Royal School of Needlework has an ongoing project that allows individuals to “sponsor” a stitch for their “stitchbank.” It’s a fantastic resource for historians and of course, for those who are learning to embroider. RSN correctly points out that embroiderers throughout history have rarely signed their work. We have many, many examples of this beautiful art from antiquity all the way up to the present, but rarely, very, very rarely do we know the names of the (mostly) women who created them (1). This stitchbank is preserving these stitches with the names of either those who sponsored them or those for whom a stitch has been sponsored. I think that is pretty cool.
There are lots of things that we can do to honor our ancestors. I think it’s important to remember though that until the 20th century, a huge portion of our female ancestors’ time would have been taken up with textile production: spinning, in some cases weaving, sewing, knitting or crochet, and for those who had the time, embroidery – adornment. Depending on the period of history about which we’re speaking, one couldn’t just go to the store and purchase thread. Thread started with sheep. You had sheep, you cut off the wool, carded and spun that into thread and then that thread could be dyed, woven, etc. etc. One could trade for these goods, I suppose, but in the end, anything one wore began with an animal or a plant and a terrifying amount of work. Whenever I embroidery, mend, or select clothing, I think of my female dead and the valence such things must, of necessity had for them (2).
So, and my point to all of this, is that I decided to sponsor a stitch for my maternal grandmother Linnie Shoff Hanna (1909-1987). She got assigned the cloud stitch (not posted yet that I saw) and I am delighted. She was the one who first taught me to embroider. I remember how hard it was to learn French knots. She took a piece of nice linen, drew a rabbit holding a carrot and had me make his eye out of a French knot. That was my reward for learning how to do it and when I’d outlined the whole thing and satin stitched the carrot, she made it into a pin cushion for me. Whenever I embroider now, I am inevitably beginning and ending the process with prayers to my maternal dead. It is a way to feel closer to them, to keep them in living memory, as I go about my daily work. May the names of our dead always be remembered.
- The exception, I think, are samplers. Young girls would sometimes sign their samplers. Also, in colonial America, very little boys were sometimes given samplers to do as punishment (the annoying thing is that some of these samplers are better than anything I can do today lol).
- This is one of the reasons that I try to wear clothes made only of natural fibers (wool, cotton, linen, silk, etc.) and, when I can afford it, handmade. I don’t sew well enough to make my own clothes, but I’ve been outsourcing a few things to a terrifyingly gifted seamstress and it is so much better, better made, and longer lasting than clothing purchased off the rack. It’s expensive and I acknowledge that this isn’t something everyone can do (and I can’t afford it for everything) but if you can sew, give making your own clothes a shot. If you can afford it, try getting a bespoke suit once in your life. It changes one’s relationship to one’s clothing, to production, craft, and it really, really makes one aware of the attitude of disposability and planned obsolescence that so define our modern purchasing experience.
Today is the feast day for one of our most beloved Sanctae, most beloved to me at least, because she was my adopted mom. She was also the most devout and pious person I have ever known. As her daughter, I can say that she centered me in reverence and piety, helped me to be a better devotee of my Gods, and helped me to become a better person, and she taught me a renewed joy in the grace of sacred service to Them. I know she helped others too and has continued to do so, as is the way of a saint, after her death. I usually write something about her on this day and on her birthday. I’ve been thinking about her a great deal over the last few weeks especially, though every day I ache for the loss of her.
As is my custom, this evening I made offerings at her shrine. There are prayers that I said, and prayers that I wished to make, many too personal to be shared here. Love and reverence, piety, and a very quiet discipline, that of doing what needs to be done even when it is inconvenient…those are the gifts I feel she poured into my heart and hands and I am deeply grateful. To be loved in this way, and to be challenged is a very precious gift. I know that the Gods placed me into her care and were They to do nothing else for the rest of my life, that gift, that tremendous gift would be enough. That They do more, always is a blessing beyond measure. She taught me to recognize the blessings of the Gods as they come, large, small, or in-between.
On this, her feast day, I offer this prayer:
May Fuensanta and all our sancti and sanctae be honored. May they be remembered. May we ever learn reverence at their feet. May we cultivate the discipline of piety. May we wrap ourselves in veneration, until our love of the Holy Ones becomes a fire that nothing may quench. Hail to Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza, devoted servant of Sigyn and Loki, and Hail to all our Gods. What is remembered, lives.
I don’t usually share things like this, but I am so excited about a recent acquisition that I cannot help myself. Y’all know that I venerate the castrati as a family of ancestral spirits (yes, I know, but it doesn’t matter that they’re not technically my blood ancestors; I love them and they are spiritual ancestors for me). Well, being the tactile person that I am, when I am learning how to honor and engage with a new family of spirits, it often helps to have physical objects. If I am learning proper veneration to a new Deity, I’ll set up a shrine for the same purpose(1). If I’m engaging with an animal spirit as a spirit worker, I want a tooth, claw, or bit of fur, and likewise with my ancestors whenever possible, I like to have a photo or some item that belonged to them. Is this a bit reductionist? Yes. Is it absolutely necessary? Not at all, and in fact, I’ve been honoring the castrati both as a group and as individuals for close to a decade now without having anything approximating a physical object, unless one counts the music they once sang.
Well, today I can happily say that I now own a scrap of music handwritten and signed by one of the last of the great vocal castrati: Girolamo Crescentini (1762-1846) (2). He was equally regarded as a singer, teacher, and composer and what I acquired today was a bit of music written by him for a correspondent or friend (It is unclear from the provenance for whom he originally wrote the piece). Crescentini was a favorite of Napoleon, (who otherwise despised castrati) who knighted him in 1809.
What is pictured here is an autographed six bar musical quotation of an arietta, in Crescentini’s own hand. Since he signed it ‘cav. (cavalier) Crescentini,’ we know it must have been written after 1809. There is a little note: Due note sol da mi fibra mi! Assai di piu assai di pire tene do no (You wish to receive just two notes from me, I give you more and more of them). Signed: carattere, e compisizione del Cav. Crescentini (Character and composition of Cavalier Crescentini).
I never expected to find something like this and in fact, last year I had an antique dealer who specialized in autographs and musical scores tell me it was nearly impossible to find anything written or signed by the castrati (a Meissen teapot owned by Senesino (1686-1758) came up for auction last year, I believe, but it was way, way, WAY out of my price league omg). I do have a couple medieval manuscript leaves. I pick up inexpensive ones here and there, usually at the medieval conference at Kalamazoo – their book room is heaven and the MSS dealers always have at least a bit priced low for grad students–because they are helpful when I teach. I find students become really engaged when they can actually touch a piece of history and hold it in their hands. It brings it alive like nothing else. None of leaves approach this 5.24×6 inch scrap of music. This is a personal connection to a family of spirits, to one particular spirit that I never, ever, ever expected to find and I am grateful to the Gods and ancestors that I happened to stumble across it (and that it was both relatively inexpensive – it’s small—and within my budget).
Look. Look at the pretty thing. ^___^. (I’ve very inexpertly blurred my address bc I liked the photo and didn’t want to pull everything out to take it a second time when I realized my home addy showed).
musical notation, inscription, and signature of G. Crescentini. Personal collection of G. Krasskova
- At least, that is part of the purpose. The other part, of course, is that this is a space for veneration and a visual sign of welcome for that Deity into one’s home and life.
- The very last of the great operatic castrati was Giovanni Velluti (1780-1861), a younger contemporary of Crescentini.
I had nearly forgotten about this in the rush of finals — the days all blur together in a mass of work! Thankfully, it came up in my morning class. As someone who honors the military dead as part of my ancestor practice and who also had a father who was a WWII veteran, I try to note key WWI and WWII remembrance days. It’s a good day to make offerings to your dead who may have served.
I’m writing this with a very bad headache, so I will probably be keeping it shorter than usual. I just want to bring two ritual days to people’s attention in case some of you, my readers, may want to celebrate too.
Tomorrow, my household observes Veterans’ Day. Originally, this was called Armistice Day and commemorated the end of WWI, the armistice of which was declared November 11, 11am (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month). It’s still called Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in some places. We have just passed the one hundredth anniversary of WWI and when I honor the military dead, it’s the dead of this war specifically that come forward more than any others. I don’t know why, perhaps because I lost relatives in this war (my cousin Wesley Heffner went over with Pershing’s forces and died on a field in France).
Anyway, we’ll be doing a rite to honor the military dead tomorrow evening, and this will also involve extensive libations for Odin, since in my household, tomorrow is His feastday as Herjafodr (Father of Hosts), Herteit (Glad of War), Valfoðr (Father of the Slain), and Valkjosandi (Chooser of the Slain).
For the Fallen by R.L. Binyon With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, England mourns for her dead across the sea. Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, Fallen in the cause of the free. Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres. There is music in the midst of desolation And a glory that shines upon our tears. They went with songs to the battle, they were young, Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, They fell with their faces to the foe. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them. They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; They sit no more at familiar tables of home; They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; They sleep beyond England’s foam. But where our desires are and our hopes profound, Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, To the innermost heart of their own land they are known As the stars are known to the Night; As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain, As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain.
I’ve written on my other blog about my cousin Wesley Heffner. That piece, part of a larger section on an ancestral pilgrimage I did, may be found here.
Sunwait, a celebration of the six weeks before Yule which is held by some Heathens today begins this week. This will be my household’s first year celebrating this and we plan to keep it on Fridays. I’ll write more about that after Veteran’s day. Be well, all my readers. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Remember your dead.
This will be short, because today is a very full day of rituals. We honor the Aventine Triad every full moon, various vaettirand the fair folk receive offerings, and we’re also going to be going our ancestor ritual tonight AND making special offerings to Mani (separately). Today will be hopping and I’m just starting to get myself ready to go out to make the first of the offerings.
To give a quick recap, on Thursday, we did a rite to honor our Disir, our female dead. That was unexpectedly moving. It’s funny, because I always find the Disir to be somewhat more protocol heavy than male ancestors, yet despite wanting us to “dot our I’s and cross our t’s,” as the saying goes, they always seem to dig deeply down into our hearts and wrench out raw emotion. Also, there are things the male dead wanted, certain prayers, in which the women had almost no interest. It was interesting to note the flow of things. Yesterday, we made offerings outside to the wandering dead, those who have no one to honor them, and also to our Gods of the dead and the Underworld. Tonight, we’re doing a ritual to honor our collective dead. Tomorrow, we honor our sanctiand martyrs, and then the day after, we visit cemeteries and then that marks the end of our ancestor days. Tuesday after I go vote, I’ll be taking down the offrenda. (As an aside, this year I decided to use a ton of battery operated candles and I love it. While it doesn’t do anything for cleansing and purifying a space – for that one needs actual fire – it does allow me to keep memorial light going throughout this entire week and that has been lovely. I may keep one on my ancestor shrine always lit from here on out).
One of the ways that I often prepare before ancestor rites is to listen to certain songs that have the ancestor rhythms. Certain rhythms call the dead like nothing else and that music will take me down into an altered state very, very quickly. It makes for a particularly nice transition out of mundane headspace and into ritual space for me. Here are two of my favorite. It’s nearly the same rhythm, but the second is harder, more driving and gives one a much harder drop into altered headspace. Anyway, I’m off to prep for rituals. See y’all on the other side.
Tonight was the first night of a rather intense ritual cycle. Each October, we hold rituals nightly from October 25 through November 3. We’ve done shorter rites and preparations earlier throughout the week, but tonight was the first big ancestor ritual. It really did feel good to return to this practice. Even though we all honor our ancestors regularly, this type of formal ritual seems long overdue.
Tonight, we specifically honored our male ancestors, naming those we wished to name, honoring groups of our male dead, telling stories, praying with and for them. (Tomorrow we honor our Disir, our female ancestors, Friday is Hela’s feast day, though as tonight, Veles will get his due as well. With so many Slavic dead around in our household, this, I think, was inevitable. Saturday and Sunday are for all our dead, and form the primary focus of our Winternights rite, and then the next few days are for more personal veneration and cemetery work.). I honor the dead as I was taught years and years ago, and this is the form that has become customary in our House.
We kept our ritual very simple, consecrating space with fire, praying to the ancestors as a whole, praying to Hela, pouring out offerings, offering an unexpected prayer to Veles because He was suddenly so very present and the Slavic ancestors really wanted Him honored, pouring out offerings, then prostrating to the dead, telling their stories, saying their names. This year we incorporated a simple symbel (a ritual where the horn is passed around three times and ancestors and Gods hailed). I have a novice training to become a gythia (priest), so taking this ritual slowly and simply allowed me to really delve into each of the constituent parts with her. It was a surprisingly powerful rite.
Tomorrow, we repeat the whole thing again for our female ancestors. What a motley crew we are in this House, ancestors from every corner of the world, and it is wonderful. May they all ever be hailed. For those of you who celebrate at this time, what do you have planned?
I woke this morning to find an email from Bethany H. asking “Why do you shave your head?” There were other implications in the email that I won’t go into, but I seriously want to thank Bethany for actually asking me outright instead of making stupid assumptions. This has come up occasionally since 2016, including once in a restaurant where my husband nearly had to intervene (I was largely oblivious as to why the person sitting next to us was so agitated.) and Gods know wearing a hammer and runic tattoos these days can lead to rather unpleasant encounters. So, to answer Bethany’s question:
I shave my head as an act of religious piety to honor the military dead. As part of my practice of ancestor veneration, particularly my work as a spirit worker/ancestor worker, in addition to honoring my own personal dead, there are a couple of special groups that I feel vocationally called to tend. One of those is collectively, the military dead and I maintain a separate part of my ancestor shrine for them. About eight or nine years ago, I felt pushed to start shaving my head as part of this work. I consulted divination and was told the choice was mine, but yes, they would like that visible marker of piety.
There was a time years and years ago, where I was bound to keep my hair long, but I suspect – in retrospect – that this was a gentle way of easing me into the idea of physically marking oneself for devotional purposes. That particular requirement was lifted easily more than twenty years ago though, right around the time I was pushed to mark myself with the valknot for Odin. I suppose such bodily choices are a form of conscious “othering,” or at the very least of marking out one’s religious identity visually, and the Northern Tradition is hardly unique in wearing their faith and praxis. I may have to do a separate post on that at some point. I do find that Heathens are more likely than many polytheistic religions to consciously give our body’s real estate to our Gods by way of devotional tattoos and the like. (All of my tattoos are religious, marking initiations, contracts, vows, commitments, and devotion). Some polytheists, some Heathen, some other polytheistic religions, are pushed to cover their heads for their Gods (something I only do when I pray, or occasionally for a brief span of days for purification purposes), some are actually forbidden this. It depends on the Gods, the devotee, the tradition.
The most important thing here is this: don’t assume. You make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. ASK. I will never find an honest question, asked in good faith, offensive. Some may be a bit too personal to answer, but I will always come out and just say that.
After the autumn equinox, we turn almost immediately to thinking about and honoring the dead. Now, honoring the ancestors for most polytheists, is a year-round practice, but the autumn is a time of particular attention and ritual (1). I’m not sure why autumn is such a potent ancestor time but it is, in multiple traditions. I think maybe it’s that the vibrancy and abundance of summer is fading away as the earth itself prepares for winter, something that can lead to a certain melancholy and contemplation of death, but that’s just speculation on my part. It does seem appropriate as the seasons shift to honor the dead in special ways and this leads nicely into the more intense holy days surrounding Yule.
At the end of this month, from October 27 through Nov 2, my House does a whole week of ancestor rituals for various groups of our dead and for our ancestors and allied spirits as a whole. That is still a month away though preparations have already begun in my home. Before we get to those rites though, we have our first feast-day for the dead coming up on October 4: a commemoration of the Martyrs of Verden.
It is no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of European history that the spread of Christianity across Europe brought with it religious and cultural genocide. Charlemagne in 8thcentury France was no exception. The grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne destroyed sacred sites and holy places of the Saxon Heathens and, when these brave men and women refused to convert (i.e. to abandon their ancestral Gods and practices), slaughtered them en masse. Four thousand, five hundred of them, at the very least, laid down their lives in defense of their Gods and traditions in 782 C.E. at a bloodbath that is known to historians as the massacre of Verden.
After the Saxon wars, i.e. after Charlemagne’s crusade against indigenous polytheism, the children of Saxon nobles were sent to monasteries as oblates, and sometimes they were forced to take binding vows as monastics (there is a famous case a few decades later of a man who jumped the wall, fleeing the monastery after having been forced to become a monk and during the resulting trial, one of the senior monks said, in the trial transcripts, that any and all abuses toward the Saxons were justified because they weren’t Christian at the time (2)).
I could go on. I have strong feelings about the man (3). I don’t, however, want to focus on him in this post beyond what I have done in order to provide historical context. I’d rather focus on the martyrs, those who were killed because they refused to convert (4). That’s exactly what my household will be doing too on October 4.
We’re still working out the proper rites by which to honor our sancti, sanctae, and martyrs. We don’t have a set format yet. Usually we purify the space, invoke whatever Gods seem appropriate, and then pour out libations to the dead in question, sharing stories of them as we go. More offerings may, if anyone involved feels it appropriate, be made. It’s both low-key and straightforward. We will often have a communal meal afterwards.
Since we’re all home now due to Covid restrictions, we may set up memorial candles and keep them going all month. I’ve been playing with the idea since it was something I used to do on my ancestor shrine throughout October and November. We give water to refresh them, candles to light their way, food and drink to nourish them, and the gift of memory, of telling their stories. If it is not enough, it is at least a good starting point.
What are all of you doing for your ancestors this month?
- At least it is in my tradition. Some polytheisms have their ancestor time in late winter, usually February.
- See Matthew Bryan Gillis’ Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais. These monastic schools are, I believe, best seen as precursors of the 19thand 20thcentury “Indian” Schools in America, complete with the abuse, destruction of cultural practices, and forced induction into Christianity such later “education” entailed. Those later atrocities didn’t come out of the aether; they’d been perfected hundreds of years earlier by a mass murderer who could barely write his own name.
- There are certain subjects I avoid as a medievalist and Charlemagne is one of them. I turn into Cato ending every speech, no matter the topic, with his famous “Carthago delenda est” though in my case it turns into a shrieking “Charlemagne delendus est.” He just turns my stomach. But then, on my mother’s side, I’m descended from the Saxons he didn’t manage to kill. I should point out, that it was no easy job to pacify them. A generation after Verden and then some, there were still “Heathen” uprisings. Of course, as an historian, I acknowledge that Charlemagne did great things for France, and for the spread of education in Europe but I will not forget that this happened on the bones of my ancestors and the tattered shreds of their religious traditions.
- I highly recommend a small book by James Chisolm called Grove and Gallows: Greek and Latin Sources for Germanic Heathenism.
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