Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Friday, August 19, 2005

Analysis of "Witch of the Westmereland"

A few years ago, I wrote music reviews for The Rising Wind magazine. This is one that I wrote at the time, though it turned more into an analysis of the lyrics than an actual music review, so it was never published. Still, I think it's interesting, so I'm going to share it with you now.

Many casual listeners assume that this ballad of a wounded knight seeking redemption and healing is an actual medieval piece, but it was written in the twentieth century by Archie Fisher. However, just like the great Arthurian tales, "Witch of the Westmereland" is written on two levels; a spiritual metaphor lies within a fantastic adventure.

At the song's outset, we meet our hero, a knight who is wounded and battle-weary; he could be a veteran of virtually any war in any era, and his war need not have been literal. Visitations from animal guides including ravens (sacred to Odin) and a hare (sacred to Eostre) inform him that his wounds cannot be healed by any normal means. His are spiritual wounds which will require supernatural healing. Both creatures direct him to seek out the "maid who dwells by the winding mere." An owl (sacred to Athena and a symbol of wisdom) further instructs the knight in the method of finding the witch he seeks: He must cast goldenrod into the witch's lake.

Throughout his adventures, the knight is aided by the three companions traditional to a knight: his horse, his hawk, and his hounds. In medieval folklore, these were often seen as extensions of the knight himself, symbols of his skill and strength. So it is significant that our hero tells them to wait behind as he approaches the mere. Like every spiritual seeker, he has to set aside his own ego and accomplishments before he can approach his subconscious, the gateway to Divine power.

However, as he approaches the mere, it's interesting to note that the knight bears the four magical tools with him. His sword and shield are at his side, his horn is ready should he need to summon his hounds, and the goldenrod he needs to summon the witch fills the role of the phallic wand. Of course, we don't need Freud to point out the significance of the knight placing his goldenrod in the witch's lake.

The knight's shield is of particular interest. Every time it is mentioned, from the second line on, it's referred to as "the rowan shield." Now, traditionally, shields were made from lindenwood, and poets dating back to the Beowulf period have consistently talked about linden shields. Rowan, on the other hand, is often associated with warding off magic. Could it be that this knight is not only spiritually wounded but also has built up shields that cut him off from the magical possibilities of the world?

In any case, once the knight uses the goldenrod to perform the Great Rite Symbolic on the lake, the witch springs forth from the water like a mystical revelation emerging from a seeker's subconscious. Unexpectedly, the witch has a centaurian form, half-maiden and half-horse; she represents the union of the human being with nature. The knight blows his horn to recall his helpful beasts, for he will need all of his faculties to catch the witch once she has entered this realm.

When at length the half-horse witch is apprehended by the knight's hounds and hawk, she transforms entirely into a maiden, clad in blue and silver as she stands in the moonlight. She commands the knight to sheathe his sword and lay down his shield. Once he has abandoned the aggression (or alternatively the logic) of the sword and the defensiveness of the shield, she kisses him three times; thus the knight is blessed by all three aspects of the Goddess. She then binds his wounds with the goldenrod, showing him that he has had the capacity to heal himself all along. Finally, he lies in her arms, achieving the Great Rite of union with the Divine Source. As the sun rises, he likewise rises from her embrace, not only fully healed, but also made invincible, for "none can harm the knight who's lain with the witch of the Westmereland."

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Elder Futhark and the Daily Grind

During recent exploration of the runes, I came across several systems that assign the runes to various periods of time. Because there are conveniently 24 runes in the Elder Futhark, it’s fairly easy to associate the runes with hours of the day. When I looked at these hourly associations, I was struck by how well the runes describe a day in the life of a modern worker.

1 A.M. Eihwaz (Yew): The yew is the tree of death, and at this point most modern workers are dead to the world.

2 A.M. Peorth (Dice-Cup): Only gamblers are still awake at this hour.

3. A.M. Algiz (Elk): This is the rune of guardians, and only security guards are still awake at this hour.

4 A.M. Sowelu (Sun): This is the time when the pre-dawn sunlight first begins to shine, not that the typical worker is aware of that. Anglo-Saxon runemasters called this time before dawn uhtna, not that the typical modern worker cares about that. Of course, Anglo-Saxon fishermen, laundry-workers, beekeepers, and gong farmers also called it uhtna, but it sounds much cooler to talk about Anglo-Saxon runemasters, don’t you think?

5 A.M. Tiwaz (Tyr): This rune is named for the Norse god of war, who lost his hand during a traumatic moment at pet obedience school. At this point in the morning, the typical modern worker would rather gnaw off his own hand than hear the alarm ring. But just as Tyr had to face up to his responsibility to rein in the psychopathic wolf he’d raised, so the typical office worker must face the grim reality of the impending alarm clock.

6 A. M. Berkana (Birch): This rune is associated with beginnings, and let’s face it, the typical office worker begins the day at this point. Birch wood was often used for cradles, which contain and protect the tiny spark of life, much like the coffee cup the modern office worker clutches at this hour.

7 A.M. Ehwaz (Horse): Taken literally, this rune represents one’s mode of transportation, so is it any surprise that Ehwaz governs the morning rush hour? Of course, this rune also has to do with loyalty, bravery, and reciprocal trust, qualities not typically exhibited by rush-hour drivers. Hey, nobody said this system of correspondence was perfect. I mean, heck, couldn’t you tell I was reaching when I wrote about Algiz?

8 A.M. Mannaz (Humanity): This is the hour in which the office worker enters the social sphere of the workplace and must actually attempt to be civil to other human beings, hence its association with Mannaz.

9 A.M. Laguz (Water): By nine in the morning, the typical office worker has made it to the water cooler.

10 A.M. Inguz (Ing): Ing is the Norse god of farmers, laborers, and fertility through hard work. Don’t you think it’s about time to actually knuckle down and do some hard work? For Goddess-sake, you’ve been at work for two hours!

11 A.M. Othila (Homeland/Property): This is the rune that governs one’s home and estates, and that’s exactly what the typical office worker is thinking about at this time: home, and how much he’d rather be at home than at work.

Noon. Dagaz (Day): This is the rune of all things coming together and working out well, a rune of deep contentment. So of course it rules lunch-time, the high point of any office worker’s day.

1 P.M. Fehuz (Cattle/Wealth): In its literal interpretation, this rune refers to herd animals doing what they’re told while waiting to be slaughtered for their master’s benefit; and that’s exactly how a typical office worker feels when filing back into the building after lunch. The rune’s more symbolic meaning, cash, explains the worker’s motivation for coming back to the office at all.

2 P.M. Uruz (Wild Ox): This is the rune of unbridled strength and energy. In some cases, the office worker actually feels this sense of momentum and capability while charging into an assignment at two in the afternoon; but more often than not, you’re stuck in a meeting with a superior who tells you to take the bull by the horns while presenting you with copious quantities of something from the bull’s other end.

3 P.M. Thurisaz (Giant): To Norse runemasters, this rune represented the giants, those annoying and moronic adversaries of the gods. In the modern business world, this rune represents your company’s clients. At this point in the day, a client will inevitably call demanding that you fix a problem that (a) the client caused, (b) the client could have avoided by taking your advice, (c) the client knew about three days ago, and (d) the client believes must be remedied before five o’clock today to avert impending disaster and the collapse of all markets in the Western Hemisphere. Alternatively, this rune is called Thorn and represents self-discipline, which is exactly what you’ll need to get through that call from the client, who is, after all, a thorn in your side.

4 P.M. Ansuz (Deity): This rune represents an authority figure, in this case a supervisor or boss who descends on you at a crucial moment in your client-induced disaster management to ask you if you’ve filled out your timesheet yet. In some systems, this rune is named “Ass.”

5 P.M. Raidho (Journey): This rune is etymologically related to our word road, and that’s what it’s time to hit! Just as Ehwaz (Horse) rules the first rush hour, so the rune of the road rules the second. This is also the rune of seeing the big picture and making plans. At this hour, you’re most likely getting the big picture from a helicopter traffic report on the radio, and you’re making plans for what you will do if you ever meet your clients in a dark alley.

6 P.M. Kenaz (Torch): Literally, this rune refers to the light that allows travelers to navigate at night, so appropriately this rune rules the time when drivers turn on their headlights and bars turns on their flashing neon for happy hour. Figuratively, the rune has to do with wit, cleverness, and intelligence. Of course, at the happy hour, you engage in witty repartee and acquire vital intelligence concerning office politics (known to Anglo-Saxon runemasters as gossip) while getting toasty with your coworkers.

7 P.M. Gebo (Gift): This rune refers not only to gifts but also the obligations implied in accepting a gift, an act often used ritually by Anglo-Saxon runemasters to strengthen social bonds. During this hour, you will join those with whom you share a social bond for a ritual meal, at which someone will feel obligated to ask you about your day and you will feel obligated to respond. Children, who may not yet understand the give-and-take embodied in this rune, might resist hearing about a day at the office that even you thought was boring; however, their resistance will elicit a quick lesson in reciprocity: “You have to hear about my work, because it’s how I put food on this table!” Alternatively, this rune can mean “gallows,” which may be a more accurate description of the experience.

8 P.M. Wunjo (Joy): This is the rune of celebration, a temporary relief from the stress of life. Is it any mistake that all the best television shows air at this time?

9 P.M. Hagalaz (Hailstorm): Here we have the rune of sudden upset and disaster, which perfectly describes the situation when you inform your children that it’s their bedtime. Nevermind that they’ve had the same bedtime for as long as they could speak; because of the influence of this rune, the news is always a disastrous revelation that evokes protest. In the case of teenage children, questions about whether they’ve finished their homework and whether they plan to ever get off the phone will produce a similar result.

10 P.M. Nauthiz (Need): This rune’s literal meaning is “need,” and after the day you’ve had, you need a drink. Go ahead; the Norse gods drank all the time. Heck, it was a compliment to say that a Viking didn’t kill his friends when drunk. Oh, the editors say I can’t encourage drunkenness, so I have to write a new interpretation. Boy, I hope they remember to take the old one out.

10 P.M. Nauthiz (Need): This rune’s literal meaning is “need,” so at this hour you need to watch the evening news, since you didn’t catch the news at six, which was after all the hour of knowledge. At least you can take solace in seeing that so many people in the world are worse off than you.

11 P.M. Isa (Ice): The rune of stillness perfectly describes what the world is like at eleven o’clock at night. It is also the rune of stagnation, which pretty well describes the state of late night television.

Midnight. Jera (Year or Harvest): This is the rune of getting what’s coming to you. At this point, the day catches up with you, and you have to go to bed in hopes of getting some sleep before Sowelu rises again.

This article originally appeared in The Rising Wind magazine.

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You are invited to use any or all of the Pagan thoughts articles by Cedric in your publication or website. The only requirement is that you include the by-line of the author, including the name and website of the article.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

How I Misspent my Youth by Going to Church

Well, I'm about to hit the road to go to Gig Harbor, Washington, where my band, the Bedlam Bards, will be playing at the Washington Renaissance Fantasy Faire. It's been a little less than a week since my first "weekly" posting, but I thought I'd post for this week now, as I'm going to be traveling and busy for a few days. So here's a little more information about my spiritual background:

My teen rebellion involved becoming a fundamentalist Christian and joining the Assembly of God church. (That’s how you rebel when your parents are agnostics.) Even during that period, I had a keen interest in mythology, which I often hid from my fellow Christians or explained away as an “examination of the enemy.”

My parents did their best to remain tolerant of my religious choices, as good Unitarian-Universalists should, but they finally lost their objectivity in the matter. Going against even their own principles, they forbade me to attend the AoG church.

Saying that they had neglected my spiritual education, they embarked on a program of making up for it. Every Sunday morning, we attended a different church, so that I could see the variety of worship that people engaged in. (We even went to a synagogue on High Holy Days. I guess that happened on a Saturday.) On Sunday nights, we read from books about other religious traditions, including one called This Believing World.

I hated the experience. I struggled and fought and resisted in my heart. My faith was strong and pure, and my parents could not destroy it. But something else did.


Specifically, hypocrisy at the church my parents had forbidden me to attend. It took two forms, both of which I found profoundly disturbing.

First, a traveling preacher came to my home town under the auspices of my old church. His “ministry” involved preaching against “Satanic music.”

Now, I had heard all about Satanic music when I attended the church. I’d heard the stories—urban myths essentially—about how rock music was literally the Devil’s tool, about how Satanic priests actually chanted evil spells while the records were pressed. (Back then, we called compact discs “records,” and we played them on these things called “turntables.”) I’d even heard about how if you listened to the records backwards, you could hear the Devil’s compelling marketing slogans, like “Decide to smoke marijuana.” If you ask me, the Devil needs better slogan writers.

Anyway, even as a fundamentalist Christian, I had regarded such stories with considerable skepticism. After all, the backwards messages were scratchy and incomprehensible unless someone told you what to listen for. More importantly, they were backwards, for God’s sake. Who the heck listens to records backwards?

Finally, the most compelling issue for me was that if you just listened to, say, “Shout at the Devil” forwards, you’d hear plenty of much more explicit (and catchy) Satanic slogans. I mean, the Devil must be sneaky enough to know that hiding subliminal messages under a Black Sabbath or Motley Crue song is a less-than-clever ploy.

So my attitude toward the whole matter was that you listen to a song and decide on its own merits whether it supported your faith. Even back then, I believed that common sense had to temper faith.

Now, back to that wandering preacher. He attracted a lot of attention in the local media by hosting record-burnings. I found even the concept of that disturbing; I just had a gut-revulsion to anything similar to a book-burning.

But the final straw was a quotation I read in the newspaper: When asked if only rock music is Satanic, the preacher said, “Any music that does not expressly glorify God is Satanic. I burn rock music because there aren’t many kids out there endangering their souls by listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

This may seem silly, but I knew then and there that the preacher was no man of God. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the closest thing to Divine music we will ever have on Earth, in my humble opinion.

The other matter of hypocrisy that hit the news from that church was even more troubling.

See, the people of that church thought of themselves as one big family of the virtuous, and we helped each other out. We all had the illusion (common in many subcultures) that fellow members of the church were utterly trustworthy and above reproach. For that reason, one of the couples at the church trusted me to babysit their young sons.

I took the responsibility seriously and did my best to safeguard them from all harm; and I’m proud to say that nothing bad befell them on my watch.

Then, during that period when my parents were keeping me from that church, I read in the papers the truth about that family: The dad had been raping his sons, and his teen-aged neice, for years—all while attending the church several times a week and professing his love of God.

These two events opened my eyes—and I was able to actually see the wide variety of religious experiences my parents were showing me. Though I resented them at the time, I am now deeply grateful that I had such an excellent education in comparative religion, to complement my first-hand understanding of the people that now form the Religious Right.

That experience left me faithless, and for a longtime I was a die-hard rationalist. How I overcame that is a subject for a different post.