Skadi of the Snow.

Skadi’s longing for the Mountains

Far from here, and away to the wild north mountains, beyond the ice floes and the scree slopes lies a hall named Thrymheim; Storm Home. It is the place where winter lives, where the frost and snow retreat, biding their time whilst the land below bathes in the gentle warmth of green summer, the corn sways in the fields until the cycle turns and winter creeps its quiet way down from the mountains to swathe the earth once again in white and grey. The king of this mountain realm was Thiasi and he lived there with his daughter, Skadi of the shadows. Skadi was a huntress, and she liked to be alone. She spent her days skiing in the mountains with her bow and arrow or fishing on the ice. Skadi loved no man but her father, whom she adored, for she was a solitary creature and her heart was made of the stuff of winter.

When news came to Skadi, one day, that her father had been killed in a dispute with the gods of Asgard she was distraught, her ice heart shattered. For many days and nights she walked the passages of Storm Home crying her grief and rage into the wind, her tears sparkling in the ice of the walls and floor. Skadi felt that she would never laugh or find happiness again and she found herself lonely in the empty draughty hall. Finally as the storms of her grief abated, and her heart froze over again, she resolved that she would have her revenge on the Aesir for Thiasi’s death. She dressed in her warmest furs and a mail coat, took her bow and arrow and her skis and began the journey down from the frozen mountains to the plains of Asgard.

As she headed south, the wind grew warmer and summer settled on the land. Skadi found herself unsettled, longing for the darkness and ice of the mountains. But her resolve was strong and was strengthened further when she arrived in Asgard to find the Gods relaxed, making merry and enjoying the warmth. They looked up in alarm as Skadi swept through the gates, bringing with her a blizzard that withered the grass and blighted the crops with hail, a shadow steeling across the landscape behind her; they knew immediately why she had come and were keen to keep the peace. Odin greeted her at the steps of his hall, Valaskjalf and the other gods gathered around. One-Eye inclined his head, ‘your father was a powerful man, I regretted his death. Will you take gold as your payment?’ Skadi laughed, a sound like the creaking of glaciers, ‘Gold?’ she sneered, ‘do you know nothing of my father? He was so rich that when he died his brothers divided his fortune by measuring it in mouthfuls, and I have my share. I will not take your gold.’ The gods were confused, ‘what will you take from us then?’ they asked. Skadi looked at Baldur, the most beautiful of all the gods, fair and young with hair like the sun, and she felt how alone she was and how Baldur might melt her heart. ‘I will take a husband,’ she said, ‘and one of you must make me laugh.’

The gods took a while to consider this for it was not the settlement they were expecting and they were uneasy that one of them might have to marry this ice queen. Odin said, ‘you may choose your husband from among us, but you must do so only by looking at his feet.’ At this Skadi smiled, for she knew that being so beautiful, Baldur would have the most exquisite feet and her task would be easy. The gods removed their shoes and stood in a circle around her. Carefully, she searched among them for the feet she thought would be Baldur’s, finally she came to the one she was sure must be him. They were strong and slim, brown and well-shaped. Skadi had never seen such beautiful feet in all her life. ‘I chose you,’ she said looking up into the face of her husband. But instead of Baldur, she met eyes that were grey, blue and green, their colours shifting and changing like the ocean. He had brown and weathered skin from working a lifetime as a sailor and an expression that was gentle, strong and kind. Njord, Lord of the Seas smiled at her. Skadi was angry ‘you have tricked me’ she snarled, yet there was something in Njord’s face that stopped her, and she found herself fascinated by him, drawn to the smell of salt on his skin and the bitter tang of his hair, the way that he looked at her… and she felt her heart soften. Odin nodded in satisfied agreement, ‘a good match,’ he said. Skadi then smiled a bitter smile, ‘you have forgotten the second part of our bargain, one of you must make me laugh. For since you took my father from me, I have only felt sadness.’ Odin turned to Loki, ‘Trickster, can you make this woman laugh?’ Loki stepped forward a little sheepishly, wondering how much Skadi knew about his own hand in her father’s death. Loki said, ‘I have the perfect remedy, for only this morning at market I bought this goat, after all, what is funnier than a goat?’ Loki capered in front of Skadi and she looked at him suspiciously. Loki continued ‘only, I had my arms so full of other wares, I had to lead her home like this!’ Loki took one end of the rope and tied it to the beard of the nanny goat and the other end he tied around his testicles. The goat bleated in rage at being tethered and set off around the courtyard yanking Loki along behind her who squealed and bleated louder than the goat. The other gods were helpless with laughter. Finally the two came to a halt in front of Skadi, Loki fell into her lap and looked up at her with a ridiculous expression on his face. In spite of herself, Skadi laughed; a laugh that rose from her belly and melted her heart and for the first time in months she was glad and so forgave the Aesir. Then, Odin feeling that he still wished to make further amends for the death of the great giant Thiasi, took from a pouch two milky white globes. Skadi gasped, recognising them instantly as her fathers eyes. Odin said, ‘I know how much you miss him,’ and he flung the eyes far up into the heavens where they settled as two bright stars. ‘Now you will always be able to see him and he will always watch over you’. Skadi was satisfied, her father avenged and remembered. She turned to Njord, ‘I will gladly take you as my husband but I cannot live in Noatun, your Sea Home, we must live together at my home in the mountains, for I fear that my heart would break all over again for the missing of it.’ Njord knew this would be hard for he had spent his life at sea, but he loved Skadi and wished to make her happy, so he agreed.

Skadi and Njord returned to Storm Home and for a while they were happy, they found that they loved each other completely and delighted in being together. But slowly, Njord became restless, he missed the salt of the sea, the movement of the waves and the bustling shipyard. Skadi noticed this and not bearing for him to be miserable asked Njord what was wrong, he replied ‘I hate the mountains, we have not been here long but it is dark and I am so cold. I cannot bear the howling of the wolves, they sound so ugly to me compared with the song of the swans and all I see is grey and white.’

Njord’s Desire of the Sea

At this Skadi too despaired and wondered what to do, she knew that she could not leave her home forever but knew that she could not keep the man she loved from the sea. Eventually they agreed that they should spend nine nights in Storm Home and nine nights in Njord’s Sea Home. So the two made the journey back to Asgard and Sea Home. This was how they lived for a few years, traveling back and forth between the two, always moving, never settled. Each of them at times happy and at times sad, but rarely were they happy together despite their desperate love for one another, for one of them was always homesick. Eventually, Skadi became more and more miserable, and Njord, noticing this and not bearing for her to be unhappy either asked what was wrong. ‘I cannot sleep here,’ she cried, ‘the sea is always restless, the gulls are always mewling and the ships creak in and out of the ship yard, day and night. There is no peace in this place and I can stand it no longer. I must go home.’ Njord held her close and they both cried, knowing that they could not live together, knowing they could not bear to be apart, understanding how hopeless it was. So they agreed to stay married, but to live apart, Skadi in Storm Home and Njord in Sea Home and so it must always be; for though summer and winter will always make their sacred dance, bringing the cycles of growth and stillness to the earth, they cannot exist in one place together, just as sea and mountain cannot.

Occasionally, the lovers meet and spend a few short days together when the ice and snow creep down from the mountains bringing the shadow of winter with them and summer retreats. But it only serves to remind them how impossible their love is and that it is easier to be apart where distance and forgetfulness salve the wound, yet they cannot let go. Skadi is once again alone. Her heart, melted for a short time by the wild abundance of the sea, is made again of the stuff of winter, ice and hail, the grief of passing and she has frozen it over once more. She has returned to hunting the wild, silent places on her skis with bow and arrow, or she fishes out on the wide ice floes where the wolves call and her tears fall. Njord often sits on the shore, soothed by the call of the gulls and the constant ebb of the tide, but he stares out to the grey mountains and the place where his heart has gone.

Authors note.

I wrote my version of this story, inspired by a snowy walk across my local landscape which, after making the first few tender movements towards spring was swathed once again in the cold of deep winter. It felt as if a shadow of peace and a cloak of stillness had been laid over the land and there was a grief too for the things which had come up too soon and may not survive. Skadi’s name could be traced back to the Old English ‘Scaedu’ or Old Saxon ‘scadu’ meaning shadow, which for me expresses her nature perfectly as a goddess of winter, grieving, and broken hearts. She is an enigmatic figure, a frost giantess who appears at various points in the Prose Edda, but her story is not complete, it is fragmented and must be pieced together as with many of the female figures in the old stories. I have here remained faithful to the tale, changing nothing, only adding my own flesh to the bones and a woman’s understanding for why Skadi does as she does. The story of her marriage to Njord expresses the interplay of summer and winter but also, as all good myths do, it carries a lesson within its essential tragedy, a warning against a frozen heart, and our tendency to isolate ourselves through hurt or fear. It is an ancestral story of the heart rending relationships that just do not work however much we might want them to and the of the absolute necessity of letting go.

Sturluson S (Translated by Faulkes A, 2000) Edda, Everyman, London.

Pictures by WG Collingwood (1908)

Druidry: Ancient and Modern

Over the last few days within the Druid community, there has been much discussion about what essentially constitutes Druidry. It is a wonderful and interesting discussion and one, I believe,  that is not at all new particularly since the 18th Century Romantic Revivals. Whilst I have not been following the many discussions on Facebook and the online forums, I have been following the more stately and considered pace of the blogsphere where opinion is perhaps slower and more considered. The discussion surrounds, in the main, whether the practice of Druidry should centre on devotion to the Celtic Gods of Britain and if the many other gods that the majority of folks I know work with, are diluting the tradition beyond all recognition. For other view points on this subject see http://www.rosher.me.uk/wordpress/?p=776&cpage=1#comment-46597 http://www.kristofferhughes.co.uk/1/post/2012/01/dilute-to-taste.html http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/druidry-and/

My interest in the discussion is piqued because in many ways, my Druidry could be seen to fall outside the accepted norms although it is still wholly within the definition of the constitution of the Druid network http://druidnetwork.org/constitution which was agreed at the time of its publication by every Druid group it was sent to, and there were many hundreds consulted. It has been copied and pasted in to countless Druid websites around the world helping others to define and refine their own particular strand of Druidry. I hold a proud, firstly English and secondly British, identity, I am not immersed in the Celtic culture of Wales or Ireland or indeed Scotland and I am more interested in the landscape of my immediate locality than the Welsh mountains or valleys (although I am fond of them too), which for my ancestors would have been a week or more of hard walking away, if it ever even occurred to them to go. If I work with named gods at all, they are most likely to be those of my English ancestors: Freya, Frigg, Ing, Nerthus and Woden, Skadi and Njord, because they are the most immediate to me, singing within my ancestral blood and reflecing my home landscape. I say usually, but it is not exclusively; there too are my relationships with Rhiannon and Cerridwen, Black Annis, Isis and Pan. So am I one of the folks diluting Druidry? I guess many with a Celtocentric view-point would say ‘yes’ but that too depends on how you would define Druidry, and I know many more who would say ‘no’, understanding that a part of the tradition’s essential nature is diversity and perhaps always has been.

My firm belief (for it is important to remember that what we are working with here is belief and individual interpretation of source material upon which even the historians don’t agree) is that Druidry as a religion, from which the 18th Century revivalists drew their inspiration, finds its historical roots, as a priesthood with a recorded history, in Iron Age Wales. The Druids, as far as we can say anything about them, were the intelligensia, priests, philosophers and teachers, perhaps a sophisticated cultural movement in themselves. Yet where did the inspiration for this tradition come from, where are its roots? I for one do not believe that it appeared fully formed from nowhere, or that pagan religion in Britain began with the Welsh Druids in the Iron Age as a complete expression of a tradition that must be followed to the letter today in order to retain any authenticity. What of the priests of the British Isles before this time? What of the folk, the beliefs and traditions outside Wales in the Iron age and back further into the mists before the Iron Age migrations to Britain? As is widely acknowledged in the Druid Network; ‘Druidry was the native spiritual tradition of the peoples who inhabited the islands of Britain and Ireland, spreading through much of Europe. Though many consider it to have been a religion or political force that came to Britain with the influx of culture concurrent with the Iron Age, it is increasingly understood, and within the Network acknowledged, to be of an older indigenous if ever-evolving religious tradition sourced within these islands’. And this for me hits the proverbial nail on the head; an older, indigenous, if ever-evolving religious tradition. Druidry comes from the place where people and landscape find a relationship and that is true for the whole of the British Isles and probably beyond. It is older than the first records of the Iron Age Druids and has been here as long as there have been people in these Islands, long before the stories of the Mabinogion were thought of, let alone written down. It is the wind and the sun, the sea and the moon, the crops and the cycles, but most specifically it is our relationship of devotion with them.

We have a particularly strong and beautiful thread of Druidic Tradition in Wales and within the Mabinogion (although Druids are never actually mentioned within it) but for the majority of us, this does not exclusively define the tradition although it is a deep vein within it. It does not even do so historically when we look further afield to Ireland, Scotland and Gaul. That is before we even consider that the old texts were written in around the 14th Century, probably by Christians and the stories they tell may well not have been in any way recognisable to the Iron Age Druids, 1000 years is a long time in cultural evolution and oral tradition. They are a rich and strong source of shimmering inspiration, that has been foundational to much of my learning, but I wonder how many other threads of myth and legend have been lost; how different our picture of history and our tradition might be had we more of the old songs and stories that didn’t make it this far, fell beside the way. We can only build a picture based upon what we have, but we make a mistake if we assume that our version of history is complete, or that we know conclusively what happened and to whom, as the wonderful Ronald Hutton points out in his book, which vividly deconstructs Druidry and many of our strongly held notions of it. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Druids-History-Ronald-Hutton/dp/1852855339

Ultimately, if we are to acknowledge that the spirit of Druidry within these Islands is older than the Iron Age (and it is fundamental to my Druidry that it is), that it did not just rock up fully formed as the first, only and authoritative expression of priesthood in Britain; we must acknowledge that confining it to one pantheon, manuscript or location is to acknowledge only one facet of its breadth, depth and history. It is a tiny moment in the continuum of thousands and thousands of years of pagan tradition within these lands. I cannot imagine that we are not as different from the Druids of 2000 years ago, as they were from the Druids 2000 years before them, our attitudes, culture, gods and lore as distinct and different. It would be possible to confine Druidry to one pantheon, many do, and this is fine when it is not prescriptive. Because far from being based in truth and authenticity, this is a modern interpretation and perspective that does not well represent a tradition where every tribe in every valley of Britain probably had a different name for the mud. We might call her Rhiannon, we might call her Nerthus or Cudda; some may complain about the diversity but I think we know fewer names now than our ancestors did then and with archeological evidence of travellers and migrations to these islands stretching back as far as the first settlers, there is no reason to believe that Britain has been stuck in a bubble. New peoples and their gods have arrived and departed and settled many, many times adding new names to the cauldron, like the stones brought from all over Europe to create Silbury Hill. One only has to look at these many migrations to understand that in Britain, ‘native’ is a relative term with regards to humanity and the gods. Everything arrived here sooner or later except the land itself, even the Celts (and lets not even go in to deconstructing that one, here). I see Celtic culture as a part of the continuum, not the whole of it.

Through all of this I start to wonder how much, throughout history, the Druids have themselves been the suppressors or oppressors, dictating how and who a tribe worshiped, with constant squabbles over who is ‘right’. They wouldn’t have been the first priesthood to do so, organised religion is rarely without its corruption or power games. Against a violent and rapidly changing political Iron Age back-drop, I see no sense in romanticising our forebears, they were after all human, just as we are, the same drives and lusts, motivations and mistakes. We honour our ancestors for this very stuff, the stuff of being human. I hounour all my ancestors, every one who brought me to this point, The English, the scattering of Scotts and Welsh, the Cornish, the Devonians and those from Somerset. Their rich blend of heritage and culture and relationship with their lands is my religion. I don’t selectively honour the ones the fit the bill and discount all the rest. This tradition lives, it grows, it changes like the land which is not forever constant. If I am judged not to be a Druid by some, then so be it. Yet I was never one to toe the line or conform to the status quo, so I shall just continue to walk this path, serving my gods and ancestors.

If the Druids before us did occasionally play the role of the oppressor, dictating the gods we should worship and the way we should do it, lets chose not to make that mistake again now. If they never did before, surely let’s not start today. Rather, let us continue to allow folk to walk this path in freedom, expressing a Druidry that is bigger and stronger, deeper and broader than any of us individually. Somehow I imagine it will weather the storms.