Today I honor all those who died in our wars. I honor all those who died in WWI. I honor especially, my first cousin twice removed Private Wesley Heffner who fought with Pershing’s First expeditionary Force. He wasn’t drafted: he enlisted. He wanted to be a good man. He was proud of being an American and wanted to bring freedom–he thought that was what being an American was about: fighting wrong and standing for liberty. He died in France in 1918. He never made it home.
“Carry the dead with us. Carry the dead. Never not carry them,
never not act in their name.
Carry the dead in our dreams, all the great deeds; carry the dead in our days,
all the great deeds.
Morning, morning. Let there be their light.
What they would want, what they would ask of us, carry them with us,
never not bring them along.
Never for nothing their brutal departures. Never let justice go lonely.
Ever the heart, ever the spirit, ever the longing. . Earth is not past,
not a ghost, not lost to us.
Ever the believing.
(“Credo Coda,” Michael Dennis Browne)
I was reading a book recently titled “Baltic Lenin,” which explored in a loose narrative-type travel-log format the changes in the Baltic since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was an interesting book and reading it made me remember my own trip to Lithuania when I was in high school. My Russian class went on an exchange for a month to Vilnius, Lithuania, which was then part of the CCCP. I was particularly delighted by this since I’m half Lithuanian. I stayed with an absolutely lovely family and got to meet some of my relatives too. (I wish I hadn’t fallen out of touch with the family that hosted me, but once I graduated high school and made an attempt at a professional ballet career, the stress of that profession and of fighting the injuries that would eventually cause me to retire in my early twenties caused me to neglect a lot of things. I wonder sometimes if any of them embraced Romuva when the religion was acknowledged after independence). When I was there, the country was already agitating for its freedom and a couple of years later, emerged as a free and independent nation which it remains today.
I wasn’t smart enough at the time to keep a travel journal. What the hell did I know? I was a teenager and more concerned about the month of ballet practice I was missing than connecting with my ancestors. What follows are really bare bones impressions thirty plus years after the fact.
Firstly, I learned about Gediminas, fourteenth-century grand duke of Lithuania, champion of Paganism who protected his people from the scourge of Christianity and who lived and died a polytheist. This is a token, currently hanging at my ancestor shrine, that I bought on that visit.
I think, best I can translate, that the phrase translates as “Brothers, restore the castle of Gediminas.” Gediminas had a vision of an iron wolf that predicted the powerful city (Vilnius) that he would go on to found. It has remained a potent symbol.
I remember visiting Trakai Castle, once a major strategic fortress.
And we went to the Curonian Spit, a 100 km stretch of sand dunes abutting the Baltic Sea. It’s not too far from Vilnius and is now a UNESCO heritage site. I was sixteen or seventeen in the photo below.
Finally there was amber and traditional embroidery and connecting with my dead.
I want to visit Vilnius again. There was so much I didn’t know when I was there as a teen. I’d like to visit the shrine to Mary of the Gates of Dawn. (I actually honor Her as a syncretic version of Ausrine). I don’t know why we didn’t visit when I was there as a teen, save that the city was still under Soviet occupation and perhaps it wasn’t permitted.
Because I find it oddly moving, I’d also like to visit the Hill of Crosses. I don’t know what the holy sites of Romuva are—to me the whole country is sacred ground because it is the soil that holds the bones of my ancestors – but I would very much like to make offerings one day properly.
That is all. I’ll end with this prayer-poem to my Lithuanian ancestors.
It’s a hard people that birthed me
hard and unyielding
like weathered stone
the bones of the dead,
hard like the yoke
and the necessary brutality
It’s hard soil
that holds them,
of an ancient nation,
only the stones themselves
and they are silent.
It’s a hard God that took me up
and He made me hard in His loving.
There’s a hard war to be fought.
and I’ll take point.
My ancestors nod grimly
when I say this.
all the different permutations
Just try to break them.
They never yield–
never forgot their ceremonies either.
They know from whence
their power comes.
children of fire
born under a blazing northern sun
know the secret of endurance.
We keep our power hidden
we keep our borders close
we guard what must be guarded.
these things come down in the blood
like hard edged steel.
Then like steel we rise.
(from “Honoring the Ancestors” available below).
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So, my ancestors were pretty pissed off with me a few weeks ago, my paternal ancestors that is. You see, I was raised close to my maternal side of the family. We only visited my dad’s family once a year if that and only when I was very small (after his parents died, we didn’t make the trek every year). I’ve struggled for years to develop a close relationship with that side of my dead. Whereas I am quite close to specific individuals on that side of my ancestral line, as a whole we struggle to communicate and connect. This is especially so of the very old ones, the protectors of the lineage. They had wanted me to visit what graves were available to me (my grand parents, aunt and uncle, and some cousins are buried in Albany about two hours away from me) but up until now I hadn’t. I had, however, visited the graves of maternal dead in MD and PA, easily four or five hours away several times. This did not sit well with my Lithuanian dead. They’re very high protocol (which pisses me off to no end, I cannot tell you, though they’re right to be so) and this was not proper protocol. So Easter Sunday I highed my ass off to Our Lady of Angels cemetery in Albany to make offerings and visit with my dead.
The trip itself was pretty uneventful. It’s a pretty straight shot from my home. I bought flowers the day before but made that offering at my ancestor shrine. The flowers were just so pretty as they were and the bouquet huge I thought it best to leave them at the shrine. I brought fresh water and other offerings for the cemetery. Usually when I go to a cemetery, I can make an offering and quick prayer to the cemetery spirit or to my ancestors and almost immediately find the grave that I’m looking for. That was not the case this time. I asked my ancestors for help and they said “get out and walk.” Did I mention they were pissed? I walked around for an hour, found the grave of a couple of cousins, eventually found my aunt and uncle. I asked the wind God Kari for guidance and unusual birds kept flying in a particular direction. I followed them but coiuld not find my grandparents’ grave. I did find a couple of cousins who died in WWI and II.
Finally, pissed off – because it was clear they were fucking with me – I called on Hermes and begged for His help. Essentially, I went over their heads. Immediately he told me to stop the car (I’d gotten back in to drive to various parts of the cemetery) and get out and walk in a particular direction. I did this and after a yard or so He told me to look down and right there was my grandparents’ grave. (Hail to You, Hermes, and thank You!). Thing is, I’d walked past it and looked at it at least three times before that (it was only a couple of graves over from one of my cousins). My dead were keeping me from seeing it, testing me, seeing if I would stay the course and find them. Fuckers.
So I made my offerings, and promised to go back in June. By the time I got home and hit my ancestor shrine I could already feel the difference, a positive one, and was immediately gifted with several cemetery songs. (Our tradition is big on songs). The visit helped smooth out things with that line and since I’ve had one of them step forward to help specifically with communication, which is a blessing.
I’ve always found joy in engaging with the Gods…sometimes it sucks, sometimes there is great pain, but there is also, usually joy. That’s not ancestor work for me. There’s no joy in dealing with the dead for me. There is duty and satisfaction. I find the protocols they demand irritating and often have to fight with myself to do them, even though I know I should. I often resent having them demand things. I serve the Gods not human beings, and my father’s line is very rigid – they are hard people, from a hard land, and that stubborn grit enabled them to survive. It rubs me the wrong way though, when someone who was once human expects obedience that I will ever only give to the Gods. So we wrangle. But at the same time, as much as we fight, I know they have my back and that is an awesome feeling. We can bitch and fight and cuss and moan but when the chips are down, my dead have my back and I’m fiercely proud that they were the last people in Europe to abandon their ancestral traditions (the Lithuanians didn’t abandon their polytheism until the late fifteenth century). Everything else we’ll work out eventually. Half of ancestor work is learning how to communicate, not just learning how to communicate with our dead, but our dead learning how to communicate with us. It takes time. It’s messy, but it’s worth it.
Now some pictures.
This was the first grave I found. I believe Tapila is the sister of my grandfather.
Then here is one of the cousins (I can’t tell exactly how we’re related …once you start getting into cousins x times removed I find it confusing lol). I’d have made offerings to them anyway because they’re military dead, but I was pleased to find them (after making a desperate prayer to Loki….Loki, Kari, and Hermes really had my back that day).
Here is my aunt and uncle. I never got along with Julia in life for a number of reasons but after death her husband (who was one of the first ancestors I started venerating) helped bring us into accord and now she is one of my strongest of Disir. I have a photo of her as a young woman and she was quite lovely, a dead ringer for Marlene Dietrich.
And finally, finally here is the grave of my grand parents. Halle-fucking-lujah.
Next time I will bring flowers to the cemetery. Sometimes cemeteries are quiet but this one had a lot of chatty dead. I told my dead that if I’d been able to choose their grave stones, it wouldn’t be any of these nice, simple, conservative monuments. No, if I’d been able to choose, you’d be able to see that sucker from space. LOL.
Today is my late mother’s birthday, my adopted mom. Every year I get her flowers, sometimes cake (she’d never had a birthday cake until I baked one for her one year when she was still alive). I clean her shrine and put out new candles.
Every year I miss her more.
Happy birthday, my miracle mother, ich habe dich unendlich gern, auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
So a facebook friend posted this image on his page and a rather lively discussion ensued. Apparently the statement above is incomprehensible to some Heathens. I for one, fully support it and while it is a First Nations person pictured, I think it holds true for all of us. I can see however, I’m going to have to break out my logic.
At one point our entire world was polytheistic or animist. All of us have polytheistic ancestors. Monotheism was and is a very, very recent blip on the fabric of world religion. There was a time when all religions were, to some degree, polytheistic. Then monotheism came—doesn’t much matter which monotheistic tradition, they all operated under the same modus operandi: colonialism, conquest, and the eradication of all other worldviews. The result was, predictably in retrospect, the destruction of our traditions and the co-opting of our wisdom traditions (i.e philosophy), and eventually our scientific discoveries, literature, etc. Still following?
Then, after our ancestral lands had been converted, usually by force, our ancestors drank that poison and became the ones who went across the ocean and destroyed nations. The question came up in the course of the Facebook discussion, of what to do with ancestors who were Christian (or Jewish or Muslim I suppose, but in the discussion we were specifically talking about Christian relatives). My response was two fold:
I honor my ancestors, even if they were Christian. I do, however, view their religious choice (and in many cases for generations ‘choice’ didn’t enter into it) as a sort of inter-generational Stockholm syndrome. I honor them, but not for their religious choices. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t good or devout people. In many cases they were, very much so. Nor do I have a particular problem with their Powers. It’s the system of monotheism that I find poisonous.
I do not honor the generation that chose to abandon their ancestral traditions and contribute to the destruction of polytheisms. I will honor them when they step to the plate and start doing what they can to make reparation and amends for that crime. (Nefas) Would you be ok with an ancestor who raped children, or participated in genocide? Would you look at that person uncritically? They’re still your ancestor, but god damn they have a lot for which to atone. Adopting monotheism is no different, especially considering the consequences of that choice.
I value the restoration of our traditions far more than I value the comfort of …collaborators. It is true that they may have been acting in good faith, or out of fear, or to protect others, but their actions had consequences that were horrific for us, consequences that transformed our world the repercussion of which each and every one of us today is having to endure .
Because of this particular generation, we now are tasked with restoring those traditions in circumstances that are unbelievably difficult, corrupt, and poisonous. I will honor them when they step up and do what they can to right the wrong. If they are doing that, then they are welcome to partake of the offerings I give to my other ancestors. If they are not, let them be hungry and thirsty for all eternity, their names and deeds erased from memory and time.
Apparently this makes me a “bigot,” which is fine: I’ve been called worse by better.
Piety should have prevented the abrogation of our traditions. (Think about it, there were plenty of people through its nascent years who recognized it for the insanity and pollution it was and who clung steadfastly to their traditions preferring death on their feet to a lifetime on their knees in homage to an alien power). This wasn’t just a matter of “personal choice,” it was a conscious severing of obligations to our Gods and ancestors. It was devastation and we’re bearing the brunt. We are having to clean up a mess of monumental proportions. While we’re doing so, we are denied functioning traditions and are under attacks by successive waves of aggressive monotheism, which they could have ended (or at least died trying to do so).
I think it right and proper to demand that the generation that began our long descent into darkness step forward to help correct their error. And I consider it respectful: they have the choice to try to make reparation and restore their honor and alignment with the rest of the family and most importantly of all, the Gods…or they can live with the situation as it is. If they want to remain in those beliefs, aligned with this tyrannical power that’s their right. It doesn’t mean I need to have anything to do with them. Their willingness to fuck and breed or more pointedly, my great great many times great grandma’s decision not to swallow doesn’t obligate me to pour out offerings. I’ll save those offerings for ancestors of worth and value, who need them in order to continue fighting on our behalf and on behalf of our traditions.
To excuse it unquestioningly, because we are here as a result, is to place our existence above the devastation of generations. At the very least, we can work to rebuild. We need to stop jumping through hoops to avoid obligation and look the problem right in its face.
My husband just finished a book of poetry titled “Wine Dark” that will be available shortly. I’d direct you to his site, but he’s going to be taking it down soon (he does this periodically because he is a pain). In this poetry book, in one of his poems, he refers to the realm of the dead and its denizens as ‘the noble nations of the dead.”
I was quite struck by the phrase, that epithet: noble nations of the dead. I read that and thought, ‘yes, exactly. What a perfect descriptor.”
I think I’ll be using this phrase from now on: noble nations of the dead. May they be hailed.
I wasn’t planning on writing this particular post (and in fact, most of it is revisited from a memorial post I wrote several years ago). I realized this morning though that tomorrow is the anniversary of my adopted mother’s death and I don’t think I’ll be posting tomorrow so I decided to share this again today. We are so disconnected from the Gods, from our ancestors, most of all from each other. It can destroy a soul. I carried the weight of that sickness for more than thirty years, until the Gods blessed me in a way I never, ever would have thought possible: They gave me a mom.
This woman was my heart, my gentleness, the witness to my life. She loved me with the ferocity of a mother lioness. She taught me to live and love and laugh and do something other than bitterly survive. She, for whom life was always such a terrible burden (she felt the weight of the world’s suffering deeply every day of her life) taught me to love and cherish life. She taught me to cherish connection. She rooted me in Midgard and she opened my heart to the Gods in ways I never, ever thought possible. She wove herself into my wyrd (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Gods did that) and we ate of each other’s hearts. For seven years she graced my world. For seven years she called me her miracle daughter. For seven years, I had a miracle mother.
People ask me how we met, because almost immediately our relationship became one of mother and daughter. I can’t think about this too much…it’s like a pretty toy with a surprising and unexpected sharp edge and it hurts to think about how easily this meeting might never have taken place (though I suppose in Their wisdom the Gods would have managed to get it done some other way). We met when she read a poem that I had published in an anthology titled “The Pagan’s Muse.” She was immensely moved by it and wrote a letter to the publisher that was later forwarded on to me. I had the opportunity over lunch, years later, to thank the editor of that volume but I don’t think she quite understood the tremendous gift and blessing that she had facilitated. Once I received the letter (which took awhile to wind its way through the publisher’s offices), I wrote back immediately and we began a fast friendship that within a year had turned into something else: we became family. She redeemed the word ‘mother’ for me. (Ironically, because of this, I later found myself able to enter into a relationship with my biological mother cleanly…a tangential blessing I also never expected). What terrifies me to the point of nausea is this: I almost didn’t submit anything to that anthology. Moreover, I nearly didn’t submit that particular poem.
My mother wouldn’t have considered herself a healer but she did bring healing to me. We made me a person and I grew up under her care. That’s the best way that I can describe it. There’s a German saying “Ich bin gut gebildet.” She did that for me. So let me tell you a little bit about her, just a few simple things, minimalist brush strokes by which to flesh out a life.
Her name was Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. She was born in Paris, grew up in Venezuela, Italy and many other places. She considered herself Swiss by choice and nature (and indeed held Swiss citizenship of which she was tremendously proud). She spoke seven languages: English, German, Basel German, French, Italian, Spanish, and could read Latin. She had taught herself a smattering of Armenian and in her youth had studied ancient Greek. She called me “wombat” after a book that we read, that had a messy little wombat as the main character (I’m no house keeper!). I called her lemur, because she fell in love with the animal after watching “Madagascar” (and she said her eyes, with their inevitable rings from her nearly constant insomnia looked like lemur eyes). She loved to garden. She was passionate about protecting the earth and its animals. She was what in German is called a ‘putz-teufel:” a cleaning devil. Cleaning her home was her meditation and a devotional act to the Goddess Sigyn. You could eat (literally) off her bathroom floor. She was Heathen before we ever met (indeed, that was why she picked up the anthology that led to our meeting). She claimed kinship to Andvari and opened my eyes to His wisdom. She belonged to Loki and Sigyn and loved Them dearly and through her devotion she inspired me and many others toward greater love for their Gods. I taught her how to keep an altar. She was a holy woman.
She always said that she wasn’t an intellectual, that her gifts and joys lay with housekeeping, cooking, and gardening but she was better read than anyone else I ever met. She attended the Basel Conservatory of Music and was, for many years, a piano teacher. She loved medieval music especially, though it was not her area of study. Her singing voice was so bad (though she had a phenomenal ear) that she was one of only two students in her class excused from singing classes. Music was another language to her, a very sacred way of engaging with the world. She loved the operas of Benjamin Britten, the works of Dufay, Buxtehude, and Schütz. She loved Bach, particularly when played by S. Richter. She introduced me to the singer Fisher-Dieskau and also honed my love of counter-tenors. One of her favorite pieces was the ‘libera me” from Verdi’s requiem. I learned not only to listen but to hear through her tutelage.
Her favorite poets were Wendell Barry, O. Sitwell, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Sitwell. With all my warrior medicine, I surprised the hell out of her by loving the poetry of Wilfred Owen. She taught me to treasure children’s books and fairy tales, telling me as I got older, I’d turn to them more and more leaving the more serious stories behind; that there was wisdom in those tales that should not be overlooked. She loved my god-daughter as her own and they played often. She taught me about wine, developing my palate to the point that I considered becoming a sommelier and good food and wine were things that we enjoyed throughout our travels; and oh, we traveled. Once, as I was delayed at the airport while I was heading off to a major shamanic ordeal, and it looked like I wouldn’t be able take the flight, I called her and as we were talking, I said in frustration “I never get to go anywhere.” The cry of a child, I’ll admit and someone who spent most of her adult life very, very poor. She told me later it broke her heart and then and there she determined to take me to Europe. She did too, telling me that if I was going to teach ancient history, I needed to see the places about which I was teaching. I saw Paris through her eyes and fell in love with the Seine. She was proud of me until the day she died and inspired me to be a better human being.
She wrote with the grace of a medieval scribe. Her every-day handwriting was a thing of exquisite beauty. She told me when she was about twelve, she decided she didn’t like her handwriting and so she taught herself to write all over again, developing a hand that put most calligraphy to shame. She loved to cook. She had tremendous grace and graciousness. She was also the single most disciplined (and stubborn, oh my GODS, stubborn) human being I have ever met.
She taught me that grace and service happened by attention to little things, not in large, overwhelming epiphanies. She taught me that love was about the day to day choices. She taught me to pay attention to, cherish, and respect the small things in life and to do them exceedingly well. After her death, she continues to inspire many Heathens and Pagans of my acquaintance and we all look to her when our work becomes difficult. She mastered the grace of loving well.
There are places in the world that I shall never go again if I can help it—they would be barren places without her there. Her presence, the memory of our time together is too deeply imprinted on my consciousness to allow me to go there without pain. Carmel, CA, where she lived for over a decade (throughout the time she was in my life) is one of those places. Paris—which I saw first through her eyes and likely will never see again; parts of Italy. Going to Zurich, where she and I spent a great deal of time, a few months after her death (inevitable due to business demands) was it’s own special agony. I stayed at the same hotel she always visited and the entire staff lined up as I was having breakfast and came to pay their respects to Frau Plaza’s daughter. She was our memory keeper. She *saw* people, truly saw them and gave me something of the knack for it too. But there are places that I can now go only because of her. She encouraged me to go back to school and in fact, paid for my schooling. I broke down and cried like a baby when she offered. I could never have afforded to go on my own and I was deeply ashamed of my lack of a degree. I have my degree because of her. I have a life.
Her presence has been tremendously strong the past day or so. It’s been so immensely comforting to feel her so very close again, as though I could almost pick up the phone and call her. I miss her voice, high, with its elegant Basel accent. (Amusingly enough, despite the elegance oh, she could cuss like a sailor—a delightful thing to hear, even with the cognitive disconnect it initially caused!). A friend sent me two photos that she only recently found of a bunch of us having dinner together and in it my mom and I are laughing over something, a moment of shared delight. Those photos were such an unexpected gift, a treasure. In the two years after she died, I have found myself wanting desperately to collect every possible fragment of her life, every fragment that might remind me of her, carry a bit of her energy…it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put that painful desire aside, to realize that she is there, bound to me by something greater than blood: by a connection forged in fierce love. What are things in the face of that? They do not hold anything of her.
She has her own ancestral altar in my home, in addition to being represented on my primary ancestral shrine. In life, she dressed very plainly. It was part of her devotion to Loki. He called her his quiet pool (her name literally means ‘sacred pool’-in fact, there’s a bottled water company in Spain called “Fuensanta” which was very amusingly odd to see when we were there) and requested that she dress in calming colors: browns, dark greens, dark blues, blacks, grays, whites, and beiges. But she loved pink (a color we both associated with Sigyn) and craved that color with an almost painful intensity. She never wore it though, in obedience to Loki’s request. So now I festoon her altar with pinks: flowers, offering bowls, altar cloth…all a glorious panoply of pink. I give her all the things she loved but was too disciplined to eat overmuch in life: pizza, gourmet breads, gourmet cheeses and fine wines (the wine she did allow herself). I light candles and offered incense. I sit with her and talked of many things, and of how my life has unfolded since she died (not that she doesn’t know…I talk to her all the time and her shrine is never, ever inactive). I tell her not to fret—she always fretted about me so. I told her how I missed her, every moment of every day. Most of all, I gave thanks to the Gods for forging this connection, for bringing us into each other’s lives.
Connection is a lifeline. It’s a very sacred, blessed thing. When you truly connect with another human being, when you are truly known and seen (and know and see in return), when someone shares their life with you in whatever authentic way, it has the potential to transform Midgard. It is something to treasure. It is something to value. It is something to remember, always. I remember Fuensanta. I remember my adopted mom. Sancta.
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.