How do Norse neopagans typically view Rökkatru?

This is a slightly edited version of an essay originally posted on Huginn’s Heathen Hoff.

In Snorri Sturulson’s Prose Edda, the jötnar are often portrayed as amoral, dangerous, and destructive. In texts which are more blatantly Christianized, they may be more depicted as outright evil.

In our decidedly Christianized modern society, these things feel very bad and frightening. The knee-jerk reaction is to recoil from and demonize them. This is what has happened with the jötnar, despite their integral role in the Norse pantheon—including the lineage of most of the gods including jötnar, and their frequent romantic interludes with the Vanir and Æsir.

The Æsir, in particular, frequently include jötnar among their ranks; like Mímir or Skaði. The effect in the community of demonizing an entire tribe of spirits or deities in the Norse pantheon is palpable: people who honor or worship the jötunn are often just as demonized as the entities they work with. Often this results in outright dismissing them as either evil or stupid and barring them from certain Norse pagan events and spaces.

Unfortunately, due to the widespread destruction and suppression of pagan religions and traditions by the Christian conversion, modern paganism is by its nature separated from its roots. No evidence exists of a continuous line of Norse pagan practice, and if there does exist today someone who is practicing a version of Norse paganism which was handed down to them in an unbroken chain, they are quite good at hiding. What this means is that Norse neopaganism is largely an effort to reconstruct an old religion lifted from its context, based on texts which were written well after the conversion by Christians who grew up in a Christian culture. The subsequent effect of Christianity on those texts is often overlooked. Furthermore, Scandinavia had long-standing religious traditions prior to the much-glorified Viking age, which culminated in the religious practices of the Viking age, and with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar.

Lacking in that context and desperate for source material upon which to rebuild the old Norse religion, many modern pagans latch onto the Eddas and Sagas, treating them as though they are absolute: the last word on the gods and their stories. This is understandable, but the result of clinging to a text without also thinking critically about it is, at its base, a lack of academic accountability. Such a lack of academic accountability has not only failed to offer anything productive to neopaganism as a movement, it has very real, very negative effects on the Norse neopagan community.

hel_by_nicowanderer_damx24h-fullview

I recently came across a forum thread where, amid a very legitimate discussion of troubling things some neopagan leaders have done and said, another note was struck which somewhat undermined otherwise very real concerns: dislike for those who honor the jötnar. One commenter quoted the following from Goði Rod Landreth:

“She [Galina Krasskova] and her Etin-lover1 kin want to muddy the waters on all sorts of theological point in and around heathenry…I do not advise any Tru heathen to read her or her Etin-lover kin.”(1) It should be noted that I was unable to track down this quote to corroborate.

The quote shows clear derision for “Etin-lovers,” or those who honor/worship the jötnar, and seems to focus on their desire to “muddy the waters,” presumably by introducing jötunn worship into their practice and promoting this. The quote was presented in the context of evidence that Kaldera, Krasskova, and others are niþing, defined in the same quote as a person who “nobody is allowed to protect, house, or feed…The outlaw is not only expelled from the kinship, he is also regarded henceforth as an enemy to mankind.”
Ehsha Apple of Witchcraft from Scratch notes:

“According to Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: ‘a villain, one who commits a vile action.’ Contemporary use translates to ‘a coward, a villain; a person who breaks the law or a code of honour; an outlaw.’ …A nīþing or nīþgæst (denoting the ‘spirit’ of the person) is perpetually considered lower (as in ‘’neath’—beneath) than those around him.”(2)

Its citation in a discussion grounded very much in the real-world harm done by cultural appropriation and malpractice seems very out of place—though very much in line with more common criticisms leveled at public figures like Kaldera and Krasskova. In many other respects I actually agreed with the criticisms being laid against these authors, who I have have increasingly moved away from over the years due both to the very valid ethical concerns brought up in relation to Kaldera and the outing of Krasskova as a xenophobe.

Doing research on the worship of jötnar can unearth many similar attitudes. One such example is a short piece titled “Why I’m Opposed to Jotun Worship” by Hauk Heimdallsman. In this, Heimdallsman states that he is “violently opposed to the concept” of worshiping or honoring jötnar. Many of the comments that follow fall in line with the expressed sentiment that jötnar are not worthy of worship, but that they are explicitly and solely “destructive” forces, and the question abounds why anyone might worship forces of destruction. Heimdallsman states: “Jotnar are not our Kin. They have shown time and again they are not aligned with us, have attacked the Gods, and show no concern for the lives of us here on Midgard.” In the comments, he does acknowledge the jötunn blood of many Aesir gods and others do acknowledge the lineage of gods being drawn back to the primordial jötunn Ymir, but this is largely dismissed as inconsequential. Heimdallsman goes as far as to say that those worshiping or honoring the jötunn “May as well be a Christian if you want to worship massive destructive forces.”3

This neglects the history of the surviving lore as modern practitioners know it today—lore that was recorded after the conversion of Scandinavia by Christians. Furthermore, the attitude of a good vs. evil paradigm—in this instance framed as a “destructive vs. beneficial”—is itself emblematic of Abrahamic religions, and is likely a holdover of such, considering the extreme Christianization of modern western societies, especially the United States.

One commenter, whose screen-name is Wyrd Dottir, highlighted some of the historical and literary oversights in the original post, saying:

“The Lokasenna doesn’t appear to be derived from a pre-Christian tale, but rather appears to be an example of contemporary Christian Medieval Literature that mimics Lucian’s Assembly of the Gods, in much the way that Snorri uses other elements common of Chrisitian Europe’s Medieval Literature by alluding to other great works (those Western “classics” from Greece and Rome), this is afterall [sic] why he attests that the God Thor is descended from the Greek Agamemnon featured in Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey, and later mentioned in Virgil’s The Aeneid. It appears that the Lokasenna followed the formula set by Lucian, and just dropped in Norse Gods instead… Let us not forget that the lore as we know it was penned almost exclusively of Christian scholars, and it’s not some sacred holy text written by believers, but rather is a text written as ‘entertainment’. If everything was rainbow and sparkles, the stories would be boring. The sheer amount of feud you see in Icelandic literature I think screams of the fact this was entertainment. War and blood makes for a far better story than ‘the crops grew, the people were blessed with abudance, [sic] and the Gods were honored’ to the original audience of the lore, Medieval Christians.” (4)

The fact of the matter is that the history of Scandinavia itself is being roundly overlooked and disregarded when it comes to the discussion of jötunn worship, meaning that the birthplace of Norse paganism is being overlooked, or worse, cherry-picked. To begin with, the religion of the Vikings was not born in a vacuum—it, like many other religions, evolved with the people and culture which practiced it, and there is a plethora of evidence of religious practice across Scandinavia long before the time identifiable as the Viking period or even their immediate predecessor, the Vendals. Shortly, we’ll dive into this historical and cultural context, but first we’ll look at some of the most common misconceptions/misunderstandings about Rökkatru.

Until next time

Skål

(1) Re: Raven Kaldera “Northern Tradition Shaman.” Reply #5. Phillip63. http://www.newagefraud.org/smf/index.php?topic=3819.0
(2) Ehsha Apple (A. “Niþing and Holmgang.” Witchcraft From Scratch, WordPress.com, 4 July 2013, ehshaapple.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/nithing-and-holmgang/.
(3) Heimdallsman, Hauk. “Why I’m Opposed to Jotun Worship.” Post shared to Temple of Our Heathen Gods by Mark, September 14, 2010.
(4) Wyrd Dottir. Facebook Comment, Re: “Why I’m Opposed to Jotun Worship.” Temple of Our Heathen Gods. September 14, 2010.

A Belated Ostara

We’ve talked about honoring goddesses like Gerdr and Jord to honor the fertility of the earth when celebrating holidays that are classically associated with fertility. It would be perfectly acceptable to follow this trend for Ostara as well, but there are definitely other Rökkr and jötnar that would be good to honor during the times we want to acknowledge the fertility that comes with the turning of the seasons.

One versatile Rökkr who could be honored both in seasons of death and in seasons of fertility is Nidhogg. The dragon coiled amid the roots of Yggdrasil but is also said to consume the dead upon Náströnd or “The Shore of Corpses.” The virtue or value most strongly associated with Nidhogg is that of recycling, or alternatively “the value of decay.”

the_roots_of_yggdrasil_by_faqy_dd3hdop-pre

This all would seem to indicate that Nidhogg might be best honored during Samhain—and indeed, I would encourage it—but I would argue that roles such as those occupied by Nidhogg play an important part with regards to fertility. Life without death isn’t a possibility—life is dependent upon death in one way or another to flourish, and this is a truth that Rökkatru seek to honor.

So for Ostara—a holiday which honors the return of spring and all of the fertility and life that that brings—perhaps it might be time to hold a blot for Nidhogg, honoring the vital role that decay (the “recycling” of organic material) plays in the life cycle.

Though we don’t have a great idea of what kinds of offerings might be appropriate for Nidhogg, safe offerings typically include some variety of food and drink—especially mead or goat’s milk. Dedicating time performing some variety of cleaning service might also make a good offering for the dragon so closely associated with “recycling” and cleaning up: I am partial to cleaning up parks or joining/organizing community clean up events, something which could easily be dedicated to Nidhogg’s honor.

As always, I would be happy to hear of any ideas you might have for celebrating a Rökkatru Ostara, or any ideas/practices you have for honoring Nidhogg!

Skål

A Very Belated Imbolc

Imbolc comes on the first of February—which, as you have probably noticed, has come and gone. Again this is rather belated due to mental health troubles, but hey! Now that we’ve received a stay at home order, I have plenty of time to play catch-up, so let’s begin:

Imbolc is traditionally associated with ewes, in particular the pregnant ones who are getting ready to bear their lambs in the spring, as well as cleansing. The mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it is very much a celebration in the anticipation of the budding fertility of spring. For this reason, though I made the argument that Yule could be a time to honor Gerdr, it only seems appropriate that Imbolc may also be an excuse to hold a blót for Gerdr.

1200px-Skirnir's_message_to_Gerd

Skirnir’s Message to Gerd (1908) by W. G. Collingwood

 

To interweave the more traditional elements of Imbolc, milk could be offered to Gerdr. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, it would be particularly appropriate to pour out an offering of milk onto the soil. If you don’t have the privilege of having a full-blown garden but have planters in which you might grow a small herb garden or other such plants, pouring a small amount of milk into the soil of your planters in honor of Gerdr’s waking and the thawing of winter would certainly suffice (just be careful to not pour too much lest you end up having to deal with a sour milk smell coming out of your planters).

Another good way to pass the time on Imbolc is starting seeds for your garden or planters. The growing of your own food and herbs, even if you’re only able to grow a small amount, is additionally a really good way to exercise a degree of self reliance, which we have previously discussed as being one of the primary values of Rökkatru. So starting seeds on this day both aligns well with the traditional significance of this day, as well as offering an opportunity to start a practice, even a small an humble one, of self reliance.

As always, if you did anything special this Imbolc or have any other ideas how to color this holiday for a Rökkatru practice, I would love to hear them!

Skål.

Time According to the Babylonians

In Mesopotamia, a region long settled by other peoples, the Babylonians had to establish their dominance. By adopting various myths from the Sumerians, and then amending them, they created a sense of the long view of time. Into this invention of time stretching into the infinite past, the Babylonians inserted themselves, thereby breaking the timeline into two parts: before and after their arrival. They grafted the legacy of the Sumerians to themselves. Moreover, possessing a concrete sense of time, the Babylonians then subdivided it in a number of ways, each division of time serving a religious or imperial need. They bifurcated time into two distinct parts – one: circular and repeating, the other: an arrow into the future. These two splits of time complemented each other in the Babylonian mind.

Every New Year which began at the Spring Equinox, the Creation Myth (Enuma Elish) was read. This myth begins with the original creation of the world by Tiamat, the God of Chaos, and Apsu, the God of Waters. Later Anu, a God from the succeeding generation becomes the “Father of the Gods.” Eventually, He cedes his powers to Enlil, from yet a newer generation of Gods, who seeks to overthrow the original Gods. After Apsu is killed, Tiamat wages war on the newer Gods. In desperation, Enlil goes to Marduk, the principal deity of Babylon, for help. On the condition that He is made the Ruler of the Gods, Marduk agrees. After killing Tiamat, Marduk remakes the world from her body.

This creation story cements Babylon’s place in Mesopotamian history. After ages of rule by other peoples and their Gods, Mesopotamia is then recreated by the Babylonians. Generations of Gods follow each other ending with Marduk. Thus, Babylon becomes the terminus point for the timeless past, and the future that is now Babylon. The ritual of reading the Creation Myth every New Year was the intersection of circle with arrow time, and also the combination of both.

In its various forms, the Gilgamesh Epic highlights the nexus of time and immortality. Within this epic is the story of a Great Deluge. Like the Creation Story, the time in the Great Flood is broken into two halves, the world before Babylon and after. According to this myth, the list of Kings before the Flood numbered ten. After the Flood, the Kings reigned from the City of Kish (in Sumer), with reigns consisting of 300 years to 1,200 years. In this story, comes a sense of a long past, a rupture, and then the start of a new age. Because Kish had great symbolic significance, the myth allows Babylon to become the heir to the ancient civilization of Sumer. The story gives to the people of Babylonia, the sense of a great destiny. Babylon is the New World remade from the older world. Once more, time in Babylonian perception was broken, and then welded together again.

The Gilgamesh Epic, itself, focuses on the questions of death and immortality. After his friend, Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh comes to dislike death. Resolving to end death for all, he searches for the key of immortality. During his adventures, various Gods tell him to enjoy life and accept death gracefully. Through a series of mishaps, Gilgamesh is denied immortality for himself and his people. However, he realizes that his city will exist long after his death. His immortality would come from his legacy, which is his city. Babylonians saw this in terms of themselves as the legacy of Sumer. Again it was presented as endless time that was disrupted.

In Babylon, the year was divided into two halves – summer and winter, in explicit circle time. In the myth of Ishtar’s (Inanna) Descent Into the Underworld, winter comes about when Ishtar sends her husband Tammuz (Dumuzi) to take her place in the Land of the Dead. In desperation, Tammuz then seeks help from his sister, Belit-seri (Geshtinanna). After much negotiation with the Gods of the Underworld, both siblings decide to take each other’s place for six months at a time.

Ishtar’s husband, Tammuz was the God of Crops and Flocks. The Babylonians saw Him as the life blood of the land and the sheep. When He went into the Underworld, winter came. At that time his sister, Belit-seri reemerged, and presided over the autumn harvest and wine making. She became the Goddess of Wine and Grapes.

At the Spring Equinox, the Babylonians started their New Year. To commemorate this, the King would enact a sacred marriage with the temple priestess of Ishtar. Their mating was to reaffirm the marriage of Ishtar, the Goddess of Fertility, with her husband, Tammuz. These marriage rites was to ensure that the King was accepted as one of the Gods, and blessed by Ishtar, who also blessed the crops. This was circle time, repeated every year at the same day.

In contrast, the Autumn Equinox was the beginning of the Royal Year. At this time, the King offered First Fruits for the blessings of the Gods for him and his city. Afterwards, he would begin a project such as building a temple. Counting regnal years in Babylon started with the harvest, and was often named for the King’s latest project. The passage of time was demarked by the reigns of kings and their deeds. Again the Babylonian sense of time was divided into two parts, one for the Gods and the other for the kings. Regnal time was inserted as an arrow to the future into the circle time of the harvests.

In their daily lives, the Babylonians were very conscious of the passage of time. They measured days, months, and years (with a nineteen month calendar to tract solar and lunar eclipses). They used artificial time to track governmental and commercial activity for regnal years and fiscal years. Against this backdrop of dividing time into smaller units came the sense of timelessness that rose from living in Mesopotamia. Being conscious of being a part of a succession of kingdoms in the region, the Babylonians both merged their myths with the Sumerians, and divided them into two parts, before Babylon, and after. Time for the Babylonians was to split into two parts, one an arrow pointing towards the future, whilst the other a circle that returned back to Babylon.

Works Used.

“Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses.” U.K. Higher Education Project. 2011. Web. http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/index.html .
Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, “Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia.” University of Texas: Austin. 1992.
Cicero, Sandra, “A Guide to the Babylonian Tarot.” Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN, 2006. Print.
King, L.W., “Babylonian Religion and Mythology.” Wisdom Library. 1903. Web. http://www.wisdomlib.org/mesopotamian/book/babylonian-religion-and-mythology/d/doc7086.html .
Cohen, Mark, “Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East Calendar,” PDF. 2015.
Dickie, Lloyd and Paul Boudreau, “Awakenings Higher Consciousness: Guidance from Ancient Egypt and Sumer.” Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015.
Jacobsen, Thorkild, “The Treasures of Darkness.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 1976.

Kami of Snow & Rain

Having woken up to a beautiful snow day this morning, I thought today might be a nice opportunity to discuss one of my favorite weather divinities: a dragon who brings snow and rain, Kuraokami.

Within the Japanese Shinto religion, you will find many spirits or kami. While the veneration of major kami like Amaterasu-Omikami has become fairly well-known, with proper Shinto lineages even becoming available in other countries (such as the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America), still many more kami remain largely unknown outside of Japan.

According to the Kojiki, when the kami of fire Kagutsuchi-no-Kami was born, he burned his mother Izanami-no-Mikoto and caused her death. Grief-stricken and infuriated, his father Izanagi-no-Mikoto brings his sword down upon the young fire kami, with several more kami then being born from Kagutsuchi-no-Kami’s blood. It is from the blood that collected on the sword that Kuraokami was born. The Nihongi (or Nihon Shoki) records a generally similar account of Kuraokami’s birth, with the main difference being that Kagutsuchi-no-Kami’s body is cut into pieces, with each piece becoming a new kami. And thus, the dragon god of the valleys’ birth provides his only major myth. In modern practice, there are several official shrines in Japan where Kuraokami is venerated, some of which he shares with other weather kami.

At this point, I’m going to focus on the experience of working with this kami as an American who was completely new to Shinto practices, far removed from the Japanese culture of origin. First, I have set up my altar to Kuraokami utilizing the traditional shrine articles, which is essentially a fixed set of small dishes that each have an assigned purpose; these articles are used for the kami’s offerings. My altar also utilizes other traditional symbols, such as the shrine mirror and a red torii (sacred gate). I have white candles flanking the altar, and a holder for Japanese stick incense (I favor the Morning Star brand’s sandalwood sticks). Now, in a “true” Shinto home altar, these items would all be sitting in front of a kamidana–a small wooden altar box housing the kami’s ofuda. The ofuda is a talisman (usually paper) that one would acquire at a Shinto shrine, and would be inscribed with the venerated kami’s name; it is customarily replaced annually. However, as an American without ready annual access to one of Kuraokami’s shrines, I must admit that my home altar to him lacks an ofuda; instead, I have placed a statue of a traditional Japanese dragon in its place to signify the kami’s presence, which Kuraokami has been understanding and accepting of in my experience with him.

As far as my personal experience in serving Kuraokami, I’ve found him to be a particularly interactive and responsive spirit; in addition to having answered petitions for snow (or to delay it) with considerable reliability, he’s also granted me protection. Aside from making the traditional offerings (which includes rice and salt) using the altar articles mentioned earlier, I will also occasionally use separate dishes to offer other foods, especially when putting forth or repaying requests; as an added note, after the offering is made, the food may be eaten. When approaching this kami, I would certainly recommend making your respect for him clear, as he is strong and can be rather proud. Also, when approaching any kami, an understanding of Shinto purity standards and practices is absolutely necessary.

Here’s an example of a general prayer I’ll use for a common day’s practice, composed with inspiration from translations of prayers used at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine previously mentioned:
Humbly, I approach the Kami in prayer. In the Expanse of High Heaven dwell the exalted Kami. Heavenly Kami, Earthly Kami, all the many myriad of Kami, I offer my respect and gratitude, and ask that You unite and hear my prayer.
Kuraokami, who dwells in the valleys, divine bestower of snow and rain, born of the bloody union of Izanagi-no-Okami’s sword and Kagutsuchi-no-Kami’s body, I offer my reverence and gratitude, and humbly beseech You to cleanse my being of all impurities.
Kuraokami, all Heavenly and Earthly Kami, all the many myriad of Kami, I pray that You bless me with clarity and protection. Guide and teach me.
Sincerely, I speak these words.

Shadow Patrons (Gods)

In Polytheism, people have a variety of relationships with various Gods. Some have a Patron (Matron), who forms a favorable relationship with them. (Not every Polytheist has a Patron, since each God chooses their level of connection with humans.) A “Shadow Patron” (Note 1) is a God who chooses to have an adversarial relationship with a human.

Why would a God have an antagonistic affiliation with someone? It depends on the Polytheism and the particular Gods. Some people believe that the Shadow Patron works with a person to burn off the bad luck in the Ancestral line. Some Gods want to test the fitness of the person, before They ask any service of that human. For some Gods, that is their nature, such as Nergal of Babylon, who states, “I just break things.”

In my perspective, a Shadow Patron forces you to handle the psychic energy of the hurt or grief. You are forced to cope with your wounds in order to do what They require of you. Since this energy is a form of impurity, it needs to be cleansed. You need to be spiritually ready to do the various sacred acts asked of you by the Gods.

Apollo is my “Shadow Patron.” For me, it is because I do two things that this God is particular about – divination and prayers. In Roman Polytheism, both sacred activities are associated with Apollo, He is particular about doing these religious rituals correctly. Moreover, He wants ensure that I am worthy to do each. Through testing my mettle, Apollo guarantees both to his satisfaction.

Since this God is well-known to force Himself on unwilling females, I actively disliked Him. When I was a teenager, I was the victim of unwanted male attention. Hence, I avoided Apollo like the plague (which is ironic since in Roman Polytheism, He adverts the plague). When I began writing rituals and prayers, Apollo came and refused to leave. Then I started practicing Roman-style divination. At that point, Apollo instructed me on how He wanted these acts conducted. A hard taskmaster, He drove me to hone my craft for both.

As I worked through this difficult relationship, I came to realize that Apollo is my Shadow Patron. Because He wants what I do and say to be the Truth. Apollo takes me places that I refuse to go. He does not allow me to “spiritually bypass.” (Note 2). That means I have to do deep sacrifices for Him, which usually involve things that my injured brain balks at. (Note 3)

It seems ironic that the God of the Sun and of Logic would have me focus on the unconscious realm. I can explain this. Since rituals between the Gods and the community entail a liminal space, preparation needs to be made. In a ritual, the full emotional spectrum of the community is melded into one. That includes the unconscious shadows of each person. All of this needs to be harmonized before the Gods can be contacted.

Furthermore, Apollo rules the Day, which is consciousness. By doing so, He has defined the Night, which is unconsciousness. Standing in the blinding Light, one can see the deepest Night. Why is this important? In divination and in prayer, the force of the hurt, the grief, and resentment is released. This turns Day into Night. The Dark and the Light must be in balance for the Dark holds the Light as the Light holds the Dark. This seeming binary of Dark/Light is not Bad/Good, but a nonduality (Note 4) with shades of Grey between the Two.

In the “Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma,” Gita Baack writes that “resilience is the process of creating meaning out of the contradictions of life’s darkness and light. It builds on the strength of relationships and community.” (Note 5) That is for me, a major reason for Apollo being my Shadow Patron.

Divination and prayers are sacred acts. To perform each, the human communicates directly with the Holy Powers. The Pax Deorum (The Peace of the Gods) has to be maintained between the people and the Gods. This is one reason for Shadow Patrons.

Notes:
Note 1. Shadows are considered to be the archetypes of the darker aspects of life such as the Underworld. A Shadow God could be a God who is of the Underworld or of War.
Note 2. “Spiritual bypassing is a mistaken belief that if we pray enough…eat right, and only think positive thoughts, our life will ascend finally reaching enlightenment.” Linda Star Wolf, “Soul Whispering,” Page 154.
Note 3. I have a traumatic brain injury.
Note 4. “Nonduality” means “non-separation and fundamental wholeness.” It comes from Eastern Religious thought.
Note 5. Gita Baack, “Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma,” P 149.

Works Used:
Gita Baack, “Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma.”
Raven Kaldera, “Dealing with Deities.”
Galina Krasskova, “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands.”
Linda Star Wolf, “Soul Whispering.”

Gods and Spirits of the Land and Waters

December is the time when Roman polytheists honor the rivers and the hills.

My first experience with a God was with the River God of the Kennebec River in Maine. When I met the Kennebec, She was wild and untamed in spite of being dammed for over a hundred years. (Note 1) (Note 2). My family lived at the meeting of this river with the Dead River at The Forks. Although the Dead River is considered a branch of the Kennebec, it has a different nature. According to my late grandfather (former Maine Guide), this river was called “Dead” since it took so many lives of people trying to travel the river. While the Dead was quiet and menacing. I could sense that the Kennebec did not tolerate humans very much either.

Since then, I have met the acquaintances of other River Gods. The ancient God of the Potomac of Washington D.C. is so primordial that He is beyond language. The New River of West Virginia, although more primeval, is amused by humans and their activities.

One place that I have had direct experiences of land spirits is Western Maryland. This mountainous region has vast forests, meandering creeks, and wild rivers. It was first traversed by various Native American nations who warred with each other. Later the combatants of the French and Indian War and U.S. Civil War left their imprint with battles. Besides this bloody history, phantom beasts, unquiet ghosts, and odd people inhabited the area. (The most famous beasts are the Dwayyo, a werewolf-like creature and the Snallygster, a reptilian-avian creature.) The nexus of all this weirdness is South Mountain, which is an extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The strangeness of Western Maryland includes experiencing displacement of time and space. Returning home from Chambersburg (PA), I went through an unknown portal. I found myself navigating my car through a herd of mastodons, which were browsing on spruce trees. Dodging the hairy beasts, I kept going until I went through another portal back to my own time. I later found out that my experience was not that unusual for this area.

Echoing my experiences, Regis Boyer wrote in his forward of “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” by Claude Lecouteux. (Note 3), “We evolve within an inhabited ‘natural’ world, one in which the gods themselves, or the deified dead, are the cornerstone of reality. As a result it is a world that cannot conform to appearances.” (Note 4) Boyer further observed that the “Spirits of the Land” (Genii Loci) have been devalued, starting with Christianity. Even in modern times, the devaluing continues, but the Sacred still manifests Itself.

In examining ancient and medieval customs, Claude Lecouteux concluded that people once understood that they cohabited with the Spirits (Gods). Because of this, ancient peoples performed rituals, listened to oracles and made sacrifices. The folk customs of the medieval peoples such as the “rite of crossing a river” continued to fulfill this contract with the Spirits (and various Gods). Lecouteux continued, “they left us one essential law: mankind should live in harmony with the surrounding nature…. In order to prosper then, we must continue to honor the genii loci.” (Note 5).

Lecouteux interprets the ancients as asserting that the world is neither human nor spirit centered, but is full of spirits. Some are Gods, some are land or water spirits, but none are human. A wise person understands that they would have to co-exist with all of these Spirits, since they will encounter Them at times.

Recognizing the power of the Gods, Christianity sought to tame Them. The Church renamed various Gods as Saints, and built churches by sacred fountains and in groves. Those Spirits (and Gods) they could not tame, the Church called demons, who had been expelled from heaven. Meanwhile, lay people often saw these Spirits as dragons, fairies, or simply “The Little People.” No matter how much the Church (and later Science) sought to de-sanctify Them, the Gods still remained powerful.

The Gods of Water have many sacred places throughout Europe, which are still recognized. The Severn of the U.K. is named for an old British Goddess. The Rivers Boyne and Shannon in Ireland are named for the Gods Boann and Sinann respectively. The healing springs at Bath, England is the sacred place of Sulis, the Celtic Goddess of Healing. The Romans revered the Tiber River as Tiberinus. Each of these Gods received offerings from local peoples.

I, as a Roman Polytheist, do not see rivers, springs, mountains, and forests as aspects of “nature.” For me, They are not part of one divine entity such as “Mother Earth.” Each has their own power. Some heal, some kill, but all need to be respected. Bodies of water have yielded offerings of silver made by people, who understood the power of these Spirits. One does not enter a forest without permission nor drink from a spring. The Land and Water Spirits remain vigilant, ready to assert Themselves even in modern times.

Tourists like to white-water raft on the Kennebec and Dead Rivers. However, these rivers will claim lives as their due. The loggers who once drove logs down the rivers to the mills understood this. They knew these rivers took what was rightfully theirs.

Notes:
Note 1. Gods and Spirits of the Land and Waters include Those of cities, forests, mountains, and streams.
Note 2. The dam was removed in 1997. Since then, She has reasserted Herself as a powerful, wild river.
Note 3. Lecouteux, Claude, “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” translated by Jon Graham. Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015. Lecouteux, who is French, specializes in the study of medieval folklore and magic. He taught at the Paris-Sorbonne University.
Note 4. Page x, Claude Lecouteux
Note 5. Page 182, Claude Lecouteux

Works Used:
Fair, Susan, “Mysteries and Lore of Western Maryland.” History Press: London. 2013.
Lecouteux, Claude, “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” translated by Jon Graham. Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015.
Rada, James, Jr., “Looking Back: True Stories of Mountain Maryland.” Legacy Publishing: Gettysburg (PA). 2017.