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 Witches' Rune: An Appreciation


 Dancing Witches, Disciplined - streetsofsalem


A Modern Wiccan Classic, from Azarak to Zamelak

On this Samhain Eve


Doreen Valiente—reborn to the People—wrote The Witches' Rune (that's rune as in "obscure or mystical poem" rather than "Old Norse alphabet") in the early 1950s. Aside from her prose Charge of the Goddess, it is her foremost contribution to historic Wiccan liturgy and—campiness aside—it really is a dark little gem.

I was first introduced to the Rune when I came into the Craft in the early 70s. I quickly committed it to memory, though it struck me at the time as pretty corny—dorky, even—and, frankly, a little embarrassing. (All that self-consciously archaic language: oof!) Poetry snob though I was, I had to grant its ritual efficacy. If the proper measure of a poem is doing what it's intended to do, TWR is a masterpiece.

It was music that ultimately redeemed the piece for me. In the early 90s I learned Leslie Ann Fish's thumping good tune for Valiente's lyrics, a tune so good that it actually made the words bearable.

Well, more bearable.

Darksome night and shining Moon,

East and South and West and North,

hearken to the Witches' Rune:

 here come I to call thee forth.

First Doreen sets the scene. It's night: here we are in space, with the four Quarters all around us. She begins the casting of the Circle.

Earth and Water, Air and Fire,

wand and pentacle and sword:

waken ye to my desire,

hearken ye unto my word.

The first thing to remark upon is the meter. It's not quite classical English BUM ba BUM ba BUM ba BUM ba BUM ba iambic pentameter. Instead, we get iambic tetrameter with a final spondee:

/ _ / _ / _ / _ /

That final stress, instead of the expected stress/unstress, comes as a surprise, and marks this out as a dancing tune, which in fact it is, being generally chanted while holding hands and circling. Since the whole point of the poem is to accompany a dance that raises power, it's a classic example of form fitting function.

Cords and censer, scourge and knife,

powers of the witch's blade,

waken all ye unto life,

come ye as the spell is made.

She calls upon—invokes, one could say—the tools by means of which the magic begins to be made.

(Cords, pentacle, scourge: this really is a poem shaped by its Gardnerian liturgical context.)

Having cast the Circle and called the Quarters, she now invokes the gods of the witches, the Moon and the Horned:

Queen of Heaven, Queen of Hell,

Horned Hunter of the night:

lend your power unto this spell;

work my will by magic rite.

(On a note of local interest, let me mention that the Mother of Paganistan, Lady Sheba, rearranged Valiente's original ABAB into pairs of rhyming couplets. Surprisingly—how many poems can one do that to?—this actually works in terms of sense, but it did wreak liturgical havoc in some of those early Paganistani circles when Gardnerian/Alexandrian ABAB T-boned Shebite AABB in mid-ritual.)

Having cast the Circle, called Quarters, and invoked the Gods, we now begin the serious magical working.

By all the power of Land and Sea,

by all the might of Moon and Sun,

as I will, So mote it be:

chant the spell, and be it done!

Note the reinforcing pairing of Powers, not to mention the second line's re-evocation of the Female and Male Principles already invoked as Goddess and God.

Now for the power-raising in good earnest. (The Rune recapitulates the entire Wiccan rite of power-raising: a ritual in macrocosm.) By now, we've been dancing and singing for a while, and we've got a good head of steam going. At this point, the poem sheds its in-the-head denotative language and becomes pure, non-denotative, vocalization:

Eko eko Azarak,

eko eko Zamelak,

eko eko Karnayna,

eko eko Aradia!

This last verse, of course, you repeat, faster and faster, until the power is finally released, à la Ring-Around-the-Rosie, with the Drop.

The first two lines are drawn from late medieval grimoire tradition, perhaps intended to have an exotic—possibly Arabic-ish—cast to them. One has to suspect, though, that to the ears of someone raised with a Classical education, eko will in fact echo (nudge, nudge) the Latin ecce: "behold!"

But the fact that Azarak and Zamelak begin with the first and last letters of the alphabet (thus giving rise to the Wiccan saying "Everything from Azalak to Zamelak") suggest a meaning: Beginning and End respectively.

Valiente doesn't stop here, though: she seals the chant and its accompanying power-raising with the holy Names of God and Goddess, as if to say: "In the Name of....." The fact that the force of the meter pulls the stress out of its usual place (kar-NAY-na, a-RA-di-a) into stress-initial (and -final) articulation (KAR-nay-na, ah-ra-DYA) doubles the effect of the rhythm, and hence its forcefulness.

I have to say that at this point eko begins to take on a sense of its own: not really a meaning, but something that you feel that you understand, even though you can't quite put it into words. In this, it's rather like the nama namo of Mithraic liturgy: it doesn't really mean anything, but somehow its very meaningless becomes a sort of meaning. Eko doesn't quite mean "behold" or "come" or "here," but somehow manages to mean all these things at once.

In this Season of the Ancestors, I remember Doreen Valiente.

Reborn to the People!


















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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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