This time of year has me drifting towards all sorts of pagan themes. Specifically I always remember Samhain and Yule from my youth (called “halloween” and “christmas” because… I was raised Christian), but today I realize that those themes are mostly pagan. I blame the Christians firmly for this – if Christmas had a birthday cake, I would imagine that youth might actually treat it like Christ’s birthday and it would do lots to actually personalize him. However, Christmas isn’t a birthday party and Easter is certainly not a wake, so I ended up in the occult and the rest is history. Looking at pagan practice, I have a few real folk heros who have managed to avoid the trappings of Ceremonial Magick, and offer an exceedingly fresh perspective on things. Unlike most other modern pagans which seem to really just self identify as “whatever Christianity isn’t”, these folks take the time to research, read, and weave in family traditions. Previously Varg Vikerens alone really held that title with his blog and book – Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia – and his wife is clearly his muse. Marie Cachet’s Forebears should really remind the ceremonial magic community that the political commentary akin to The Wild Hunt (which I stopped reading until recently) isn’t the best pagan folks can do; The Abrahamic religions don’t have a monopoly on deep occult discourse. In fact those religions have context in pagan themes themselves because of the history in the Mediterranean with the Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, etc. We just happen to grow up in a society that ignores those cultures, except maybe the Greeks, and we don’t tend to think of them as “pagan” since the material largely burned at Alexandria. Funny how history is taught in schools, huh? Seems like everything begins with “And so and so culture accepted Christianity and…” Do we really know anything about the Romans before Christianity? Did you learn that in highschool or as an adult?
(An aside: If you read Edred Thorsson/Stephen Flowers as anything but putting Norse paint on Gardenarian Wicca – which by itself is the resurrection of Waite’s mythical Celtic Golden Dawn, throw out those books and start over with Varg’s book).
The “magical layer” in a lot of these myths is the mushroom. I’ll say it plainly: Ancient cultures were obsessed with the states which hallucinogenic drugs brought on and their mystery schools trained their priests and shamans first by making them memorize everything so they had an extended set of symbols with which to express themselves, and then took drugs to train their minds. The hallmark of any good magical system is going to be the language. It shouldn’t be an English substitute like Hebrew or Enochian, but rather it would best be a set of pictures. If we want to use heiroglyphics, great. Tarot? Sure, but that tends to be artistic and complex. Planetary glyphs? Wonderful. Pick a set of reasonably simple symbols, memorize them, and and take drugs to train the mind. There’s even a Hermetic Hour on the topic.
“But”, you say, “your ancestors couldn’t just stop by Ye Olden Saxon Mobile Home Park and score”. Well that’s correct too, and that’s where the myth and the magic comes in. See, it’s not sufficient to simply go, “Oh that mistletoe thing is really cool” and ignore it, our ancestors actually believed it had magic powers. After all, it’s a portion of a tree which is green even in winter, so it must represent immortality, right? Which brings us to Fred’s blog entry, Another Mistletoe. If you read Varg’s book, you know all the ancient shenanigans which surrounded the mistletoe. Men would dress as women and race, sorcerers would try to claim the everliving bush as their own, and it even became the torch for the Scandinavian Olympic Games (the bride races). Carved into a wand it was supposed to have extremely potent powers, and the forces of the Summer (the race of men) fought the forces of Winter (orcs and dwarves) in symbolic combat (ragnarok) to posses the branch to bring back spring.
But most importantly, if you read Fred’s post, you’ll see that birch is pretty darn useful stuff to a culture without modern pharmacy and having the Gods illuminate those handy trees in winter is both a helpful sign from their realm and a beacon to medicine. We tend to think of hunting in modern times as men chasing animals through the woods, but a thousand years ago, hunting for plants was just as valuable if not more so than hunting for animals. And, similarly to the medicinal properties of plants, so too do we know today the medicinal (or harmful) properties of animals, be it a snakebite with it’s poison or the antlers of a deer being a sort of Chinese Viagra. Masons may want to consider the beehive.
But nothing is as simple as “find it, cut it down, eat it, problem solved”. Our ancestors knew two pretty cool things: We were in charge of the ecosystem and could influence it, and if we didn’t take care of the ecosystem, we were pretty hard up for it’s resources. Therefor, our ancestors put together rituals to propagate and maintain that ecosystem. Varg’s example is finding the mistletoe, and chopping it down to have a symbolic fight over it, at which point the mistletoe is captured and re-planted. The trick here is to realize that mistletoe, being parasitic, has to be planted on a similar host tree if the bush is to survive. In this way, the people took the marker of the Gods, and marked their own groves of medicinal trees. Additionally this was probably a good way to have the Jarl tip off his sons where the old mistletoe was and where the new grove of trees were so that they’d have an advantage in the Bride Races in the coming year.
Fred’s post deals with a similar idea but I don’t think Fred is quite as magically minded. Fred talks about the chaga mushroom, and how it concentrates the birch’s sap. Valuable for the same reason the birch is, the mushroom concentrates the birch’s medicinal properties, but it doesn’t grow without the birch itself. Our ancestors already knew mushrooms were good to eat for healthful and spiritual ends, so it’s not a stretch to say that eating the mushrooms off a medicinal tree would be also healthful. Also, mushrooms tend to favor particular species of trees and that’s one of the criteria for making a solid identification in this modern age. Fred hints at the next bit but doesn’t quite make the jump.
To make this jump we need to know about another folk practice: the brewing stick. See, if the cauldron represents the womb and the stick (wand) is the… Oh sorry, ceremonial magic hat on. The brewing stick was, quite simply, the household stick the family would treat with respect because they knew that the magical stick turned their grain soup into delicious beer. The delicious part is important, wild yeast generally tastes like ass. I brew on the side, I know. Here we have another magic stick. We know the mistletoe is a magic stick. We know the brewing stick is a magic stick. We know the birch is a magic stick. We know the chaga mushroom is a magic stick (it grows near the base of a wounded branch) so sticks are pretty darned important. Fred brings up the last bit for our recipe of magic here – the Ogham alphabet.
Ogham is first mentioned in the Book of Ballymote, which is most certainly one of those books which puts Odin at the feasting table with Jesus. If the Irish were a Lost Tribe of Israel, surely Christianity will appeal to those pagans, right? But, fortunately, it also tells us about the Ogham notation for language. Where I think Fred loses the point a bit is he compares the tree to the letter B. While that’s useful for a memorization perspective, it really overlooks the practical use glaring us in the face. The alphabet wasn’t observed, it was always carved. Into rocks, into trees, into axes… While everyone is familiar with the norse runes of popular culture, the Ogham alphabet is pure functionality. If we have a staff, or a thin object, score it along the length of the object to carve a spell into it. But, success be thy proof, our ancestors wouldn’t do it simply because it was convenient, right?
The Ogham alphabet would have also provided nucleation and incubation sites for the yeast in the brewing stick. Carved brewing sticks with spells on them would work a lot better than smooth brewing sticks. Perhaps even worse would be rocks. Smooth stones tend to be sterile because of their surface. But, carve a spell into it, and suddenly it can hold yeast. Carve a spell into a tree down the trunk, and the chaga mushroom could spread. Carve a spell into the mistletoe, press it into the wood you want to bless, and the wood would perhaps sprout mistletoe next year. In this way the magic happened.
Anyway, merry season. Enjoy the intellectualism of the ceremonial magic, but don’t neglect the raw pagan bits either. They’re quite fun. Just don’t burn down a church.