November is a very special month for me. It’s a time where Odin looms particularly large in my world and I start a ritual process that culminates in an intensive series of Yule rituals wherein Odin is the focus. It’s not that He’s absent at other times of the year — He in no way is – but November is special. A large part of the reason for this isn’t just the seasonal shift, something to which I’m particularly sensitive in general (probably thanks to my old and achy bones!), but also that Veteran’s Day /Remembrance Day is in November. As someone who has an extensive practice in honoring the military dead, this is a powerful time.
That may be what is so unique for me at this time with Odin: He doesn’t usually come to me in my devotions primarily as Lord of Hosts. I know He is a battle God. I resonate very strongly with that, but it’s not how He usually chooses to engage. As November rolls around, that changes and suddenly when I reach out to Odin, it’s as the Battle God, wise in weapons, Lord of the Einherjar, Sigtyr, the Victory God that He comes. The charge of that presence really calls me to step up my honoring of the military dead at this time.
This year as always, a significant part of my focus vis-à-vis the military dead is WWI dead. Partly that’s because I have a cousin [Wesley Heffner] who went over with Pershing’s Forces and never returned. He died on a field in France. He is in my thoughts a lot at this time of year. Then, moving away from WWI, my father’s birthday was November 1 and he was a veteran of WWII and Korea, so that also colors my practice. I feel sometimes like they take my hands and lead me into deeper understanding of what this practice of veneration entails. Usually I post something honoring the military dead every day in November. I’m not doing that this year, but I am going to be donating all November proceeds from my etsy store to Paralyzed Veterans of America. I think they do good work. (There are a couple of other organizations that I tend to gravitate to as well, including the British Royal Legion — I like that they provide retraining programs for vets. I’d welcome suggestions of other charities too from my readers).
Some years the military dead are more present than others and this year they seem particularly present. I wish we could learn from them, to cherish that which we are given, to value their lives, our lives, and the lives of our children, to understand that the consequences of any war, no matter how large or small it may be, reach far, far beyond the generation involved. They have powerful lessons to teach and I’m grateful to Odin for pointing me on the path of veneration.
During WWI, poet Wilfred Owen, quoting a line from Horace, wrote a poem called Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori. The title translates as “sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country” and it was published in 1920 after his death – Owen died in the trenches and is generally considered to be the greatest of the WWI poets. Whereas the original Horatian Ode may be read as a rather sweetly sentimental exhortation to the valor so essential to proper Romanitas, Owen flips the equation on its head, summoning the brutal bleakness of the trenches, the stench and horror of war, and with bitter hollowness damning that sentiment as an ‘old lie.’ I think both are correct. Civilization is built on the backs of its warriors, on the viscera of those willing to lay down their lives in its defense and we are defined by those sacrifices. Yet, we waste lives so blithely, often so pointlessly for leaders’ egos and greed. It is a corruption with a terrible cost. We owe those who fought and most of all we owe them the gift of learning from their mistakes.
As November begins, moving me inexorably into the deepest, most intense time of year for my practice, may I remember them well.
Called Remembrance Day in the UK and Veterans Day here, today is a day to honor those who died in WWI and, in the US, all those who served (within the US, it has become a day to honor veterans of all our wars). Generations of men and women were lost. Even more came home destroyed. WWI utterly transformed our world and we are the children of that devastation.
There are no veterans alive anymore from WWI (or very, very, very few). Each year there are fewer and fewer veterans of WWII alive. We’ve never paid heed to our veterans from Vietnam, and Korea is all but forgotten. Then there are our more recent wars. It is our duty and obligation to speak for our dead, our honor and privilege to listen to our living. We can, at the very least, give them one day, if nothing else.
Today, I remember particularly my cousin Wesley Heffner. He was part of Pershing’s Expeditionary Force, part of the first American forces to go to Europe in WWI. He was eighteen when he enlisted and never returned home. He died from wounds taken on a bloody field in France. He never made it to twenty. He enlisted out of a deep sense of patriotism and desire to do good in the world.
This is perhaps the only extant photo of Wesley. I’ve visited his grave, in a cemetery where I”m related to at least 98% of the dead lying there, and I’ve left offerings. I wonder what the world of our family would have been like had he returned, had he lived. With each person dead, a whole universe was obliterated, and the generations they would have touched. The least we can do is to remember them.
Today is also the birthday of my favorite WWII general, George S. Patton. He fought in WWI. He designed a sword, nearly medaled in the Olympics (and would have by modern scoring rubrics), was a brilliant tank tactician, and he saved the world. He was largely responsible for Allied Victory during the Battle of the Bulge (Patton and this Third Army).
So hail them. Pour out offerings. Visit their graves. Take your living veterans out to lunch. Remember them and their sacrifices throughout the year. Look for opportunities to honor them. We have built our world on their blood, bone, and suffering.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918
Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est
1. DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.
2. Flares – rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)
3. Distant rest – a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4. Hoots – the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5. Outstripped – outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle
6. Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7. Gas! – poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8. Helmets – the early name for gas masks
9. Lime – a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10. Panes – the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11. Guttering – Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12. Cud – normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew usually green and bubbling. Here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13. High zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14. ardent – keen
15. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – see note 1 above.
These notes are taken from the book, Out in the Dark, Poetry of the First World War, where other war poems that need special explanations are similarly annotated. The ideal book for students getting to grips with the poetry of the First World War.
Taken from this site.
In Flanders Fields
by Major John McCrae, MD
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.
I’ve been consistently impressed with the work of the British Legion, both in furthering remembrance of those who died in WWI and in providing for current veterans. One of the ongoing projects they have is “Every One Remembered,” which allows contributors to learn about a particular soldier, nurse, or other combatant from WWI, contribute to various programs, and set up digital memorials. I get lost in this site way too often and way too much, but if you’re wondering where to start in honoring the military dead, I think this is a good place to go. Here is the link to that site and here is the link to their poppy shop.
I have heard Pagans say “that which is remembered lives” and there is truth in this. We should carry our dead with us, tell their stories, learn from them. WWI has passed out of living memory (in that we have almost no one who lived through it or fought in it currently alive) and WWII will, within a few years, a decade at most likewise no longer rest in living memory. I think this is a very dangerous place for us to be. I think we need to carry the weight of that remembrance, to carry the grief, the horror, the hope, the humility of two wars that effectively destroyed our world. It’s dangerous to forget, a grace and protection to remember.
The Wild Hunt has posted an article about Pagans and Veterans’ Day here. I hope that all our Pagan and Polytheistic service men and women are remembered, cherished, and honored not just on this day but every day. They are living their commitment to their communities, their Gods, their ideals in a way that all too often comes with terrible cost. The Wild Hunt article mentions that there was a time when many Pagan groups would not accept active military and….I am both sickened and horrified by this. It is time that we as a community of religions learned the grace of embracing our Veterans and our active duty personnel and saying “thank you.”
Fortunately things have changed within our communities, within the Pagan community too: we do the best we can, as the saying goes, and as we learn better, we do better. Hopefully we have learned to honor our Vets.
As an aside, I was always taught that Veterans day and/or Remembrance Day began as Armistice Day and is celebrated on Nov. 11 because that was the day of the Armistice marking the end of WWI. This war devastated a continent and in may respects destroyed a generation. It changed everything. It was a crucible unlike anything the world had experienced and certainly unlike anything the soldiers involved expected. It also set the stage for WWII. General George Patton, US four star general and a godsend during this latter war predicted just that. His birthday, btw, falls also, ironically today. May he be hailed. I was discussing these two wars with someone recently and I said we were lucky. For WWII we had the leaders we needed (whatever else their faults, they were who we needed in those positions at that time): Roosevelt, Churchill, even Stalin (butcher that he was. Nicholas II could never have held out against the Nazis or mounted such fierce counter attack) and we had men in the field like Patton (pity the allies didn’t listen to him sooner). We were lucky. I can’t help but think as we tumble toward another war of that devastating magnitude that we will not be so lucky again.
Today I light candles and pour out offerings to the military dead in general and my military dead in particular. On my maternal side I have veterans going back through the Revolutionary War and on my father’s side, I have a great uncle who fought in WWI and a father who fought in WWII and Korea. May they and all the men and women like them be honored and remembered; and for those veterans who have died, or who never made it home (physically or in some cases emotionally), may they find joy with their ancestors and a well deserved rest. Hail them.