Northern Tradition Paganism

Just to let you know that my re-telling of Skadi’s tale is now up here on her shrine at the wonderful Cauldron Farm website. There are some beautiful online shrines there with some gorgeous devotional writing to the Gods of the Germanic Traditions. I highly recommend checking it out, if you are also that way inclined.

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)

Voice

As we move into the new moon, the moon I know as White Waking, we remain in the thick of winter. The dark and cold are still very much with us although the days are noticeably lighter now and the snowdrops cover the ground in my garden. Looking out over the fields at the back of my home I see heavy grey clouds, the grass thick and wet, the trees bare, and the mud… The Saxon folk, as usual telling it like it is, called this month Solmonath; Mud-month. If I hadn’t had first hand experience of rural life: trudging up and down the tow path to the boat with logs and water, squelching and slipping, cold hands, leaky boots, frost flowers on the inside of the windows, I would be tempted to say that I could only imagine how it was for our ancestors. But despite now living on dry land, the misery of this time of year is now imprinted in me too. It feels to be a time when all our energy is put into just surviving, try as I might I am yet to find the joy in February.

At this time, our focus shifts from the depths of the heavy earth where we have been hibernating, to the air around us where we stretch, open an eye and find ourselves awake. We breathe the cold air and really feel the new cycle begin, infusing it with the winds of change that start to shift, encouraging us to move; fresh, cold, biting and clear. If of course we are able to extrapolate ourselves from the mud. I remember sliding my way down the towpath last year, frustrated when I finally arrived at my car and my wheels spun uselessly in the mud, thinking that surely the mud must have a purpose. That is not to say that the gods of the mud, magical alchemy of rain and soil don’t of course have their own very good purpose for their own very good reasons, but surely there was some useful sense I could make of it? I came to the conclusion that mud did the very useful job of slowing us down. For country folk, walking anywhere off the beaten track takes twice as long, boots are heavy, the floor needs constant cleaning, and there is more washing that doesn’t dry, the only thing to do seems to be to sit by the fire a while longer. Nature calls us not to speed up, not yet. This is not the time of year to be hailing the sun and the return of the spring, pushing too fast and too far. It is a time to consider everything in its own time. That only the snowdrops and perhaps the odd brave crocus are out, tells us something about the probability of the sharp frost biting off the first tender shoots that venture out too early. Nature reminds us to take our time. So as we open a groggy eye, stretch and take those first breaths, we use the time we have to dream. We have the space to imagine what the new cycle could be like, fill it with potential and hope and begin the process of crafting it consciously in the darkness. As we find our in-breath with which to infuse it, so too do we find our out breath with which to sing it, speak it, tell it; rusty at first and unsure, childlike stumbling over the words, we breathe it to life. Slowly but surely, our energy is rising toward Imbolc.

Perhaps inevitably at this time, through breath, I am moved to look at my voice. As Druids, the craft of the bard is central to what we do but how often do we imagine that craft to be confined to songs, poetry or performance? I am not looking only at the creativity of songs and poetry here though, but at everything we create with our voices, The conversation with a friend on the phone this morning, the email tapped out to a work colleague, the Facebook update, this blog post… our voices have such power and so often we are not aware of how we appear to others. Do we complain too much, are we unnecessarily sharp, short, whiney, arrogant, grumpy? How do we make others feel when we behave this way? Where do we provoke, where SHOULD we provoke and where should we stay silent and where can we be a valuable force for change? We have such ethical responsibility as far as our voices are concerned, in considering how we use them well. In the past week I have had wonderful conversations, full of challenge, insight, a willingness to listen, explore and be moved where discussion has meandered releasing the need to be right, where exploration is the only thing that matters. Such discussion is the one of the cornerstones of my craft. I’ve learned a lesson where I wrongly assumed another was open to questioning and exploration but missed the signs that they weren’t, and been provoked myself into irritation by the voices of others on numerous occasions.

Os is the Rune that I feel most powerfully to embody this time and all that it represents. Implicit in its Anglo-Saxon name ‘OS’ carries the sense of a mouth or an opening, that word continues down to us today in its context of birthing as a cervical os, the mouth of the womb which opens and dilates so the baby can be born. The name in Old Norse where it appears as Ansuz suggests a god, or an As, one of the Aesir. Within it then are echos of a sense of divine communication inspired by the gods, as the Old English Rune Poem suggests;

Os byth ordfruma aelcre spraece
(Mouth is the source of all speech)
wisdomes wrathu ond witena frofur
(mainstay of wisdom, comfort to wise ones)
and eorla gehwen eadnys and tohit.
(a blessing and joy to everyone)

(translation my own)

Clearly for the Anglo Saxons, although we cannot hope to know exactly what this rune meant to them, the verse tells us of the wisdom of considering carefully how we use our speech and language. If you have ever watched a good story-teller, it is magical to experience how the audience is swept up in the words, every intonation and cadence pushing and pulling the audience with the emotions of the story. This effect can be even more profound when you don’t understand the language and can release into the patterns, feeling the story as it unfolds, disengaging our need for words for a while and experiencing the full flow of pure language. Listening to Beowulf in Old English is completely extraordinary, we can learn to feel the sense of the words through the emotion of the teller and the language is just close enough to Modern English for us to almost believe you can understand it word for word.

As a flow or a power of nature described by the rune, I experience Os as both the open mouth and the exhalation of breath; it is slow considered and musical or whispered into the stillness, blowing across a puddle and watching as the words spread like ripples across dark water. It reminds us, wherever we are, whomever we are speaking to and in whatever medium, of the importance of crafting the story of our lives in a creative and honourable way. If we slow down, inspired by the mud, our words considered rather than spilling out in a jumble, we stop complaining, understanding that it’s just not a good story to listen to, and instead learn to narrate a tale far more interesting. We share how it is for us rather than just offloading,  we are more able to communicate effectively and watch the ripples as they spread, observing their effect and moderating our behaviour accordingly. Gradually we begin to learn when it is right to speak out and to challenge, how much and when, and when there is wisdom in silence.

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.