.
More information on how Frey, Loki and Odin are linked can be found throughout this blog, and my website, staffandcup.com.
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