Muddy Puddles and Sheild Maidens

Hmmm, two posts in a week; I think I need my head examining. Still, as is the way with most of what I write, I start out journalling and end up sharing if it seems the thing to do. This means that most of what I write doesn’t make it, but sometimes you seem to have spent a few months having your head kicked in until you learn something. So that means a lot of journalling. This is the first time I’ve written about this and it feels like it takes courage to do so, not least because my take on this subject is probably so very different to the usual pagan/druid approach and at the very least may be somewhat controversial.

I think mostly though, I’m writing simply to find myself present in the world again as I’ve seriously frightened myself over the past month or two, sinking into a place I have felt completely incapable of extracting myself from. That’s unusual, normally I have a handle on it. I know the signs, I shake myself, refuse to submit to it, give myself a good talking to, determined that the muddy puddle will not suck me down. I’ve watched my Dad, utterly consumed with it for the past three or four years and I WILL NOT be there. Decision made, no arguments. You see, this ‘it’, this thing more normally called ‘Depression’ is interesting; firstly, I should probably say that I don’t call it that quite deliberately, not in relation to myself anyway, others do of course chose to use the word and that is fine, everyone deals with it in their own way, I’m not devaluing that.

If you read this blog regularly you probably know that I have a vivid imagination and like to tell stories. Personal mythology and imagery is such an important tool when the rational will not do, and so I prefer to think of my depression more as a muddy puddle with a whirlpool in the middle. Not a small whirlpool either, but one of those Pirates-of the-Carribean-Calypso-made-this-and-I-can’t-see-the-bottom whirlpools. My mud puddle is a selfish, clawing thing that likes attention and validation, it’s hungry and it wants feeding. To give it a label, particularly a medical label, makes it a THING, and that makes it happy and self-important and rather more powerful than I like to think it deserves, so it doesn’t get a name. It also makes it something that you can apparently treat, medicate and solve, and 20 years experience on and off of flolloping in the mud puddle tells me that this is not so.

Of course there is depression that is related to chemical and hormonal imbalances and whilst there is a huge amount of overlap on this spectrum, that is a slightly different thing. In any case the causes of depression are debated and whilst the seratonin theory is widely accepted, it’s just as widely questioned, particularly by psychologists, see Seratonin and nurogenesis. Whilst this is only an article, it’s actually quite good and will point you in the direction of actual research if you’re interested. But either way, I’m not talking about that, I haven’t the space. Nor am I talking about the kind of pathological, acute mental health conditions that get you hospitalised. I’m talking about the 40% of depression that antidepressants don’t work for, the kind of depression that happens for other reasons, and that happens to lots of us because sometimes, we are just not that great at dealing with the things that the world throws at us. Because sometimes those things are just too big and too much, and staying sane and functional is sometimes a very big ask. This is worth a read, again, just an article, but it points to some interesting World Health Organisation research about differing rates of depression around the world.

I deliberately use terms such as ‘mine’ and ‘my’ when I talk about my mud puddle, as they are incredibly important. This is me after all, a part of my soul, not something that is seperate, not someone or something else, not something that happened to me, not something I suffer from, just me. The decision to take ownership is a powerful one. There is a tendency, in modern health care to set the disease apart from yourself, to make it something that attacks you from the outside, that you become a victim of. Not something that you can own, that you create from the inside as a response to the world, something which you actually can make choices and decisions about. But I feel that this approach makes me powerless. The mud puddle is not something outside of myself, but something right in my middle, integrated, inseperable, an emotional tide that must be swum. If I’m to own it and have a any sort of autonomy with it, it has to be mine. This too is controversial; the debate surrounding the degree to which we have a choice about depression will run and run. It’s easy to write off this kind of approach when you don’t want to believe that you have a choice, but there is a stack of research on the subject suggesting that it makes a difference, which is well worth an explore if you are inclined. Personally I believe that choice is not everything (clearly it’s not) but that we have much more of a choice than we imagine. Whilst we can’t always control what happens to us, we have a choice about how we respond to the shit that does happen. I also believe (from very personal experience) that one of the symptoms of depression is that it robs us of the belief that we have a choice at all. That’s also important; it robs us of the belief, it does not rob us of the choice. Our ability to chose is in direct proportion to our belief that we can choose. Believing I am helpless is step one towards being swallowed by the whirlpool. Remembering that I have that choice not to remain there, not to allow it to define me, is what helps me claw my way out. Every single time.

The other things that help? A sense of humour. Having important people in my life who don’t give it the time of day either. That’s not to say that they aren’t supportive, but they don’t engage with the depression or validate my “poor me, I feel so awful” outlook, recognising that’s not helpful. They engage with me, in just the same way as they do when I’m ok. I have other friends who deal with chronic physical pain and in just the same way, they will articulate that engaging with them as a person not the disease and not being defined by it, is what they need. Again that’s not about not being loving and supportive but about remembering that this is a person, whole, a bit broken, a bit messy, but a person not a disease. Being normal, is so helpful, not being affected by someone else’s pain, emotional or physical is vital. As a midwife, being with women in pain is what I do. You don’t need to take it away, or feel it, or be overwhelmed or frightened by it, you just need to be there through the process. I believe that this is true whether the pain is emotional, physical or a bit of both.

It’s easy of course to tell me that my mud puddle is not, cannot be that bad. If I cope with it (usually), if I can get out of it (mostly) and am not medicated (never yet!), but this particular brand of mentalness, and I apologise for the irreverence but it’s important in maintaing my perspective, runs in my family. Lots of us are just a bit crazy. There are a number on medication, a good few in counselling and a few admissions to the local unit. As a health care professional myself, I know exactly how I would be diagnosed and probably what I would want prescribed for me, should I chose to go down that route. So I’m not speaking from the position of someone who doesn’t know how it feels. But here is the thing, the usual medical approaches don’t and haven’t helped so many people I know. The people I know using those approaches are the people who don’t seem to make any real improvement, or actually get worse.

Please don’t imagine that I’m saying that medication or medical expertise should not be utilised and is never needed, it absolutely has a place. I just cant help wondering how often we actually pathologise what is essentially normal in so many, many cases. This robs the individual of power and autonomy. Again, over pathologising mental health is another debate all of it’s own and one we are having regarding postnatal depression and the emotional changes following birth, in midwifery in particular. But (and this is my observation only, both professional and personal) the people who seem to cope best and get better, whether they take meds or not, are those who maintain the belief that they have some choice and responsibility, and refuse to believe they are helpless.

So the Sheild Maiden? Well, she’s another of my stories, my personal mythology and she is of course associated by many with Freya. She’s my medicine and my saviour. The image of the Sheild Maiden, striding forward into battle is one that is common in popular culture at the moment. She is historically rather debatable, but I’m not sure that matters overly much and she captures the mind and the imagination nonetheless. In a man’s world, I think we understand warriors best on the battlefield and so that is where she has ended up. Although as women, we do fight in the wider world, for our children and families, for justice, for peace, in the armed forces, for so many things, women also know that sometimes the greatest battles are the emotional and hormonal ones in our very centre. This is where the magic of the sheild maiden lies. Those battles require courage, bravery, toughness, fearlessness, skills of attack and retreat and strategy.  I find her within myself as the emotional warrior, she who is not afraid of what is at the bottom of the whirlpool. It’s she who says “ok, lets see whats down there this time” and walks all the way in when she feels it sucking at her toes, rather than being swept away. However scary it is, she knows that we may not have much choice about going in, so we might as well make the most of it. She makes the choice to explore and she makes the choice to fight her way out when she’s ready, bloodied and wiser, with scars and trophies but alive to fight another day. I scared myself this time, at how long it took to find her but I did and that gives me the courage to believe I will next time too.

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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)

Mother Night

Blessings of Mothernight, Modranicht, the longest darkest night of the year, and the deepest heart of the winter…

This is the time when many pagans honour our ancient mothers; those ancestors who birthed us through their own longest night of labour. Summoning all of their strength and courage they brought us slippery, wet and new into the world, just as many of us hold fast through the darkness of this night. We journey to find the tiny spark of the new cycle, the moment of inception, deep within ourselves at the moment of the solstice. This is a time of nothingness, stillness and peace. If we are able to stop and take the time to listen we find that the land has slowed to a stop, a moment of pause before the tide turns. Often at the solstice the earth is buried under a cloak of hoar frost, everything that can, sleeps. Underneath the bustle and hurry of the human world there is a deep stillness which permeates the very mud. This is what winter teaches us: Peace.

Yet for many, pagan and non, there is a deep uncertainty too. Will the winter ever end? Will the days begin to grow longer again, will the new sun be born? Here in Britain, the winter is hard and cold, the days short, the nights long. For our ancestors the daily chores of staying fed and warm enough would have been all consuming. We carry that memory of discomfort to varying degrees of consciousness, deep within our genetic memory. We remember what it is is like to fight for survival, to be cold, hungry. We fill this time of year with light and food, warmth and abundance, part in celebration for all that we have, that we are still alive. In part we do it to stave off the darkness and discomfort, our society’s fear of the dark, the unwillingness to release into it and all of it’s uncertainties. The idea that dark is bad and difficult and light is easy and good are limiting and unhelpful dualistic concepts that infuse much of the western consciousness, indeed much of paganism. So we turn on the fairy lights at the beginning of December as winter finds it’s depths, turn up the carols and the music as silence grows and eat too much as if to ensure we wont starve, cushioning ourselves from the world. We shout in the return of the new sun with bells and whistles, not realising in our rush to welcome it back, how tender, tiny and new that flickering spark is. How the tiniest breath could extinguish it, how much we need the stillness and nurture that the dark provides to become strong and viable in the new cycle. The world stays dark and quiet for a while yet, the coldest part is yet to come and it will be a long time before the lengthening days call the world to wake.

To live this time of year in relationship with the natural world, listening to what the gods of nature can teach us of the winter, rather than being swept up in the human current of excess, takes courage. To let go of the consumerism leaves many of us bereft, somehow not satisfied, unloved, hungry like something is missing…No piles of presents? At Christmas?! But there is much about winter that takes courage. Our labouring mothers gathered every scrap of resource that they had to walk the line between life and death to bring us into the world not knowing if they would survive the birth. By acknowledging and allowing ourselves to feel the deep uncertainties of winter, She brings us Her greatest gifts. Winter shows us where and what our own deepest resources are, strips away our dross and the unnecessary, strips us bare, as the frost strips the soil ready for the new seasons growth. That stripping back shows us what and who is really important. I shudder to think of the money (and environmental waste) I spent for many years on gifts that were unwrapped in a shower of pretty paper, only to be forgotten on the pile of rapidly accumulating junk, probably used once and then abandoned. Now, I buy or make useful and small tokens of affection for those I love the most, there are no huge piles of food. I cant bear the lights, the noise, the shopping. Even other pagans seem to think that’s a bit odd, cant understand that there could be celebration that is austere, beautiful in it’s simplicity.

This evening as I sit beside the fire, all of the electric lights in the house are off as I welcome the darkness. I find empathy with my ancestors who had no electricity and relied on the fire for warmth. I feel myself in awe of their courage and tenacity. It is inconvenient, awkward, I can’t see the keys to type well and cooking supper was interesting. But none of that is life threatening. I wonder, where do I fight for survival in my life, just as my ancestors did every day? Not many places if I’m honest. I fight to keep going in a challenging job, we struggle to pay the bills, but I have enough food and wood to be warm and fed. The winter makes me wonder where in my life I could cut back, releasing just a little more of the excess and the unnecessary to the frost, bringing me that one step closer to the survival line. Not through some sense of matyrdom or some strange need to make life as uncomfortable as possible just because it was for my ancestors. But because it is a useful exercise in distinguishing between need and greed, in finding balance in a world where we simply don’t have the resources to fulfil our every wish, where quite frankly, the less we use the better, for our own survival. For me there is deep satisfaction in having very little and celebrating anyway.

So it feels fitting in this time of darkness and uncertainty to gather my words and hurl them out into the public space of the internet for the first time. I wonder who will read them, who will be provoked, angered, bored, indifferent or inspired. Do I mind? Yes and no, I’m a sensitive soul really. What is the point? I’m not sure of that yet either other than to serve the gods who asked. The tiny spark of my new cycle is not yet kindled, not yet strong or sure, but I hope that at least some of what I write will be of use to someone.

Blessings of the Firelight.