Monthly Archives: December 2021
This Yule, one of my best friends gave me a book about ballet: Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” by Gavin Larsen. The author had been a principle dancer for close to 18 years with various companies, she even danced in Suzanne Farrell’s company – a respectable career for any dancer. The book was very, very good and in fact described the physical realities of being a professional dancer better than anything I have thus far read. It opened with a discussion of what it’s like upon first awakening in the morning, how the first thing—while still lying mostly in bed— one does is carefully test every muscle, unkinking the back, stretching the Achilles, opening up the body gently and carefully before even setting foot on the ground. Every breathing moment is a test, determining the state of one’s body and how one is going to physically work later in the day. That careful evaluation is something I do even now, because the alternative is pain, sometimes crippling pain, and further injury. The book details the process from first opening one’s eyes, to daily [ballet] class, to rehearsals and post-performance care. I became tremendously emotional reading it, because my body remembered both the good and the bad of that life. Shortly on the heels of reading this book, I watched a movie, “White Crow” about the defection of Rudolf Nureyev and again, it brought me back emotionally into the middle of the world that shaped me: ballet.
There is a saying in the ballet world: “A dancer dies twice.” The first time is when he or she has to stop dancing and the second is actual, physical death. This is truth. It took me at least a decade to recover emotionally and mentally from my retirement (I retired in my early twenties), and I still carry injuries and chronic pain from my career. Somehow, in some strange way, perhaps through a desperate clutching at the memory of being able to create, through the sweat, blood, and pain of my body, a beauty that elevates the soul, perhaps through the desperate longing (to touch the Gods?) that drove me into dance and didn’t leave me even after I was spat out by the daimon of that art, a bridge was crafted that spanned the fractured, abyssal space between my life as a dancer and becoming a devotee of the Gods, a priest, and finally a spirit worker. One led directly to the other and without the first, I would not have survived the transformation into the second.
Long ago, I learned that there were two paths to becoming what many might term a ‘shaman’(1): madness road or death road. The idea is that you are cast down from your world, shattered and in the process of rebuilding and restoration, one comes back stronger and more resilient than before. There is a third way though, and that is the road of art. What is that? It is living a life where you are fully given over to the daimon of an art – in my case dance. Every inch of your identity, everything inside and out by which you exist and define yourself as a human being, centers around, relies upon, and is defined by one’s art. Then…usually at a terrible and critical juncture, that is stripped away and the result is a psychic shattering of the self. You rebuild (or not, but “not” involves consequences that are a luxury for a spirit worker. “Not” involves destruction, devolution, sometimes madness, drug addiction, and death). You claw your way back into some semblance of existence. You learn to live again and eventually, if you’re lucky, to find some measure of joy. If this is part of a spirit-worker’s journey, then this is when the Gods begin the process of direct formation. (In the end, I think every spirit worker or shaman ends up traipsing painfully down every one of the roads at some point in their life as we are remade again and again in service to our Gods. It is the way of things – formation never ends). The easiest and most productive thing to do is to embrace the process.
There are so many things that I brought with me out of the crucible of ballet training that helped me when I became Odin’s, that helped me center myself as a priest, that helped me embrace my formation as a spirit worker. I am so immensely grateful that I was allowed to foster under that terrible and hungry daimon of the arts. Ballet prepared me for spirit work, but also for regular devotion and I cherish the lessons that I learned as though they were jewels poured into my hands. Some of these things are contained in words that young people today find very difficult to swallow, triggering if you will, but they are utterly essential to the Work.
The first is discipline. In ballet, there is the understanding that discipline brings freedom. It was ingrained in us from the beginning of our training. This isn’t discipline that someone is forcing onto us, but a process that we enter into willingly. The discipline comes from within, must be summoned from within, and it is a gift we give first and foremost to ourselves. We train and train, submitting to a series of exercises that have been done by ballet dancers from beginner to professional, in largely the same order, the same way, all across the world for at least four hundred years. The moment we place our hands on the barre and will our bodies into position, we enter into a lineage that began in the mime and theatre of the ancient world, and that came to fruition as ballet specifically in the court of the Sun King, and then reached its perfection in 19th century Russia (2). We stand with our ancestors within that lineage, moving as they did, putting our bodies into the same steps and rhythms that they honed and passed down, dancer to dancer, body to body – because that is the way that memories are passed in this art—and in so doing, we ourselves are shaped in accordance with the dictates the tradition requires. It is a beautiful yet terrible thing. The discipline required in ballet is brutal. One engages in a constant battle against nature. With that discipline comes a tremendous endurance to pain, a knowledge that one can persevere, and a potent resiliency in the face of physical pain and even failure. Those things all transfer well, not just to spirit work but pretty much to any other field.
The second jewel in that hoard this art gave me is that of obedience. I think this is perhaps THE most difficult idea to accept. It comes into play more often in devotion than one might think though. We learn to willingly curb our will so that we might learn the necessary techniques, and so that we might develop the aforementioned discipline. In devotion, the idea of obedience to one’s Holy Powers isn’t so much a matter of unthinking, blind obedience but of choosing to trust when we may not have all the information or answers. This obedience is a personal choice, not something imposed to destroy one’s autonomy, but rather something one consciously chooses each and every day in order to help in one’s spiritual formation. It helps us to better develop as devotionally pious people of iron strong faith, and it helps us to carry more fully and well the Mysteries of our Holy Ones that we are meant to carry. Ultimately, it brings freedom. There’s a lovely saying by Seneca that comes to mind as I write this: deo parere libertus est. To serve a God is freedom.
Finally, if one is very focused and very lucky, ballet brings with it an awareness, palpable and almost physical, of the Holy. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t experienced it in this particular way, but ballet opened me up to a sense of the sacred, to the Presence, to Numen. It was how I first learned to pray. It was my first direct experience with the Holy Powers. In Larsen’s book, toward the end (p. 224), she quotes Choura, (3) the autobiography of Alexandra Danilova.
Danilova, who trained at the Maryinsky, was a ballerina with the Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and also both professionally and personally involved with George Balanchine. She also taught at the School of American Ballet, shaping a whole generation of professional dancers. In her autobiography, she writes about the tradition of bowing (female dancers curtsey) at the end of each performance. Like the respect shown at the beginning and end of each ballet class, this is a ritualized act, and an acknowledgement of one’s place in the lineage and hierarchy of the art itself. Danilova writes, “In Russia, we were taught never to touch our knees to the floor when taking a bow unless there was royalty in the house; we were to go to our knees only to royalty or to God. (Larsen, 224)” It’s a lesson many polytheists in general and spirit -workers in particular would do well to take to heart. The humility and respect, bound together like the circling chains of our DNA, that this awareness engenders, an awareness deeply embedded in the body on a visceral, almost primal level, cannot be under-estimated. It is one of the greatest gifts my ballet career left me, and in all ways, it prepared me for encountering the Gods later in my life.
Recently, one of my undergrad students asked how I went from being a ballet dancer to a theologian. The answer is painfully, but doggedly and the line from one to the other is straighter than one might think. I am grateful, deeply, deeply grateful for each of the many teachers I have had in my life on the way. (I was thinking of this today when I was doing the dishes. My assistant made her first cake the other day and I was washing up one of the cake pans. Whenever we bake in our home, the first piece is given to our house spirits and domovoi. I learned that from another Heathen woman. I visited her once, many years ago in NC for what turned into an incredibly fruitful weekend of hearth cultus and spirit work and though we’ve long fallen out of touch (she was Theodish and I left Theodism behind close to twenty years ago), I am grateful for what I learned in the moment we baked together in her kitchen. There are Teachers from whom one consciously studies and by whom one enters into a tradition, and teachers who often inadvertently open us up to greater understanding of our Gods. I am grateful for them all. Every teacher is a treasure to be cherished, respected, and their lessons honed and passed on.
This brings me to the conclusion of this rather rambling meditation on my life and work: gratitude. Last year, instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, I chose a word that was going to be my touchstone throughout the year. That word was devotion, and it was certainly a tremendously fruitful year devotionally, often in graceful and unexpected ways. This year, my touchstone is gratitude.
- I have no issue with using the term “shaman.” The difference between a “shaman” and a “spiritworker” is that death (or madness, or art induced psychic shattering). I’ve found, however, that for myself over the years, the word “shaman” fits less and less for what I do. There are Norse terms I prefer, particularly vitki, because it aligns me in mind and heart more fully with Odin as Gangleri and Galdrafaðr. Ever and always, the work remains much the same though. Spirit worker is an umbrella term for a specialist who works with or for spirits and the Holy Powers. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this article, that definition will do. Likewise, I use the word “daimon” in the classical sense, that is as a divinely connected and powerful spirit.
- I have opinions on this. While ballet obviously continues across the world, I think the artistry and glory of the imperial ballet is yet to be equaled.
- This is a female nickname for Alexandra. It’s spelled шурa. The other common nickname, used for either Alexandra or Alexander, is Sasha.
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Today I was asked how long Yule lasts. This is…a tough question. My understanding not only of the nature of this holy tide, but of its length has certainly changed over the last decade and I suspect that there were strong regional differences to how Yule was celebrated across the Heathen world. That’s important to keep in mind.
So, instead, I’ll tell you how we’ve started celebrating, again with the caveat that I didn’t always do these things. My practice and that of my household has evolved as my understanding of yule and its importance has likewise evolved. Sometimes, I’ll sit on something I learn for a year or so, in order to ponder and better understand it, and then incorporate it at a later date. That happened with both Sunwait and Lussanatr. My understanding of this, one of our key holy times, is ever evolving.
Firstly, we’re still technically in Yule. By most reckonings that I’ve seen, at the very least, Yule lasts from Mothernight (Dec. 20th) through to the New Year.
In our house and tradition, we start celebrating six weeks before Yule, in a preparatory period called Sunwait. Every Friday night, we hold a small ritual to Sunna and meditate or galdr a particular rune. The first six runes of the elder futhark are used in order. Some Heathens will celebrate Sunwait on Thursdays instead. Sunday would be the logical day for it, being literally Sunna’s Day, but curiously I’ve not seen any report of Heathens holding their Sunwait rites on that day. I suspect this has to do with wanting to avoid any conflation of Sunwait with Advent.
After that, there is Dec. 6, which some of us have repurposed as Oski’s Day. We exchange gifts and enjoy certain foods and usually give offerings to Odin as Oski. This year, this was our major gift giving day.
Next, there is Lussa’s Day (Lussanatre) on the evening of Dec. 12. This opens the door to the Wild Hunt and really begins Yule proper.
This year we had an initiation on Dec. 19th and then the 20th was Modranacht (Mothernight). We kept Yule itself on Dec. 21. I had cut my hand rather badly so we didn’t do any bonfire – usually we would have one in our firepit out back—but we plan to remedy that before Yule is over as my hand is already almost fully healed. We keep Dec. 22 free for a ritual honoring the House of Mundilfari, but this is optional for us and this year we did not do it, as we’d given copious offerings to Them earlier and two of us were traveling unexpectedly on that day.
On New Year’s Eve, because we are a blended household, we do a Roman rite to Cardea and Her court to bring blessings for the New Year. New Year’s Day is a time for personal offerings for us, visiting friends, and cleaning and renewing the shrines. Finally on Dec. 6 we have our Perchta’s Day – this is the first year I’m formally incorporating this, so I’m excited about it. A colleague inspired me to get off my butt and do something. We might even mask and do a procession for Her.
After that, we get a breather until Charming of the Plough in late February/early March with the exception of a feast day for my adopted mom, who is honored as a saint in our tradition (and several others) on Feb. 3. Right now, as I write this, we’re preparing for our New Year’s Eve rite.
My husband sent me this song by the group Wolcensmen. It makes for a beautiful holiday song. I could totally see incorporating it into Sunwait.
Do any of you have particular songs that you like to play or sing for Yule? (Technically Yule goes through the New Year).
As I said in a comment on this much needed article, the only reason so many Heathens idolize the lore like that is that so many of them come from Protestant denominations which likewise fetishize a book and they’re repeating what they know. It’s kind of sad. It’s also one of the most detrimental aspects of contemporary Heathenry. You want to be Heathen? Don’t start with the lore. Start with prayer, with setting up a shrine, with making small offerings, with honoring your dead. Everything else is tertiary to that. Now, check out December’s piece at the link below.
I posted much of the following on Twitter and it gained a lil traction among Heathens. I was asked by a couple people to post this on my blog so that they could share it beyond twitter and am happy to do so.
A little background. I was inspired to write this after reading 2 things.
1, in a forum someone asked about where to start as a new Heathen and not just one but a few responses said “Read the Lore” and nothing more like some broke ass Poe raven.
2, a woman I was reading said she did not consider herself a Heathen because she had been told by several Heathens that to be a Heathen you had to follow the Lore and live by the Havamal (which, if you didn’t know, has a lot of unkind things to say about all women being untrustworthy in there among…
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I know this is a little belated, Sunwait having ended last week, but I just realized I’d forgotten to post this. This is the prayer we offered to invoke Sunna in our ritual last Friday.
Prayer to Sunna in Kenaz by G. Krasskova Tonight, on the last night of Sunwait, Mani gleams brightly in the sky, Luminous and bright. The air is chill, portending the coming of winter. The world glistens adorned with lights and greenery, a reminder Of the blessings of yule to come. Tonight we hail Sunna. She comes awash in beauty, powerful, radiant. She comes with open hands showering Her blessings On every heart willing to receive them. She comes, generous and proud, joyous and fiery Filled with the wisdom of a Goddess Who has seen The worlds themselves created. Kenaz crowns Her, weaving itself through Her light, Opening the way to knowledge, wisdom, and well-being, Strengthening our hearts with courage, Our minds and souls with devotion. Sunna is our guide and kenaz the fire She bears. It is illumination, sacral understanding, And the capacity to carry Mystery into the world. It is our light through the darkness, the dark night of the soul, The darkness of our world. May we tend it well and joyously Knowing that no matter how grim the night Sunna and Her retinue will always come And Her presence alone, drives back darkness. Hail to You, Gladness of the Heavens. Hail to You, Oh Sunna, on this, The sixth week of Sunwait.
Tonight was our Modranacht rite and it was beautiful. Every time we step into sacred space, every time we enter ritual we renew our commitment to restore the sacred covenants between us and the Holy Powers. Modranacht honors our Mother Goddesses, like Frigga, Sigyn, Sif, Freya, Hela (Mother of all the dead), Loki (Mother of Sleipnir), and many, many more. We also honor the Matronae, and our female ancestors and Disir. I wish the rite tonight had gone on forever. It was just beautiful.
Here is a picture of our altar to the night (it’s not complete — I took this as we were setting up. Our sacred images of Hela and Sif still need to be added. We did that shortly after I took this shot).
Here is a close up of one of my Frigga statues. It just arrived today (a good omen, I think, that it arrived on Mother-night). It’s not usually how I see Her, but represents Frigga as magician, as a shaman, in the process of shapeshifting.
For those of you who keep this holy night, I would love to hear how your rites and rituals went. Feel free t post in the comments.
I’m sitting here preparing to give the third of the four initiations my particular tradition (or denomination) might bestow. All day, I have been engaged in sacred things: cleaning shrines, preparing offerings, preparing our ritual room, laying out garb, putting together the herbs for a cleansing bath, reviewing initiatory protocols and the like. It is a good day, the night before Modranacht, where the Mighty Mothers, the Goddesses and Disir of our tradition are honored. It is two days before our Yule rite proper.
I’m sitting here, waiting for the initiate to finish her preparations, sitting with a heating blanket tucked around my back and hips – damp, cold weather makes all my old injuries ache ferociously—and as I’m doing so, I had an epiphany about this liturgical period. Our rite today honors the three creator Gods: Oðinn, Hoenir, and Loður, Who crafted the worlds, set the architecture of creation into motion, and carefully shaped and gifted the first humans Ask and Embla. Oðinn gave soul on the current of His breath; Hoenir gave sense and cognition; and Loður bestowed the gift of our sensorium, the running of our blood, and the grace of our complexions in all their glorious variety. We are infused with God-stuff: Their blessings and the ability to come into conscious awarness of the Holy Powers, and through devotion to draw closer to Them, to parse the divisions between our world and that moment of goodness, tearing down that self-imposed wall in our souls and again letting the synergy of THEM and Their will rush like life-giving waters over the desert plain of our world. They are artists these Gods, and I do not believe that the creation of humanity was thoughtlessly done. They shaped and blessed us carefully, and then moved amongst us, sent Their children amongst us too in order that we might learn how to live rightly and well.
Yule is a time where we can center again on those blessings, on that moment of creation. Sunna and Her retinue carry us into this interstitial period where the Wild Hunt rides and Odin, Perchta, and Their retinue hold sway, blanketing the worlds in Their wild and sometimes terrifying presence. We are reminded of our place in the cosmic hierarchy, of the numinous terror and ecstasy our Gods can bring, and of the great unknowability of our Gods, for They are vast and deep and beyond the masks They sometimes wear for our benefit, eternally unfolding in Their power.
Agriculturally, at the most prosaic level (nothing wrong with this – no agriculture = no food. No food = starvation, famine, and death. Agriculture and farmers are worth respecting!) Yule is a time where we look to the return of the Sun. As the longest night of the year, this is the time after which, even though winter might be hard, the days slowly grow longer and eventually the land, after its winter rest, becomes ready to receive plough and seed once more. It‘s a time of hope and celebration. We celebrate our good stewardship of our land, home, and household resources knowing that we will make it through the winter; and we look forward to the return of the sun and the fertility of the earth in the spring. On a deeper, more esoteric level, this is a time where Oðinn’s presence permeates everything. It is a time to contemplate His mysteries, His sacrifice, and the mysteries of the Gods and Goddesses that ride with the Hunt, as well as the Hunt itself, the eternal cycle of predator-prey, destruction-creation, terror-beauty-ecstasy-mystery and all the many lessons these fierce Gods have to teach. Why does the Hunt ride, and what is it doing in the architecture of creation? Why must it ride (because this is not about us. We are small in the scheme of the worlds, but about something bigger and more important, about cycles that we can barely grasp, about driving out pollution, about restoration, and about remembering the moment where ice and fire danced their terrible and violent dance. But, over and above that, it is a time to remember the means of our creation, and to reify it with the rituals that we do. One time Three Gods worked Their will upon matter and Being. Being transformed to becoming, and from that raw and primal bounty, worlds were made. They continue to be so, as creation continues ever and always to unfold. It is always happening. The Gods are always creating, always poised at the moment of the slaughter of Ymir and the distribution of His divinity.
These Gods took the body of their eldest ancestor and under the gaze of the watchful moon, pierced Ymir’s heart, hacked up his limbs, plucked out his bones and worked that divine matter into the fabric of that which They created. They infused the worlds They brought into being, with the bloody primordial ooze and viscera of divinity, of that which cannot die as we define death, of that which is ever transforming and unfolding, and that transformative power is the promise of our own ongoing creation.
Yule and the fires we light, signify the moment three Gods rose up out of the great labor-lurch of the Gap and spewed forth in will and holy fury, the actualization of the material abundance Auðumla guards. Let us remember and carry forth the knowledge of Their blessings and know that we too are part of that ongoing, unfolding promise of Their action of creation.
Now I need to get myself back in gear as the rite is about to begin.
I saw this on twitter (courtesy of Astro Museum). It’s a medallion with Hermes (Mercury) holding the infant Bacchus. It’s electrotype by E. Hannaux, French. c. 1895-1905. I just love this image so much, the strength and tenderness in Hermes comes through so palpably.