Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: November 2012

‘Witches’ link to Cornwall sex abuse cases

The BBC has a story that could, if the allegations turn out to be true, have implications to the Pagan and Witchcraft communities that go beyond the crimes themselves:

Some of the alleged victims say they were abused as part of pagan ceremonies by men purporting to be white witches, Truro Crown Court was told.

Jack Kemp, 69, of Grenville Road, Falmouth, denies 15 charges of sexual assaults on girls five to 14 years old.

Peter Petrauske, 72, formerly of Falmouth, denies two charges of indecent assault and one of rape.

Nordic Witchcraft in Transition

Today calls our attention to a paper by Stephen A. Mitchell (author of the excellent Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, which I’ve read and consider to be a wonderful treatment of the subject) from Scandia in 1997 entitled Nordic Witchcraft in Transition: Impotence, Hersery and Diabolism in 14th-century Bergen.

I’ve been fascinated with medieval witchcraft accounts for many years, now, and have found within them a wealth of information that can be applied to modern Heathen practices in the form of folk-beliefs. Such accounts, when sifted to separate the Classical influences and new folkloric constructions from the native northern European material, can be most useful in adding depth to our practices.

The article deals specifically with accounts of witchcraft from the mid-14th century, drawing parallels and comparisons with saga material and other written sources from much earlier. I found it quite interesting, and wholeheartedly recommend my fellow Heathens give it a quick read.

Careful What You Wish For

In 1993, Jay Sekulow, chief council for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court entitled Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist. The ACLJ was formed by conservative Christian leader Pat Robertson as a counterpoint to the liberal ACLU.

Lamb’s Chapel established the at-the-time unique precedent that it was not the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that applied in cases where religion was being inserted into public schools, but rather the Free Speech Clause. Speech is speech, and “viewpoint discrimination” based on the content of that speech was no longer legal in the United States. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions (notably 1995’s Rosenberger v. University of Virginia) reinforced the point.

The practical application of this new legal philosophy could be summed up by a phrase that Sekulow uses ad nauseum on his daily radio broadcast; “If they (“they” meaning any government entity, especially schools) let one group in, they have to let every group in, even evangelical Christians.”

Flash forward to 2012; we read in various places of the latest front in the “War on Christmas”; Santa Monica, CA.

Specifically, in recent years the city, acting under the strictures of the Lamb’s Chapel case, opened up their longstanding tradition of allowing churches to put up Nativity scenes on city property, deeming (rightly) that the doctrine of “viewpoint discrimination” meant that if they let one group in, they had to let them all in. In this case, that meant if they let the Christians put up crèches, they had to let the Atheists put up their own displays. Something that would not have been possible without Jay Sekulow’s argument in Lamb’s Chapel.

Since there was limited space, they ended up resorting to a lottery to assign space. Last year, so many Atheists won slots in the lottery that this year, they ended the practice altogether.

Naturally, the Usual Suspects are complaining about the “war on Christmas”; that they’re being persecuted because some other group is daring to exercise the same right that they themselves bludgeoned through the Supreme Court.

The flip side of “if they let anyone in, they have to let everyone in” is that “they” can decide not to let anyone in. That works as well for space at Christmas in front of town hall as it does for space in the public school on weekends or after school. But it’s all or nothing. Boy Scouts are in, the Wiccans are in. Girl Scouts in? Asatruar are in. You got 4H? You got Druids. Manger scenes? Scenes of the Death of Balder or simple signs stating your view of the significance of the season. You get the idea.

Space for meetings and rituals is often difficult to come by for Pagan and Heathen groups. Libraries don’t always have meeting and classroom space, private homes are often not an option for a variety of reasons, Pagan bookstores can charge enormous sums for space, and municipal community spaces can be either non-existent or difficult to come by. But thanks to Jay Sekulow and Lamb’s Chapel, a whole new venue—paid for by the hard-working, 73% Christian taxpayers—is now opened up to the Pagan and Heathen community.

Now, this is not a call to proselytize. It’s just pointing out that there’s a resource out there, fully legal and established law for nearly 20 years, that says that government facilities can’t discriminate based on viewpoint. And Paganism is a viewpoint. Heathenry is a viewpoint. Wicca is a viewpoint. Just the same as Christianity is. We are legally entitled to use the facilities available. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that opportunity.

Runology, Part 1: One Man’s Futhark is another’s Futhork

When they think of “the runes”, most non-Heathens will immediately think of a set of 24 runic symbols, each of which has a set form (perhaps with very minor variations) and a “meaning”. These runes are used for divination and decoration mostly, and as such are one of a large number of divinatory tools including tarot cards and the like.

The reality is a lot more complex.

Taken as a whole, a runic system is referred to as a futhark, a word that is derived from the names of the first six runes (in much the way that the word “alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet; alpha and beta). What many people don’t realize is that there is no single “correct” futhark, that most of them have a number of runes other than 24, and that the meanings that are commonly attributed to the 24-rune futhark come, in fact, from other futharks that are found much later in history.

The 24-rune futhark with which most Pagans are familiar is called the Elder Futhark. It was used from approximately the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE. However, the order in which the runes are found is not fixed; there are inscriptions of the full runic futhark with either the runes othala or dagaz in the final position. It’s impossible to say definitively which is correct, or even if there is a “correct” ordering. There is also no single correct form for many of the runes of the Elder Futhark, and some that stand for the same rune phonetically have drastically different forms. (Amazingly, no “blank runes” are ever found among those variant forms.)

There are many other futharks, however.

The Anglo-Saxon futhork, for example (it is called a futhork rather than a futhark because the sound of the fourth rune changed from an “a” to an “o”) was used from the 5th to the 11th centuries CE, mostly in Anglo-Saxon England. It, like all futharks, was used for both Christian and Heathen inscriptions. It had anywhere from 29 to 33 runes, and again their forms could vary greatly.

The Viking Age saw the rise of the Younger futhark (9th – 11th century), which was trimmed down to 16 runes (many of the runes doing double-duty phonetically to allow for all the sounds that the language still retained). There were very dramatic differences in the way the Younger futhark runes could be engraved, such as the short-branch and long-twig variations. After that, the 27 Medieval Runes were used through the 15th century, but the order was changed to make them much more in line with the conventional Latin alphabet. There were, of course, many other runic systems in use; these are just the major ones. Some even mixed runic and Latin characters together, and others would be quite unrecognizable as runes to most Pagans (and Heathens, for that matter), such as the “staveless runes” pictured above.

The way the meanings of the runes are known is probably something of which most Pagans are unaware. There exist several runic poems, found in manuscripts from the early to late Medieval period, which present either 33 runes of the Anglo-Saxon futhork or three different variations on the 16 Younger futhark runes.

Notice what we don’t have a poem for? That’s right— the 24 rune Elder futhark. The esoteric meanings that one sees today associated with those 24 runes are lifted from the other rune-poems, usually starting with one of the Younger futhark poems and then filling in the gaps from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem.

The trouble is, each rune poem is a self-contained entity, and advanced runic practitioners can use the meanings encoded into the poems themselves. When they are picked apart, there is a certain level of meaning that is lost. Truth to tell, we simply don’t know what esoteric meaning the runes of the Elder futhark might have had. We can conjecture, but that’s all it is. (As an aside, it should be pointed out that the whole notion that the runes had any esoteric meaning is itself conjecture; many academic runologists maintain that the rune poems are merely mnemonic devices to aid in learning the futharks in a given order, rather than a mystical encoding of their deeper meaning.)

To take one example, consider the first rune in most futharks; fe. Each of the four rune poems gives the following for it:

Abecedarium Nordmannicum: “Feu first”

Icelandic Rune Poem: “Source of discord among kinsmen / and fire of the sea / and path of the serpent.”

Norwegian Rune Poem: “Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen / the wolf lives in the forest.”

Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem: “Wealth is a comfort to all men / yet must every man bestow it freely / if he wishes to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.”

So is wealth a good thing or a bad thing? A comfort or a source of discord? What’s the significance of the fire of the sea, serpent, and wolf imagery? One can see that among the different poems, there are differences not only in meaning but in associated symbolism.

According to some interpretations of the situation, taking the meanings of the runes out of context (and even out of order, if there is a correct order) is problematical. According to others, one should take an amalgam of all the various interpretations. When even agreement on the fundamental approach for studying the runes can’t be reached, the situation is indeed messy.

Don’t let the messiness of the various futharks fool you, though. There is meaning there, but it is contextual and defies our modern attempts to systematize it for easy consumption. That should not be seen as an excuse to make up meanings of the runes that have nothing to do with any historical notion of their meaning.

How the Vikings Killed Time

Over at, there’s a spiffy article about sports and entertainment among the Vikings:

In a new study, Leszek Gardela uses archaeological findings and careful reading of Viking sagas to describe how Vikings killed time when they were in mood for entertainment.

The archaeologist paints a vivid picture of Viking life, but the familiarity of many of the activities suggests that while Vikings had shorter lives and arguably vented their frustrations in more violent ways than what most people do today, leisure time in the Viking Age was not to different from leisure time in 2012.

The whole thing is well worth reading.

(h/t to Swain Wodening)

UPG Sucks

For those who aren’t “hep to the jive”, UPG is a term that means, alternately, Unverified Personal Gnosis, Unattributed Personal Gnosis, Unusual Personal Gnosis, etc. It’s a term that is current in the Asatru community, and has made its way into other reconstructionist and neopagan communities as well, that basically serves as a catch-all for insights and ideas that come from individuals without any basis in the pre-Christian sources (aka “the lore”). Often, these insights are said to be inspired by the Gods Themselves (“Loki came to me and said…”).

The problem with UPG, as was pointed out at a talk I attended at the Asatru Folk Assembly’s Winternights celebration, is that it presents a false dichotomy that is actually quite harmful. This isn’t to say that the specific insights that are classified as “UPG” are in and of themselves harmful (although some could very well be classified thus), but rather that the concept itself does a disservice to the various insights that are only indirectly supported by the lore, but don’t rely on personal revelation for their provenance.

The problem with UPG as a concept is that it invites people to lump everything that isn’t contained in “the lore” into the category of UPG. For instance, take the definition found at Wikipedia:

Unverified personal gnosis (often abbreviated UPG) is the phenomenological concept that an individual’s spiritual insights (or gnosis) may be valid for them without being generalizable to the experience of others. It is primarily a neologism used in polytheistic reconstructionism, to differentiate it from ancient sources of spiritual practices.

The lore isn’t necessarily restricted to ancient written sources (although they do form a part of it). Numismatics, philology, historicity (which is a field of study quite different from history), etc. can all legitimately be found under the umbrella of “the lore”. But insights of modern scholarship (professional or amateur), should they not be based upon a concrete quote from some ancient writer, are all too often lumped together with the “insights” that someone received directly from Zeus in a dream. Therein lies the problem.

To take one example; say I have an insight concerning the timing of rituals that is derived from reading some sources in Christian penitential books. They happen to mention “making offerings to demons on Thursdays” and I put that together with other information I have, such as the etymology of “Thursday”, Christian practices that were forbidden on Thursdays, and many other bits of evidence. From all that information, I conclude that Thursdays are probably the best day to make offerings to the local land-spirits.

However, because there’s nothing in “the lore” that explicitly states that Thursday is the best day to make such offerings, my insight is relegated to the same shelf as someone who says that Pan came to her in a vision and told her that he likes twinkies. The same can be said of insights such as Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, Margaret Murray’s theory of a witch-cult survival, or Ronald Hutton’s conclusions about the nature of Pagan religion in southern England. Whether or not you agree or disagree with them, they are necessarily of a different nature than an insight brought to someone who has a dream or vision of a God or fairy. But the concept of “UPG” makes no such distinction.

It’s a subtle point, but I think it’s a vital one. “UPG” is not a helpful categorization because it has led to a differentiation between “the lore” and everything else. As Pagans and Heathens, we need to come to the understanding that there are gradations of historicity, and that to lump everything that doesn’t come explicitly out of a written source in the same category does an enormous disservice to scholarship in general. This is not to say that all direct revelations from the Gods or spirits have no value; just that they shouldn’t necessarily be treated on the same level as everything that is not in “the lore”. 

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