An In-Depth Look at Germanic Lore

April 20, 2018

The Norsemen: Myths and Legends, by H.A. Guerber.
First published 1908. (This review is from the 1994 Senate edition.)

I recently finished a cover-to-cover read of this book, which I have perused often over the past ten years. It’s a summary of information (in English) contained in medieval texts on Germanic mythology, as well as some of the work of the Grimm brothers. First published in 1908, it has a lot to offer in terms of comprehensiveness, organization, and readability.

First the comprehensiveness. Norse mythology is all the rage now, but twenty-first century authors, in an attempt to focus the massive unwieldy material, weed out the minor extemporaneous aspects. As in, almost all the goddesses and women. They also highlight the more interesting and exciting aspects of the mythology. As in, the violence.

Don’t get me wrong: Norse mythology is patriarchal and violent. It was recorded by early Scandinavian Christian men seeking to glorify their Pagan heritage in ways acceptable to the Church. But apparently twenty-first century audiences need more violence and more male dominance, though the part about sexy Freya sleeping with all those dwarves manages to slip in. Hence there is a need for serious students, seekers, and practitioners to move beyond selective texts, which almost always highlight and enhance a male focus.

Archeology suggests Norse culture, though violent and patriarchal, was less violent and patriarchal than portrayed in early literature. Most Norsemen were fishermen or farmers, not full-time warriors, and women were the custodians of the religion. Shamanic power was expressed more through magic spinning than through magic spears. If selectivity is to be used at all in presenting the Norse legends, it seems that it should bring the women’s sphere into sharper focus.

Next the organization. The chapters are well conceived, and they are divided into many sections that have titles across the top of the page. The index is quite detailed. I imagine most people use this book as a reference rather than reading from page one.

As for readability, here is an excerpt:

These three sisters, whose names were Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, were personifications of the past, present, and future*. Their principle occupations were to weave the web of fate; to sprinkle daily the sacred tree with water from the Urdar fountain, and to put fresh clay around its roots, that it might remain fresh and ever green.

Some authorities further state that the Norns kept watch over the golden apples which hung on the branches of the tree of life, experience and knowledge, allowing none but Idun to pick the fruit, which was that with which the gods renewed their youth.

The Norns also fed and tenderly cared for two swans which swam over the mirror-like surface of the Urdar fountain, and from this pair of birds all swans on earth are supposed to be descended. At times, it is said, the Norns clothed themselves with swam plumage to visit the earth, or sported like mermaids along the coast and in various lakes and rivers, appearing to mortals, from time to time, to foretell the future or give them sage advice.

*Some consider this characterization overly simplistic.

(The chapter on the Norns runs for six pages.)

Problems? Sometimes I disagree with Guerber’s interpretation of a myth or deity, and occasionally so does feminist scholarship. She conflates deities and myths among European cultures in a way that was fashionable a century ago but is frowned on now. The text is not footnoted, and reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon complaining of errors seem to be unaware that there are multiple, sometimes conflicting, sources for the material presented. Sometimes she is simply wrong, but not often, and the same could be said for any work of this scope. A hundred years later, The Norsemen still holds up well.

Review: Every Day Magic

November 10, 2017

Every Day Magic is a brand new perpetual Pagan calendar with short daily meditations, spells, and rituals. There are longer entries for the major holidays. There are many contributors, which adds variation to the material. There is an entry for every day of the year. In addition to adding to your knowledge base, this should be a good resource for sparking your own ideas for celebrations and rituals. I love these types of books and have several on my shelf. This looks like one that will probably be well thumbed.

Every Day Magic is written by Moon Books authors and edited by Lucya Starza.

Review: Celebrating Seasons of the Goddess

October 20, 2017

Through essays, poetry, art, and ritual, this anthology addresses the ways we acknowledge the yearly cycle. It is fascinating heartfelt tribute to the Goddess of the Year by women who dedicate their lives to her.

Helen Hye-Sook Hwang explains the Mago calendar in detail, exploring its history, numerology, practicality, and theoretical basis. It’s a way of marking time that works well for perennial calendars. There’s a lot of food for thought here, but I will defer an in-depth exploration for another time.

There are two essays about the Cailleach (the Goddess as Crone). Jude Lally explains the meaning of Cailleach on the British Isles and Judith Shaw relates her personal experience with this goddess. There is as much emphasis on place as on time in this collection. Harita Meenee discusses the symbolism of the pomegranate and its relationship to seasons and folk customs. Glenys Livingstone ponders the meaning for feminists of Mary as Christian Goddess. Sara Wright relates her pilgrimage to Georgia O’Keefe’s haunts in New Mexico. Anna Tzanova shares her spiritual journey with food through preparation of a Korean sweet rice dish called Yaksik, eaten at the beginning of the Korean new year. Mary Ann Beavis narrates a set of photographs she took of a wild polar bear family in the Arctic Circle. This is just a sampling of what is offered. I also have several contributions to the anthology.

This anthology spans such a wide range of religions, places, perspectives, and spiritual mediums that I am having a hard time characterizing it, but it does fit together well. Most of the articles are short, and it’s the type of book you don’t necessarily read sequentially. The artwork is fabulous. I was impressed with many of the the artists’ use of color, as color is such an expression of seasonal change.

Celebrating Seasons of the Goddess is your gift book for this holiday season. It will delight any woman who enjoys reading about the Goddess.

iPagan Anthology Out!

October 13, 2017

A huge anthology of fifty-nine articles on various Pagan topics became available this week from Moon Books. There are five sections, on Druidry, Shamanism, Witchcraft, Goddess Spirituality, and contemporary topics. I have two articles in this anthology: one on scorpions and another on the self-help movement. iPagan is offered only as an ebook at this time and the price is right: only $0.99. Available online at Amazon and other places.

More purchase information here.

Review: Bewitched (First Season)

June 30, 2017

I decided to revisit this 60s comedy that I barely remember from my childhood to see how it stands up today, from my viewpoint as a witch. I was alternately pleasantly surprised and predictably annoyed by what I found.

This series debuted in 1964, the year of Gerald Gardner’s death. It is worth remembering that witches were not only around, but public and accessible at the time this show was created. The average person was likely unaware of the existence of real witches, but Gardener’s nonfiction account of how witches practice, Witchcraft Today, was published in 1954 and went through many printings. Anyone writing about witchcraft could easily find contemporary source material if they looked for it.

Bewitched was of course designed to entertain a predominantly Christian audience. While the theme of witchcraft had been popular in film from The Wizard of Oz to Bell, Book and Candle, early television was cautious about the material it presented to the public. In many respects, a show portraying witchcraft in a sympathetic light was edgy the day it premiered.

Bewitched was conceived as a way of showcasing Elizabeth Montgomery’s talents as a comedic actress. The production company was stretching to find a creative concept that utilized Montgomery’s range and came up with the housewife-witch character as a way of pushing past the limitations of the early 60s serial comedy. Other characters were also created with specific actors in mind.

The hocus-pocus in Bewitched called for camera tricks that stretched film crews, set designers, actors, and directors. For example, actors would need to hold or re-create a pose so that objects could be moved around or switched. There were some bloopers, for sure, but overall the spells worked and suspension of disbelief was maintained. You could say that special effects grew up through magic.

But it was the characters of Bewitched that engaged viewers over the following decades, not the camera tricks, which difficult as they were to achieve in 1964 didn’t impress for long. I was curious to know how my impressions of the characters and the show itself would have changed since I tuned in regularly as a child.

It speaks to the deep divisions between witchcraft in corporate entertainment and witchcraft in real life that, despite coming from a family that believed in psychic prophecy, communication with the dead, and finding things underground with sticks, I did not as a child draw any comparisons between my own family and Samantha Stevens’s. The divisions were too great to invite critical scrutiny. Even today, as the product of a more middle-class witch training, I don’t see much of myself or my life reflected in this show. One thing this show did get right is how outlandish, bizarre, petty, dysfunctional, unpredictable, and wonderful witch families can be. By “witch family,” I mean both blood relations and the larger witch community. We are a strange breed, yet we are real people living in the real world.

Being witches gave the characters permission to be unconventional or downright unbalanced, and for relations between characters to go beyond stock sexism into true pathology. Samantha’s father is ridiculous and self-absorbed, and he can be downright nasty. Only the knowledge that her daughter would never forgive her keeps Samantha’s mother from turning Darrin permanently into a toad. You somehow expected Samantha’s parents to be divorced, although divorce was still considered not-normal at the time. Bewitched served as a bridge between the Beaver Cleaver type of family and the 70s sitcoms that dealt with serious family conflicts and social ills.

Here is my impression today of the characters.

Samantha Stevens: Loved her then, love her now. How can you not love a character played by Elizabeth Montgomery? For one thing, she’s beautiful even in the silly dated 60s hairstyles and clothing. Samantha is a caring, compassionate woman, yet everyone always pushes that compassion too far, and then – watch out! After all, she is a witch.

Darrin Stevens: The word “sexist” was not in many peoples’ vocabulary in the early 60s, but that’s the only word for Darrin’s behavior toward his wife and Samantha’s placating attitude toward him. That aside, Darrin is a straight-laced fuddy-duddy, overly concerned with how he appears to others. He is also nervous, overly stressed, and reactive. And he’s funny. I did not appreciate before how great Dick York was at neurotic buffoonery. The man was a genius.

Endora: Everybody’s favorite, played by the wonderful Agnes Moorehead. Samantha’s mother and the character who never lent more truth on more levels to the phrase “my mother-in-law is a real witch.” What I like about her today is that she is so unapologetic and comfortable with who she is, never pretending to think or feel differently than she does. She serves as a nice foil for Samantha, who is constantly trying to fit in. Darrin has to be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud for us to sympathize with Endora’s position. I never understood what Samantha saw in him either.

Gladys Kravitz: Here I have to admit that I feel a twinge of guilt, looking back at how I once laughed at this character. Now that fewer women are home during the day to report break-ins or notice that an old person hasn’t been out in public in a while, the neighborhood busybody has been proved to have a purpose. She is not an unmitigated nuisance. The constant gaslighting of Mrs. Kravitz is cruel: she really does see what she thinks she’s seeing.

Aunt Clara: Sweet Aunt Clara. Somebody take the keys to the broomstick away from this woman. She is so adorable that you can laugh at her befuddlement but not take pleasure in her pain. Still one of the most endearing sitcom characters ever.

Episode in the first season most ahead of its time: “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog.” A sexual harasser named Mr. Barker is turned into a little dog by a frustrated Samantha. Here sympathy is placed with Samantha as target of the harasser and woman who is not believed even by her husband. The discomfort of the harasser is fodder for comedy when the tables are turned on him. I was hoping they would neuter him when he got dropped off at the vet.

Most sexist episode: A few contenders for this honor. I disliked episodes such as “The Girl Reporter,” where women use subterfuge, tricks, and betrayal to try to steal Darrin away from Samantha. What do women see in this man? It’s never quite clear. We are supposed to assume that the world is swarming with girls so desperate for a man they’ll do anything. Samantha, you can have him.

My favorite episode: “The Witches are Out.” A society of elder female witches decide something has to be done about the negative stereotypic portrayal of witches at Halloween. They enlist Samantha’s help, but, unbeknownst to her, Darrin the advertising executive is about to launch a stereotypic Halloween ad campaign for a candy company.

Bewitched holds up well after all this time. Yes, it’s sexist; just don’t binge watch it. The best part about the series is that it constantly makes fun of us and the “mortals” around us. A witch has to be careful about taking herself too seriously.

Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (Review)

May 26, 2017

Witches and Pagans coverMax Dashu has posted significant excerpts of her multi volume project on the history of witchcraft at her Suppressed Histories website for years, and publication of her research in book form has been eagerly anticipated. This first installment (which Dashu refers to as Volume VII) covers the years 700 to 1100 – a good choice, because this period is critical to understanding the peak of the witch craze in late medieval and early modern times. This is also a period in European history where not a lot of information is available to the average Pagan.

Dashu is explicit that she is writing for a lay audience, but this is a thoroughly researched and referenced work, with a large bibliography and over a thousand footnotes. There are some readers who will think she excessively belabors her points, but there is so much misinformation out there, often written by slipshod academics and well-intentioned Pagans who rely on these academics, that a solid scholarly work was sorely needed. The conclusions Dashu reaches will not be startling to better informed researchers inside and outside academia, but the weight of evidence on which she bases her findings is gratifying in this highly contentious field. No doubt there are many who will be surprised.

The book utilizes linguistic analysis, place names, archaeology, folk customs documented by clerics, early theological treatises on demonology and witchcraft, and mythology of pagan origin recorded by Christians. Dashu is well aware of the shortcomings of each of these methodologies and discusses them frankly. Still the amount of evidence, from many types of sources, leads to well grounded conclusions. This book mentions in passing some of the biases which hamper academic research on witchcraft, leading to often repeated yet erroneous beliefs that have seeped into Pagan discourse.

Dashu informs us that Pagan beliefs and shamanic practices not only survived well into the Middle Ages in supposedly Christianized regions, they were widespread and deeply adhered to, particularly by the lower classes. Shamanic practices and worship of goddesses and nature deities were equated with witchcraft and devil worship by clerics and formed the basis for persecution. Though trials for malefic sorcery also existed in pagan Rome, the intensity and tone of the Christian persecution was different and significantly broader, including for example healing and divination. Aristocratic government and church leadership were intricately connected and both used dispossession of pagan culture along with persecution of witches as a way of solidifying power. The healers, diviners, and keepers of tribal history known as witches were overwhelmingly female, and witch persecutions were part of a pervasive Church strategy to further subjugate women, who were already dominated by men within their pagan cultures. Dashu firmly establishes that for centuries the targets of the witch hunts were shamans, usually female, and that the purpose of witch persecutions was to establish Christian hegemony and solidify aristocratic power.

Dashu also attempts to piece together what those pagan belief systems and female shamanic practices that were under attack actually were, and here her findings must be treated as incomplete. She focuses a great deal on Germanic cultures, and practitioners of the various Germanic traditions will find a wealth of information here. She discusses the importance of the distaff in women’s mysteries and the Norse practice of “sitting out” to achieve psychic insight. She explores the little that is known about northern European goddesses. She devotes an entire chapter to the important Icelandic poem The Volupsa. This is not, however, a definitive look at any Norse tradition, and really to have attempted that would have taken this book too far afield. I have noticed a tendency in witches in my acquaintance to devote their reading solely to authors like Dashu who approach witchcraft from a solid feminist perspective. There would be nothing wrong with that if there were more Pagan writers with a true understanding of feminist theory, but there are not enough of us around to be so selective. If the material here sparks some new interest you will need to draw from a variety of sources on the runes and Norse literature. I was particularly dismayed to hear a friend say she was inclined to cut out any reference to the god Odin from her practice after reading this book. I am a Dianic priestess, and it is more than okay with me if a woman only wants to worship goddesses, but I think we must remember that male as well as female archetypes become distorted in support of male dominance. It is important that we recognize patriarchal bias in our Pagan heritage, but it is equally important that we do not stop there.

Witches and Pagans is slow reading and cannot be tackled in one or two sittings. Dashu’s writing style is clear and straightforward, but the nature of the material is that it is dense. An index would be helpful. There is a web address for an index in the book which took me to a 404 error page. There are quite a few line drawings in the book which add a great deal to the text. This is a great resource with a lot of helpful information. I hope we will not have to wait too long for the next volume of “The Secret History of the Witches.”

Review: Female Erasure

November 11, 2016


Regular readers of this blog are aware of what I think about censorship. (I don’t like it, even if you think your views are correct.) When the forthcoming publication of Female Erasure was announced less than a year ago, an attempt was made to derail editor Ruth Barrett’s fundraising for the book through Indiegogo, thereby guaranteeing that I would order an advance copy and review the book. Barrett is a well-known Dianic priestess who has received a great deal of criticism, harassment, and no-platforming for her defense of born-women-only space.

I was impressed with the thickness of the book in this age of slim cost-conscious publishing. I read some feminist theory, and I have followed this issue closely for the past five years, so I had already read many of the excerpts in the volume. Still there were a lot of new articles here.

I think the crux of the issue of transgender rights clashing with the rights of females is described in the article by attorney Maya Dillard Smith, “Federal Court’s Denial of Obama’s Transgender Bathroom Directive A Win for Everyone.” Obama’s directive on transgender rights was made without the customary public input period for Federal rules, forcing agencies and citizens to comply without debate or comment. Dillard Smith is discussing this from a US Federal legal perspective, of course, but her insights apply to a variety of religous, social, educational, and legal situations. “Trans women are women; end of discussion,” transgender advocates have decreed in exactly those words, demanding public adoption of this belief with no examination of what it implies. The contributors to this anthology have disobeyed this injunction by exploring some uncomfortable implications of transgender advocacy for the rights of biological females.

Some of the issues covered in the book are transitioning of gay children, lesbian rights, reproductive issues, prisons, girls’ athletics, racial perspectives, and feminist political organizing. I found Carol Downer’s explanation of the philosophical underpinnings of transgender “queer” theory helpful, though dense and difficult as all queer theory tends to be. Many will be interested in Barrett’s “The Attack on Female Sovereign Space in Pagan Community.” Too many people think they understand this issue through oversimplified slogans about “inclusivity.” Barrett and many other writers here take the trouble to explain the history and background behind feminist positions.

Other contributors are lawyers, feminist theorists, journalists, medical professionals, activists, parents, and detransitioned adults. For people who think transgender issues are only about bathrooms, this book is required reading.

The Goddess in America is Out!

November 4, 2016


The long-awaited Moon Books anthology, The Goddess in America, was released in the past week. I wrote the lead article for this volume, about the contributions of Native Americans to the Goddess Movement. There are also articles in the first section exploring Cherokee, Hopi, and Mayan perspective on female deity.

I was expecting something similar to Naming the Goddess here, but I was pleasantly surprised to see articles exploring the impact of The Goddess in a number of areas rather than a regional version of that anthology. Articles explore The Goddess in shamanistic, Christian, healing, archetypal, and Craft contexts. I was pleased to see an in-depth article on Voodoo and an article on Hebrew goddesses. Jhena Telyndru does justice to the issue of cultural appropriation by acknowledging the “rock and a hard place” that Americans without indigenous heritage face in pursuing a Goddess spiritual path, with some arguing that immigrants have already taken too much from Native peoples and others objecting to the idea of transplanting the worship of European deities from their sacred locale. I was prepared to take exception to Phoenix Love’s article on The Goddess and pop culture, but instead found a provocative exploration of how popular culture furthers as well as hinders a meaningful relationship with Goddess energy.

This anthology gives a lot in terms of variety, breadth, and surprising food for thought. There’s a lot of meat here, and if you think you already know the American Goddess Movement this book may surprise you.