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A is for APPLE

I admit I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this entry. I was going to write about aggression but this post said most of what I was going to inarticulately complain about and I also realized that ‘Does heathenry overemphasize or overvalue aggression?’ is a good contender for the list I have been slowly collating in a text file labelled heathen topics i am fucking bored of hearing about. I’m sure I started the list with the noble intention of some Huginn editorial or something, but in lieu of a lengthy rant about aggression and Vikings (and in light of the general inadvisability of such an editorial), have the rest of the list as it currently stands:

  • Ragnarok
  • pretty much all Jotnar/Aesir conflict
  • is Loki EVIL???? see also: did Loki deserve it, is Sigyn a battered wife, is Loki a fire god, is Loki a euhemerized Satan
  • do the Aesir totes suck or what??
  • do the Jotnar totes suck or what??
  • godspouses, do they exist
  • should we interact with Fenris?? see also: should we worship Surt, immanentizing the eschaton
  • did paleo-heathens/pagans “bow down” to their gods??
  • Loki’s a troll vs. Loki always tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help Him gods
  • Loki’s influence = wackiness
  • is Frey a gay god??
  • and now, does heathenry value aggression too much?

Anyway: I scrapped it in favor of APPLE, which I think we can all agree is a lot better.

Apple’s one of the most interesting and important wights in Europe, especially in the north, and not just as a food product (though apples and pears are among the earliest cultivated fruits in Britain). They’ve always been a symbol of immortality, the Sidhe or Alfar, liminality, travel over water and magical islands. Apple’s got its roots in everything from Emain Ablach and Avalon to the Elysian Fields and Avernus. There’s even a saint whose story reminds me of Gullveig. And I love apple variety names.

But I hadn’t given much specific thought to apple as a wight before I started preparing to cut my runes several years ago. It’s traditional to cut them from a virgin fruiting tree and I had the feeling I needed applewood but I couldn’t manage to put my hands on any. I ended up cutting my set from storm-felled maplewood I scavenged from the local cemetery, but the set didn’t feel right and it wasn’t until I moved to Ireland that I actually got the applewood I needed. A friend of mine brought back several pieces of applewood from an old apple tree that blew over in a storm, plus the last apple from the tree. The fruit was green and still fairly sour, but the wood feels right. He definitely overestimated the age of it by a couple of centuries, but it was clearly a venerable old tree.

Still, the best encounter I had with apple came late last summer, when our friend Damian came and crashed with us. We went hedgerow foraging and felt pretty satisfied with ourselves. We’d taken an old 10-liter mayonnaise bucket and managed to half fill it with clusters of ripe elderberries; our backup sack held a few blackberries — summer came too late and cool, they never really ripened properly — several handfuls each of nettle and yarrow — fresh nettle tastes like green beans, I found out — and we’d reluctantly discarded the prospect of hawthorn jelly since we realized haws taste disappointingly nasty.

We’d done by far the best with elderberries, so we were continuing around the bend towards the last stand of nearby elder trees with the hopes of turning a hell of a lot of elderberries into a frankly ridiculous amount. Just past an abandoned house surrounded by cedars, we both stopped and exclaimed gleefully.

“Do you see that?”Kallisti

“I know, it’s big!”

“You want to get some?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Don’t know what I’d use it for though. Have to look it up.”

“Well, we can make cider.”

What?

Perhaps tellingly, Damian had focused in on a giant burdock, covered in burrs, right in the middle of the field. I didn’t even see it until he pointed it out to me. I meant the massive apple tree behind it that he’d totally missed, the one twenty feet across and utterly laden down with little yellow apples.

We hastily transferred the elderberries to the sack and Damian clamored over the tumbledown fence with the bucket to exercise a little usufruct while I stood guard. We ended up with enough to make apple crumble but not enough for cider, which necessitated another (solo) excursion.

It was a beautiful, rare perfectly sunny day. I jumped the fence and tromped through the field full of burdock, ducking under the drooping branches which brushed the ground. Everywhere around the tree, in the chest-high nettles and in the hidden cavern under the branches, was covered in a carpet of fallen apples. I easily filled my buckets, playing a game with the nettles in my short sleeves. Honestly, it was like nothing I’d ever seen: the apple tree I grew up climbing produced poorly and dropped hard unripe little green apples, but these were bright golden yellow, sweet and crunchy, and the tree was lavishly covered in them, absolutely opulent in fruit.

I was on a little foraging high, a sort of cheerful giddiness I get every time the pickings are good. The tree is only a few yards from the back of the abandoned farmhouse and I imagined the farmhand who’d dropped the core of a nice eating apple out in the field, the seeds that had grown into this unruly tree. As I made my way around the back of the tree towards riper fruit, I realized the tree was distantly backed by a row of hawthorns, and I felt like a hobbit, scrumping golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides.

At least a few of those apples made it into a certain apple cake recipe I’ve tweaked repeatedly over the last few years; apple and hazel are quite friendly wights and pair up like Merry and Pippin. This cake I normally make for Samhain, given the seasonality of apples and hazelnuts, and it’s not a bad time for an immortality-and-wisdom cake.

Apple-Hazelnut Cake
CAKE
Combine in one bowl:

  • 1 1/2 c. flour
  • 2 1/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • pinch of nutmeg

Combine in another bowl:

  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 egg (or powdered replacer), beaten
  • 1/2 c. (soy)milk
  • 1/4 c. walnut or hazelnut oil

Pour wet mix into dry mix, combine. Add:

  • 1 1/2 c. chopped Granny Smith (or other sour-ish apples), about 2-3

and mix well. Pour into a well-greased 8″ round pan. Mix together streusel and sprinkle over top. Bake at 200C/400F for 25-40 min. until it tests clean.

STRUSEL
Combine:

  • 1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • 2 TBSP butter or margarine
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 – 1/3 c. finely chopped toasted hazelnuts

Pagan Blog Project 2012


A is for ANACHRONISM

The SCA and I have a weird history. I accidentally stumbled across it online as a young teenager, misreading it as the Society for Creative Acronyms. First I was slightly disappointed, then I was intrigued, then I played in it irregularly for the better part of 10 years (largely thanks to my mother). The SCA (and more broadly, medieval reenactment and living history) has plenty of crossover with Neopaganism, both in An Tir and in Ireland (where living history seems to predominate).

I am exactly that sort of geek. I ditched my senior prom to go to an An Tir crown tournament. I know how to make historically-accurate garb for several cultures (and bothered to). I did medieval lit in college. I can brew mead. I can make and clean maille. I came, I saw, I did the bransle.

He totally looks like Billy Connolly.

An Tir is rife with Vikings, Celts and ‘generic medieval’ types. And at some point in there, while I was carrying on as a chipper little teenaged 9th-century Viking merchant from Kaupang, shit got real and the Old Man showed up and I drew a line. No religion in my reenactment. Period. (Cue rimshot.)

I must be one of the only heathens to actually have a fucking trunkfull of medieval swag and not want to use it to spice up the old religion. Eventually everything in my kit picked a side: the garb stayed reenactor (with the exception of a few public rituals run by other people, serving only to confirm my choice); the pile of amber went almost exclusively pagan; and when I finally acquired a meadhorn, it was pagan from the beginning. The thought of mashing together my academic/fancy dress hobby with religion made me feel slightly schizophrenic, like a LARPer who takes the game too seriously and starts thinking they’re actually a werewolf.

It’s not that I think historical research or traditional crafts have no place in heathenry. And I get that, with the exception of medieval reenactment or certain conventions, there is a limited audience for public display of Elizabethan blackwork or Byzantine chainmail or painstakingly handmade illuminated manuscripts. (There are few people outside of reenactors who get my thing for heraldry.) But keeping dress-up weekend Viking separate from the gods talking to me was a matter of preemptive measures for my sanity.

Based on my research, I am pretty confident that Vikings did not have computers. Or cars. Or Kevlar or chocolate or jeans. But I am also pretty confident that if they had, they would have embraced them; reenactment has a long history but generally has stayed firmly on the ‘entertainment’ side of things, instead of the ‘religion’ side. Crossing over reenactment with my religion bothers me, because it changes the tenor of a ritual from being primarily concerned with a current, ineffable experience in the now to being either wildly meta or a sideshow.

The Old Religion is modern. The heathenry I’m practicing today is inherently different from what my SCA alter-ego would be practing in Kaupang in 850CE, not just because we’ve lost the immersive cultural experience, the clergy and most of the texts, but because there is a vast chasm of 12 centuries between us. Even if the Christian conversion had never happened, even if there was an unbroken line of custom and experience connecting us — and I’m not convinced that would be preferable to modern reconstruction — the religion would still look different now.

Andy Warhol wrote, “I’m very much a part of my times, of my culture, as much a part of it as rockets and television,” and that definitely goes for my heathenry. My practice is as much a product of science and culture I wouldn’t even have had access to in pre-Conversion Scandinavia as it is a product of whatever medieval information we can recover about paleopagan practice. My experience of and internal images of my gods are likewise modern; some have old-fashioned tastes, some have a sensibility more cutting-edge than my own, and They seem neither surprised nor perturbed by me and my 21st-century lifestyle. They’re amused by some of it, and They have strong opinions on, say, climate change. And yes, sometimes it’s good to hail Them with the gifts and languages They once were used to.

But now I see gods in expensive suits as often as cloaks or léine, I blót the goddesses and Dísir with chocolate, Champagne and marzipan, and I recite my prayers largely in English (where I am less likely to shame myself as a poet, always important). It’s important to keep the temple from becoming a museum, and to keep the religion from being just another anachronistic relic.

Pagan Blog Project 2012


Holy Supper, Longest Night, the Lungo Drom

Honestly, I should have written this post more than two weeks ago; I officially signed up for Ms. Dirty’s Sviata Vechera challenge mostly as motivation and excuse for having a full-blown party for Yule. Instead, I ended up sailing through more than a week of party and skidded into January in need of a vacation.

But hey, better late than never. (Cue rimshot.)

Most of this post is in vague backwards chronological order, the way I remember it, peeling back the layers. Things I expected to matter barely did; things I didn’t turned out Big.

With all the thinking and angsting and wringing of hands I’d devoted to ancestry, the timing seems bizarrely synchronous. My ailing grandfather — long-term heart trouble, ironically — had been in and out of the hospital for months and was waiting on an eleventh-hour surgery just before New Year’s that they weren’t sure he’d live to see. Being halfway around the world meant there was little that I could do for my mother except call almost daily and mail ridiculous little care parcels (she loves bacon fries).

I was never close to my grandfather. For most of my childhood, they lived in England, and then moved back to the other side of the States. I saw him periodically at Christmas and found him glamorous but alien. In my teens, they moved back to my hometown and I began to see more of him. Increased exposure didn’t favor him. On a personal level, I found his politics — often voiced — repellent. The more I learn of my mother’s life, the more I realize he and my grandmother both utterly failed her. Nearly a year ago, they decided to winterize their RV instead of lend it to my parents so my father would have somewhere to live while undergoing chemotherapy in a city six hours away, which was the final straw for me after years of lesser bullshit. I’m not sentimental about family. I wasn’t heartbroken at the prospect of his death; on an impersonal, humanist sort of level, I wanted his suffering cut short already, since the surgery was just the next, painful step in a treatment that wasn’t succeeding.

Wide Open Road

It is likely narratively obvious that the surgery didn’t work. They opened him up, found there was nothing they could fix, and sent him home. The cold part of me savors the bitter satisfaction that his treatment was unsuccessful, given that he cared so little about my father’s. The rest of me wishes he’d been less alien, less grasping, less vicious himself, that I might feel more connection to the bit of him that is congruent with me. Fresh out of the hospital, at the crest of the hill overlooking the valley we were both born and raised in, he remarked on its beauty; then had a chocolate milkshake for the first time in years; then went home and, at three hours to New Year’s, quietly died. In a final hilarious twist, my father was tasked with writing and giving both the obituary and eulogy.

I don’t feel loss for him so much as I feel a twinge of nauseating humanity at the chocolate milkshake detail. I feel more like his death presages a sort of slipping, like the water rushing out of an unplugged bathtub. But that’s future; Yule was before even that. Most of December is a chaotic jumble even this close, with liquor-fueled late-night parties and rambling walks outside the village to talk to Blackthorn in the hedge, but–

I’d spent most of the waking hours of Yule solving last-minute issues with Huginn and ended up sitting a very subdued all-night vigil for the Old Man. The evening of the 21st marked exactly nine years in His service, and I’d had a grating feeling until I’d put up a lavish altar to Himself, at which point the feeling abated (two adventurous cats, increasingly limited space and a series of broken things meant most of my permanent altars are in storage until I can get a cat-proof glass cabinet or something; also it has not escaped my notice that He’s made sure it’s stayed up).

Yule Odin altar

I expected fireworks and bells and whistles to mark the occasion, but I did not get so much as a bottle rocket. After we finished our share of the bottle of homebrewed elderflower mead, I spent the rest of the vigil sitting up, bored and tired, bickering slightly with M. She wanted to go climb the local Neolithic ringfort just before dawn — the feeling had been nagging at her all day — but the prospect seemed to me to involve a disproportionately large amount of effort to observe the astronomical solstice (I wanted to observe it from bed). The thought of hauling myself through a freezing-cold sheep field and up a lumpy hill in the dark at five in the morning sounded unappealing after a long day’s work and a sleepless night of pure unadulterated anticlimax.

Alone with M. on top of a Stone Age royal fort, nine years and almost 4400 miles away from that first Yule, I felt the Old Man in the wind that scoured the top of the hill and whipped our hair and drove scuttling thin clouds across the face of the stars. I felt the length of the road that had brought me there and I was glad for it. I felt like a traveller washed up on strange shores, in a land not unaccustomed to it. We poured out our libations at the exact minute of the solstice as the light of dawn was starting to truly tint the horizon and I admit I was, in the end, reluctant to leave.

night sky

After all that, sorting out our dead supper seemed almost relaxing. The meal itself was definitely cozy — after a big meal of beans and rice, greens, cornbread and veg, my speculaas (which came out wrong by the standards of speculaas but which were nonetheless delicious) and the various sorts of middling-quality chocolates they preferred, we celebrated our deads in the sort of cardigan-wearing, low-impact way that I imagine most of them would have embraced themselves. A rousing game of cards, a glass of beer, a jolly good time. M. has a bit to say about it herself here. I actually wish I had a bit more to say about our Scots-Irish-Dutch-hillbilly dumb feast — or about the pure Irish bacon-and-potatoes dinner we had for the rest of M.’s deads the next day — but it was just a warm, friendly relaxing family dinner where everyone but M. and I were dead.

The most striking part of this year’s holiday season is that it’s the first that I can remember where we actually celebrated something close to nine straight days and properly wore ourselves out on the holidays. Our holiday period was bookended by liquor-soaked parties two weeks apart, and the middle was crammed nearly beginning-to-end with ritual, food, gifts and visitors. We actually took down the tree the day after Pajama Christmas (see, you make all the food on Christmas Eve and eat leftovers in your pajamas all day Christmas…) because we were so ready to get on with real life. Samhain to Yule was kind of flaming hell on rollerskates and we hit 2012 full-on, flush with cava and ducking to dance in the living room of our friends’ cottage, where we got shitty pop music and I finally got my fireworks.


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