A Minor Ancestral Interlude

It’s a delicious zero degrees outside and I am loving it. Every morning, when I get up (after I have tea and sort myself into a grumbling consciousness), I go outside and greet the Gods and spirits. Because it was so cold today (and because I’d started the laundry, so all my warm pants were being washed), I put on (over thin leggings so I’m not breaking my taboo against dresses) a thick woolen skirt. It’s actually period clothing, made in the style of the 18th century, so in truth, it was a woolen petticoat. I only put one on (women would often layer them), and then warm woolen socks and Lobben boots (what my god-daughter once called my “troll shoes” – she’s fascinating by the slightly upturned toes lol), a flannel shirt, and a hat. I gathered my gear (incense, lighter, cup of water, and drum) and went out to work. The whole rite takes about 15 minutes, and I was perfectly warm. I could have stayed out there with no trouble for hours.

All of this got me thinking about the way we dress. My ancestors, and certain ancestral groups that I honor, often ask me to incorporate aspects of how they dressed during their lives, into my daily garb. It’s comfortable and not an issue for me for the most part, plus, it allows a means by which I can better connect to my dead. It’s like I’m wrapping myself in their attention and blessings. But I’ve learned some very practical things through this as well. 

My usual at-home gear tends to be very, very simple: black pants of a light, synthetic fabric (1), a ratty camisole top or t-shirt, and felted wool house slippers. That’s it. I’d live in it if I could. When I teach of course, I dress professionally (but I’ve started trying to replace any clothing made of synthetics with bespoke clothing of natural fabrics – it’s expensive but it lasts so much longer). One thing that I realized is that it’s only due to central heating and air that we can dress as we do (2). I don’t think it ever really hit home before that so much of how both men and women dressed was a matter of keeping the body’s core warm when, even inside, temperatures were much, much colder than what we are generally used to today. Here’s a fascinating video that shows all the parts to an upper-class Dutch woman’s dress circa 1665 (working class women would wear most of the same underwear bits and stays, but the quality of fabric and the number of layers would be less than what we see here). 

Up through the turn of the 20th century, there was no central heating. I spent a very cold and snowy January in a house without central heating a few years ago, getting up in the morning to light the huge wood stove, the only source of heating in the place. I’m going to be very blunt: it sucked (though not as much as having to trek through knee high snow to the outhouse or haul water). The way one managed was by layering one’s clothing and of course, there were chores to be done throughout the day (including cutting wood and keeping the fire going) that helped to keep one warm. It was a really good lesson in physically comprehending a tiny bit of how our ancestors lived.  These experiences build—at least for me– respect for how our ancestors lived, survived, and even thrived. I always through the way early modern women dressed – in multiple petticoats and stays– was foolish but you know what? Those petticoats keep one perfectly warm (probably warmer than the men, given that the style, at least in the 18th century, was for men’s pants to stop at the knee. Calves on a dude were viewed as sexy. Lol. So, they wore white stockings and showed that shit off) and the stays, and later corsets that women wore protect the core, adding a significant layer of warmth. What I’d dismissed as frippery and foolishness had a very practical purpose. This is also the case with head coverings. Yes, modesty for women was one of the reasons hair and head were covered, but there was also the question of warmth. Both men and women tended to keep their heads covered and both wore nightcaps. I’d always thought this absolutely ridiculous but when there’s no central heading, and the weather can drop to zero or below, covering the head makes perfect sense for keeping body heat in. 

from this site on historical menswear: http://www.historicalmenswear.com/1700s/

It reminded me yet again that our ancestors knew things. They were smart. They engaged with their world in practical and insightful ways. They understood their world and how to make the technology and crafts to which they had access work for them. In some ways, they understood better than we do today (3). They moved in their world in ways that made sense to them, and that took into account the available technology, the climate, and the work that they had to do. I think there’s a tendency to think that we are better than our ancestors, that they were somehow less sophisticated than we are now. This is a mistake, and this is where living history (in ways large and small) can teach us to reconsider how we treat our dead, how we approach them, and how beneficial it can be to approach our ancestors with a willingness to learn all the lessons they have to teach. 

Notes:

  1. I’m moving away from wearing any synthetics. Most of them are made of plastic and they are terrible for the environment, pick up body odor much faster than natural fabrics, and don’t last. They’re garbage fabrics. I have a colleague who, like many spirit-workers, has clothing taboos. In her case, she’s not permitted to wear synthetic fabrics. While that’s not one of my taboos (I have certain color taboos, and I’m also not generally permitted to wear skirts or dresses – unless it counts as ritual garb), I’ve started copying her because the fabric is just so much better. Silks, cottons, woolens, even rayon (which is made from plant fibers), linens, hemp, bamboo all allow for a broad choice of clothing. 
  2. This was further brought home to me when my assistant and I were traveling back from a funeral at which I’d officiated. I was dressed in an 18th century men’s suit (but with long pants), and she was in a sun dress and sweater, since this happened in the spring. I’m not usually sympathetic when women complain about office temperatures and such being too cold. My attitude, since I tend to run hot – my ideal house temp is 68 F—is put on a sweater. I’ve never worked in an office or classroom that I didn’t find swelteringly hot. My friend had a sweater on though but still begged me to turn down the ac in the car (I did). I was perfectly comfortable though – in three layers around my core: linen shirt, wool vest, wool jacket. It really got me thinking about male versus female garb – it’s not all bad though, as I note above in my article.  
  3. As a complete aside, I have a theory about why women’s clothing today tends to lack pockets. I don’t think it’s simple female vanity (I know some of the problem is concern over the line of more form fitting dresses, but I don’t think that’s the only thing happening here). Until the early 19th century (??) women would wear pockets as a separate part of their attire. You could have huge pockets, but you tied them around your waist, underneath your petticoats. They were accessible via openings in the sides of the petticoats. They could be as large or small as you wished. You were in charge of your pockets. In the 18th century, panniers were …. ginormous pockets. I seriously wonder if the dearth of pockets in modern female clothing isn’t some unconscious holdover from this earlier, multi-century trend. Here’s an article on decorating pockets. Here’s a site that shows traditional pockets on a mannequin. 

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on January 16, 2022, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Head coverings also were protection to a certain degree against vermin, and protection of the hairstyle at times too.

    I just think I’d die under all the layers.

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    • Wyrd Dottir, I think you’d do ok with the layers given that we were going through what climate historians call a ‘little ice age’ at the time. lol The thing I find annoying about women’s clothing of the time is all the tying: tie the petticoats, tie the stays, tie the pockets, tie an apron. Jesus Christ there’s a lot of tying of crap. It’s warm though. last night, we had a snow storm and I went out in it to make some offerings to the winter spirits. I was still wearing the woolen petticoat and that was enough to keep me toasty as I walked around the block (something my back is greatly protesting today).

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  2. Ancient and medieval clothing is devoid of pockets for either gender. Baffling. Pockets make absolute sense and seems to be something we stumbled upon rather late in the dressing game.
    I would like to know more about the clothing taboos of spirit workers.

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    • It varies by spirit worker, David. Some don’t have any. there’s no rule.

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      • I guess I’m asking- if one has them, what type of taboos are they? What governs the practice- by what gnosis? Lineage? I guess I’d just like an overview of how that works. Thank you.

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  3. The Lobben Boots!!!! So Cute! I’m starting to make more of my clothes and since adding pockets to clothes is something that I find tricky, I’m looking at the old tie on pockets for under my skirts. I’ve been nudged towards taking on clothing taboos by my Goddesses and Disir including wearing only skirts so this might end up being the way I go in general. Plus, they are so pretty – like lil hidden fiber art treasure…My only thing I gotta work on is wearing this in the heat and outside in the garden will take some getting used to.

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  4. David, you asked: I guess I’m asking- if one has them, what type of taboos are they? What governs the practice- by what gnosis? Lineage? I guess I’d just like an overview of how that works. Thank you.”

    All good questions but difficult to answer because there’s no set way this happens. Every real spirit worker that I know has a passel of taboos (things one cannot do, or sometimes things one must) but there’s no rhyme or reason to it that we know (though of course I am fully convinced that the Gods have a plan there and it makes perfect sense to Them–we just can’t see it), even amongst those owned by the same Deities. I do think that taboos are meant to strengthen the spirit worker in some way, or his/her connection to his/her cadre of Holy Powers. We always end up having to discourage “baby” (new) spirit workers from seeking out taboos or pretending, in their enthusiasm, that they have them, or copying another spirit worker. it’s not something to seek. they’ll come if they come and if you pretend, you might get hit with one hard and fast that you don’t like. it’s not like we get to choose them after all and often they’re damned inconvenient. food and clothing taboos seem to be the most common. I also think there’s some aspect of “othering” to certain taboos – that the spirit worker is meant to stand out as a carrier of the holy and we see this in anthropological accounts of “shamans” quite a bit. It’s interesting but I haven’t made a study of it. I just cuss when I realize I’ve had a new taboo dropped on my head. Often, quite often, they’re about protection too and ritual purity — an awful lot of mine have to do with avoiding miasma.

    Some taboos come with lineage, some by gnosis. I actually inherited one from my late mom. It’s funny, when I’m divining for someone, and that person is a spirit worker who asks about whether or not he or she has a taboo, I’ll caution them NOT to ask. (Better to ask forgiveness than permission…once it comes up on the mat, one is obligated).

    Usually, one might get intensely uncomfortable wearing or not wearing something to the point that the person takes it to divination, prayer, etc. Or one is told directly by one’s Gods and spirits.

    There’s no virtue in having a religious taboo. There’s no virtue in being free of taboo. It’s just a thing that sometimes happens in our formation as spirit workers that, in some way, helps us.

    My colleague Tove just said (as I ran my answer by her because I’ve never actually thought about it this much lol) that “sometimes, it illuminates a path that we’re on as spirit worker with more clarity than we otherwise would have had.”

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    • Thank you Gallina. I think I have a great deal to learn about spirit workers. But I shall bother you about that another time. I appreciate your answers and willingness to teach me.

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      • You asked really good questions. I may pull out my response and your question and post it as a separate piece. I think this is a subject of curiosity for a lot of people, InCLUDING spirit workers!

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      • Look forward to that. I think it is a superb idea.

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  5. Tove just said, “they can also be an expression of the voice of our Deities too, like our primary Deity.” (She’s on a roll today so this has prompted a discussion in our living room. lol.

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  6. I’m curious…I had heard/read that the processing of some of the fabrics you mentions was a reason for not wearing them. Specifically bamboo. The amount of chemical process to make the fabric was very much not environmentally friendly. I have no idea the accuracy of this and lack the brain space to search it. Just wondering if you have thought of/heard the same or not.

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    • That may actually explain why I don’t like bamboo. I mentioned it as a natural fabric, but in what I personally wear, I tend to restrict myself to cotton, silk, linen, and fine wool (if it’s not good wool, I’ll itch terribly). also I like rayon. I didn’t realize it was a natural fabric until recently but it’s comfortable as hell. I’ve used bamboo before, but sparingly. I always assumed it didn’t click for me bc it wasn’t a fabric my ancestors would have used but now I wonder.

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