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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Yan Tan Tethera: 1-20 in Witch

 Yan tan tethera pethera pimp

 sethera methera hovera covera dik

 yan-a-dik tan-a-dik tethera-dik pethera-dik bumfits

 yan-a-bumfits tan-a-bunfits tethera-bumfits pethera-bumfits figgits

 And figgits have a notch

The Yan Tan Tethera is a traditional British counting system with its roots in Brythonic, the Keltic language spoken in Britain more than 1500 years ago.

When the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain in the 6th and 7th centuries, they blended with the native British population, and the language of the conquerors— English—completely replaced Brythonic in what is now England.

But the shepherds of Lincolnshire and other remote places kept the ancient language alive every time they counted their sheep.

When a shepherd folded his sheep at night after the day's grazing, he would count them, one by one, to make certain none had got lost during the day. “Yan tan tethera...” he would count, using the language of his British ancestors, long after it had died out elsewhere. “Yan-a-dik, tan-a-dik, tethera-dik…”

When he got to twenty (“figgits”), he would use his knife to score (cut a notch in) his tally-stick. (That’s why “figgits have a notch.”) This is the origin of “keeping score.” It also explains why a “score” of something means “twenty.” “Fourscore and seven” means 4 x 20 + 7 = 87.

It was among these shepherds and their families, they say, that the old worship of the Horned God (what later became known as “witchcraft”) stayed strongest. This is why witches have long used the mysterious and magical Yan Tan Tethera to keep their sacred tallies.

And we still do.


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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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