As I said I would, my last few posts have been a bit more about some of the things the wonderful people who I have the absolute pleasure of calling my fellow coveners have been doing. Their passions and their talents. And by no means has that been an exhaustive consideration. As I was looking over the posts, I thought about how, altogether, if you placed books alongside photos, art next to craft, there’s a rather ambling, wide ranging set of aesthetics, talents, tastes to be appreciated in terms of the small group such things belong to. Much more of course, than I have exampled here.
It’s not an accident of eclectic tendencies. It’s something else entirely. It is, as Lee Morgan expresses so succinctly in her book, the practical implications of communion with Otherness.
I am not a monotheist. I find it very difficult to imagine into the concept that the great and awe-inspiring diversity of human experience can take its source in the most immediate of ways from one thing. Certainly, One universe we have, but as an animist, my spiritual participation is much closer to home. We each are a unique admixture of our family genetics and history, the land we grow on, the culture it flavours and fosters, our minds and heart by the Art of that culture, by the language we not only speak, but especially read. No two of us are alike. As Dr Who so eloquently reminded us this week.
What lies at the centre of the circle must be the acknowledgement that we are in fact alike, of one family, cultural, biological, intellectual. The problem is that too often it is the only thing people are looking for at the centre of the circle.
This picture I have used for some time as avatar for the Goddess Hel, who I participate with through the blessing of blood connection to the Norse traditions. It is perhaps a funny train of thought, that She should be the agent of my thoughts in this post, but there She is, coming to Providence within the Land as I experience it as we approach Hallowmas.
She is certainly an agent of terror for many. And that is perhaps a healthy and right response to the Keeper of the Dead. But as witches, for those who cross the hedge, we court this condition daily, seek to commune with it and learn from it, experience it in ever increasing ways as we skirt the lines between this world and the Others. And not only this Realm, the Norse traditions speak of Nine, there are others who talk of Three, and in the combined experience of witches, shamans and spirit workers throughout time, I wonder that such assertions are even close to the truth of our Cosmos. But Hel, the two faced Mistress of the Dead I think has something more to teach us than fear, or perhaps, a lesson of what to fear.
And I don’t think it’s death. And the key to understanding perhaps lies in the story of Baldr’s death.
The book Gylfaginning, chapter XXXIV, describes Hel and the location briefly, but without mincing any words.
Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.
It important to note that “he” above, is no less, Odin, who commands her give lodging to all sent to Her, that is “apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her”. This is worth remembering in chapter XLIX after Baldr’s death:
At morn Hermódr prayed Hel that Baldr might ride home with him, and told her how great weeping was among the Æsir. But Hel said that in this wise it should be put to the test, whether Baldr were so all-beloved as had been said: ‘If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Æsir; but he shall remain with Hel if any gainsay it or will not weep.’
At first I meditated upon Her appearance alone. I considered that here was one of the few, mostly goddesses, who are both alive and dead at one. If death is most to be feared by the living, then this condition of being is probably the most powerful of all the two things at once beings that appear in many myths. Her “lowering and fierce” demeanour I began to think upon as connected not to that part of her condition that was dead, but that part that lived and that aspect of Hel as place as a storehouse of memory and ancestral knowledge. Her house is to enter into the condition of Otherness from the perspective of those of us walking about Midgård, but She herself embodies both, else the emergence of the dead into communion with the living at this time of year (and the Norse have practices ancestral worship for a long time) would be impossible. After all, Baldr does not escape Hel, Hermódr asks for her to release him. Baldr is not restrained. “Then Hermódr arose; but Baldr led him out of the hall, and took the ring Draupnir and sent it to Odin for a remembrance. And Nanna sent Frigg a linen smock, and yet more gifts, and to Fulla a golden finger-ring.” He organises gifts!
What is wise about Hel’s test? If she has the power to release Baldr, who is a God, and greatly favoured by the Allfather, what could she possibly have to teach of use here? “If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Æsir”.
I started to think about the idea of ‘perfect love’. Of trust, of being one with things that are not like us. Of recognising sameness. And how possible that is or is not. What is Hel speaking of when she talks of “so all-beloved”. Is that it? Is there a danger to something being so all-beloved? And if so what is it? Perhaps it is not a lesson for the living regarding the dead at all. Maybe there is something here for those of us sharing the same condition.
Then, when the messengers went home, having well wrought their errand, they found, in a certain cave, where a giantess sat: she called herself Thökk. They prayed her to weep Baldr out of Hel; she answered:
Thökk will weep | waterless tears
For Baldr’s bale-fare;
Living or dead, | I loved not the churl’s son;
Let Hel hold to that she hath!
There is a sort of Fatefulness demonstrated here. Did Hel know already before she asked the question? Did the host of Æsir before they sent Hermódr? Why is Baldr so compliant in regards to Hel’s authority in the matter? Why do some things move so easily back and forth from Hel’s halls and others not?
And I think the answer is that Otherness defines us.
We are not wholly what we are, we are what we are not in equal measure. Otherness is how we live in the world, in all the worlds, in degrees and layers of otherness surrounding us like Russian Dolls.
If Baldr refused Hel’s authority, would he have been so greatly mourned? If Thökk has cried for him, what ramifications would that have had on Hel’s authority? If Hel had given up Baldr without condition, what of all the hosts of Hel?
If we are masters and mistresses of our own lives, then what we are not, what we do not participate with, what we are different to is important. If we acquiesce to every behaviour, every taste, every way of being, we lose that authority. And without it we are no longer agents participating in own Fate, and no man or woman could rightfully call themselves a Fateweaver, Healer, or Spirit worker.
The lesson here is not to suddenly decide to hate everyone. Rather that the wise might consider how others allow us an opportunity to be unique, to express our individuality, by way of contradiction. That this dynamic is how we change and grow, how new things emerge and how we preserve those things which are necessary, where it is necessary for us to be. I think here, Hel’s wisdom has much to do with authority, her’s and others, of influence and understanding that if a thing is true, then we have a inherent right to defend it against erosion. And so it is for others to define themselves contrary to us, and have a right to authority in their own lives.
I thought again of the centre of the circle, of the circle I enter into with my coven, and realised that it’s power is in parts that recognition of what is same, but that each of us enters with two faces, and holds to what we are that is different. There is enough space for us each to hold to we have. And that in doing so we each allow expression of the uniqueness, of sovereignty in the other. It has a strength derived from something other than dominance, and certainly not from homogeneity.
How we behave and move within our families, communities, covens and etc is going to be varied, but I believe that a greater focus must be had on that which makes us different, and how we do engage with each other to the benefit of all. In a recent post I have thought about the word ‘pagan’ and I maintain that delving deeper into what that means individually rather than how alike we may be is important. We have to enter into the condition of having two faces, not to be “two faced” but to be able to understand as Hel demonstrates in this story, that there is a sort of necessity to allowing people their own choice and judgement, and something vital about asserting your own.
I feel this is the strength of coven, if it is to have any strength at all. It is not a state always of blissfully one-lovedness. Nor is it petty power struggles. It is not always equal and not all ways are equal within it. People and things have a providence in the same way as the Great Spirits emerge and retreat in Nature according to a much larger oft contradictory whole. Coven is not a community forum, but the Council of Princes.
“Let Hel hold to that she hath!” And may we each be so gracious.