31 May 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 4: Jotunheim, Midgard, Muspellheim

Moving to the next three of the nine worlds:

I honor the thunderous world of Jotunheim, and the mountain-thurses who grant focus and passion.
I honor our sister realm of Midgard, door to the Nine Worlds, by which I journey forth.
I honor the fiery world of Muspellheim, and the fire-etins who grant strength and loyalty.


I honor the thunderous world of Jotunheim, and the mountain-thurses who grant focus and passion.

Possibly deriving from the Jotunheimen mountain range in Norway. One of the interesting things in studying the Nine Worlds is that they have locations in this world that both resemble them and have related names.

Jötunheimr is the land of the Jötunn/Jotuns, powerful nature spirits and shape changers. In the Lumsk song Trolltind refers to them. They are representative of chaos and the forces of nature.

After the coming of Christianity, they would get referred to by other names and became part of the array of local landspirits. Their powers and functions were, for example, absorbed into the group of creatures called trolls. In Skáldskaparmál we see the following passage, spoken by a troll:

Troll kalla mik
tungl sjötrungnis,
auðsug jötuns,
élsólar böl,
vilsinn völu,
vörð náfjarðar,
hvélsvelg himins –
hvat's troll nema þat?
They call me Troll;
Gnawer of the Moon,
Giant of the Gale-blasts,
Curse of the rain-hall,
Companion of the Sibyl,
Nightroaming hag,
Swallower of the loaf of heaven.
What is a Troll but that?

Many of the later stories and folklore refer to the power of Christianity driving them away, or good Christians being scared away from the wild places by the booming voices of giants.

The land of Jötunheimr itself is separated by the river Ífingr from the walls of Ásgarðr and is commonly seen as a wild place. This is where the (in)famous forest Járnviðr (the Iron Wood) is found.


I honor our sister realm of Midgard, door to the Nine Worlds, by which I journey forth.

Literally meaning "middle enclosure," it generally refers to as our world, Earth, but spirit workers tend to think of it as an astral equivalent to our world. Set some time around the Iron Age, this world seems lost in time but has more tangible connections to the world around it. Because of this, and because of its closeness to our world, many spirit workers use it as a "launching off point" to visit the other realms.

The realm of Miðgarðr itself is often visualized as small continent, surrounded by a large body of water and surrounded by the great serpent Jörmungandr, who is also known as Midgårdsormen (Midgard's Serpent).

In some models of the Nine Worlds Miðgarðr is portrayed as being in the center of things, though one wonders if this is the same kind of perceptive flaw that lead to theories of geocentricism. Spirit workers who follow Kaldera's model of the Nine Worlds--laid out as a spiral--don't hold to this. Regardless of whether it actually is the center, however, it being the closest realm to ours means that it might as well be from a spirit workers perspective.


I honor the fiery world of Muspellheim, and the fire-etins who grant strength and loyalty.

Meaning "Muspel land," Múspellsheimr land of fire, one of the two primal worlds from which everything else came. Between this land and Niflheim lies the void of Ginnungagap ("magical (and creative) power-filled space"). This is one of the primordial worlds from which the universe came forth, and while also being a force of creation it is Muspel's children who will break the bifrost bridge come Ragnarök.

The land is ruled by Surtr (Old Norse for "The Black One"). He is remarked to be the oldest being in the Nine Worlds, and regardless of whether this is true of the entity, the stories about him are undoubtedly very very old.

25 May 2009

Link: Map of the Fallen

In honor of memorial day, there is a Map of the Fallen for use with Google Earth. It shows the individuals who have died, where they came from, and the circumstances of their death.

24 May 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 3: Asgard, Ljossalfheim, Vanaheim

The beads now continue the journey into the Nine Worlds. Raven Kaldera imagines those worlds to be a spiral around Yggdrasil, which stands in the center. In this model the worlds go in the order: Asgard, Ljossalfheim, Vanaheim, Jotunheim, Midgard, Muspelheim, Svartalfheim, Niflheim, Helheim. My navigation skills are non-stellar, and so I generally navigate by landmarks in the Nine Worlds and think in terms of Okay, I follow this river from Midgard, past Yggdrasil, through Svartalfheim, and then I'll be in Niflheim... but its kind of nice to have some conception of how the worlds are situated.

My analysis of these is going to be somewhat shorter. In this part of the journey I am basically just making a note of each of the worlds and its denizens. The passages themselves are fairly generic, and I haven't gleaned much from them in meditation or in reading lore (or Lore™, for that matter). For example, when we say "the high world of Asgard" we are calling it such because it is traditionally represented... on top. When we say "the Aesir who offer knowledge and power" that tends to be their traditional domain.

A good exercise would be to go through the modern lore and find stories that are associated with these concepts, and I may return at a later date to do such, but for the moment will keep these brief.

I honor the high world of Asgard, and the Aesir who offer knowledge and power.
I honor the glittering world of Alfheim, and the Alfar who give inspiration to a mortal heart.
I honor the green world of Vanaheim and the Vanir who bring wisdom and joy.


I honor the high world of Asgard, and the Aesir who offer knowledge and power.

Asgard itself is a fortress that is not easily entered without the Æsir's permission, and many of the Æsir are war deities of one form or another. It is guarded vigilantly by the likes of Thor and Heimdall. Short of Helheim, it is probably the single most difficult place to enter uninvited.

Asgard means the ""Enclosure of the Æsir," who are the principle deities of Ásatrú and the group of northern deities we know the most about from lore. They are the forces of order and civilization, and all of the trappings that come with those.


I honor the glittering world of Alfheim, and the Alfar who give inspiration to a mortal heart.

Alfheim is one of the only places in the Nine Worlds that I have found a direct connection to other realms--the faerielands are adjacent and easily reachable from there. It is the ancient name of a place in Sweden. A place of legend, many many tales of spun off about this place in one form or another.


I honor the green world of Vanaheim and the Vanir who bring wisdom and joy.

Vanaheim is a land shrouded by mists and hedge mazes. The deities are primarily focused around agriculture and fertility, but it pays to remember that this is the race that fought the Æsir to a standstill. These are also gods of blood and the cycle of life and death.

23 May 2009

Book Review: Emotional Alchemy, How the Mind can Heal the Heart

The troubles you now are facing
They are not greater than your will
For there is nothing under heaven
You cannot overcome

See the door that lies before you
And know this too shall pass
The confrontation of your fears
And strength drawn from the past

Where the silent voices whisper
Find the course that is your own
And however great the obstacle
You will never be alone -- The Eye of the Storm, by The Cruxshadows

In the name of Mordgud, Guardian of the Gate, may my barriers of darkness open to my hand. -- Raven Kaldera's Bead Prayer, from Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner

Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart by Tara Bennett-Goleman (✭✭✭✭✭, 5/5, 2 May 2009)

Just as a note, this book has had a profound impact on me and came at a time in my life when I desperately needed it. First I am going to talk a bit about that experience so that you'll understand the context from which I found this book, and some of why I am one of the cheerleaders of Mindfulness for occultists.

In Need of Alchemy

Some time ago I dated a young woman who had a condition called Complex PTSD. C-PTSD has a few different meanings and manifestations, but the long and short of it is that past traumatic stress--severe and ongoing over years as she was growing up--shattered her mind. This can then manifest in several different ways. In her case, she had lost all sense of self, all sense of boundaries or borders between herself and others, and lived in constant fear of abandonment. It manifested as extremely severe Borderline Personality Disorder, characterized by the expression I hate you, don't leave me.

Part of the characteristic of this condition is that she had an iron certainty of her view of reality and any deviation from this in someone else's view was wrong. Most individuals have an internal set of filters that accept that someone else may perceive a situation differently from themselves, may remember things differently, or may simply be working off of a different set of facts or assumptions.

She lacked this capability. She didn't have the boundaries to understand--fundamentally--the difference between herself and others. She would transfer her own feelings, behaviors, or perceived traits on to me. She thinks she has something wrong with her, so she would accuse me of having something wrong with me.

Her view of reality was so certain, so inflexible, and so black-and-white that it could make one question their own sense of self and their own sense of reality. Especially if they were immersed in it, as I was.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the process of knowing her, I was destroyed. My carefully laid network of boundaries, my assumptions about reality, my sense of self, my self-esteem, even the foundations of my own sanity were not merely torn away: they were obliterated. My teacher described it on a metaphysical level as like seeing a smoking crater in me.

After I managed--thanks to spirits and friends--to break away, I had to do a great deal of self work. Walking on Eggshells is the best book out there for people in my situation, and helped me understand what had happened, and to take responsibility for 100% of my 50% of the relationship, and not take any responsibility for her 50%. To not cast blame, but to understand it from her perspective while at the same time understanding and validating my own experience. That wasn't enough, by itself, however: I needed a way to rebuild myself and to understand what had happened--not just within the relationship--but within me. I needed a way--internal to myself--to keep it from happening again.

Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart by Tara Bennett-Goleman helped me do exactly this. Emotional Alchemy is about a form of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT). It combines a form of Western psychotherapy, called Schema Therapy, with Buddhist theories on Mindfulness: the art of paying attention. In this synthesis it creates something truly powerful.

The Book Itself

A schema is an emotional trigger reflex. Past experience builds a set of pathways in our brain so that we can get triggered by events or other parts of our psyche. To quote Emotional Alchemy:

These emotional habits are learned so thoroughly that they operate outside our awareness, and much of their power over our lives comesf rom the fact that they are largely unconscious. Just as we are unaware that they are being formed as they take shape, and we don't remember most of the specifics about how they became our preferred habits, we remain unaware of how they control us.

The premise of the book is to use Mindfulness to identify, understand, and move past the maladaptive schemata. It talks about the uses of Compassion, Equanimity, Mindfulness, and Schema Therapy, and while the goal of the book is geared toward synthesis it is emphasized that many of these things are beneficial in isolation as well.

Throughout the book examples are given from her own life and from clients on schemata and the effects of Mindfulness. The tone is conversational, and it frequently feels like the author is gently guiding you through the topic.

Each chapter ends with a small set of exercises or processes to go through as part of the process of Emotional Alchemy.


The book itself is divided into four primary sections, each with its own chapters:

  1. Emotional Alchemy

    1. An Inner Alchemy
    2. A Wise Compassion
    3. The Healing Qualities of Mindfulness
    4. A Model of the Mind

  2. Things as They Seem

    1. Emotional Habit
    2. Schemas in the Larger World
    3. How Schemas Work

  3. A Mindful Therapy

    1. The Many Uses of Mindfulness
    2. Breaking the Chain
    3. Changing Habits
    4. Working with Emotions
    5. You Don't Have to Believe Your Thoughts
    6. Relationships
    7. The Circle of Life
    8. Stages of Healing

  4. Spiritual Alchemy

    1. Perceptual Shifts
    2. Investigating the Mind
    3. Reframing Suffering
    4. May Confusion Dawn As Wisdom

Section I: Emotional Alchemy

The first section on Emotional Alchemy involves a basic set of definitions and talks about the need for the synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches. It goes on to build a foundation on topics such as Mindfulness, Equanimity, Loving-Kindness, and Compassion and gives basic meditative techniques for building on these. It talks about the need for Mindfulness in our day-to-day lives, defining Mindfulness as: seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself.

The section gives multiple mindfulness exercises which, while fairly standard, are excellent. It then closes with a chapter about how the mind works, how it avoids topics that it finds uncomfortable, and the nature of schemata.

Section II: Things as They Seem

The second section turns its attention to maladaptive habits, modes of perception, and we get a more thorough introduction to the concept of a schema. The author lays out ten different maladaptive schemata, going into their origins and a few possible manifestations, along with how they can be triggered. It talks about the neurological basis for these schemata, and how to start understanding and finding our own schemata.

It concludes that:

Once schemas are recognized and empathized with, we can begin the work of changing them.

Exactly how to do this we get in to in the next section.

Section III: A Mindful Therapy

Whereas the first part of the book focused on Mindfulness and the second part focused on Schema Therapy, the third section of the book talks about building a synthesis. It discusses techniques for noticing that your schemata have been primed and what to do about it when in a schema attack. It also goes into how schemata come into play in relationships, both romantic and with your family.

Section IV: Spiritual Alchemy

The final section of the book takes the techniques in Section III and moves them one step farther, integrating them more heavily with Buddhist perceptions and modes of thought. This section is almost entirely about the Buddhist model of the mind, the nature of suffering, and how mindfulness and schemata fit into this.

This section is mostly unnecessary after you have gotten through the rest of the book, if you were reading it for the purpose of learning the basic techniques and are uninterested in Buddhism or the philosophy underlying these techniques. That said, the material is still interesting and it is nice to see some of the origins of these techniques, along with a perspective on where the theories themselves come from. It is also good at showing some of the potential next steps as an individual continues to use these techniques.


Recently I commented to a friend that it felt like Elizabeth Vongvisith and I were becoming the cheerleaders for Mindfulness in the Heathen community (M - I - N - D - F - U - L - N - E - S - S what's that spell!? Mindfulness! Ra!). I have worked with several books on the subject, and I have found none that are better at working with it from a western context than this one.

I do have some minor quibbles with the content of this book. First, the descriptions of the schemata all seem somewhat limiting, and I wish there had been a more in-depth discussion of manifestations. The author also often chooses to give examples for the schemata by starting with the circumstances that lead to the schemata for an individual, followed by it's consequences. This lead me to reject a schema because my circumstances were different and the manifestation wasn't the same, when in truth I definitely had a different form of the same schema.

We also see that a lot of the book focuses on the nature of Mindfulness and how it has helped people dealing with everything from anxiety disorders to mild schemata, rather than focusing on the actual practice of Mindfulness. This is a fairly indirect approach, which suites my own preferences well for this sort of book, but may frustrate some readers. Especially since this is more of a process than a product.

These are, in truth, fairly minor issues and do not really detract from the power of the book.

To close with a quote from the Dalai Lama, writing the foreword to this book:

I offer my prayers that readers of the book may indeed be able to transform their minds, overcome their disturbing emotions, and achieve a sense of inner peace.

Further Reading

18 May 2009

Godaþegn and Godatheow

Editor's Note: This essay was later chosen for inclusion as part of Gods' Mouths.

In my first post on Boundaries I talked about the emotional boundaries between individuals. My second post on Boundaries went into more detail about the boundary between you and the person delivering a divine message to you, and how to receive that divine message.

In a future installment--still being written--I am going to get into a much more controversial area, and talk about the boundaries between you and the gods themselves, but before we get into that I want to touch on the topic of terminology and "god slaves."

One of the larger--and more uncomfortable--areas of discussion right now among Spirit Workers is the nature of our relationships with the gods. Some of the terms that get used, such as "god slave," carry a great deal of baggage with them. Many of the more prominent members and authors of our community claim the title godatheow (godslave).

I will go into significantly more depth on this topic later, but for the moment I would like to talk about impressions. One of my concerns is that newbies will get the wrong idea and believe that godatheow is somehow a "higher" form of relationship with the gods or a natural state that spirit workers tend to migrate to as they become more advanced. They may also conclude that these individuals have become "closer" to the gods than they can get without going through the same process.

While the current group of authors and godatheow generally disavow this, it doesn't help that so many of our highly visible members are godatheow, and many of them interact with one another enough that it can give both them and others a skewed impression of our community, leading Galina Krasskova to say in her essay Terms of Service:

I am a godatheow, a godslave. Most of the spiritworkers and shamans that I know are also godslaves - outright owned by their Deities. It goes with the territory.

While later on she states that One does not need to be a godslave to serve -- I want to make that abundantly clear -- no more than one needs to be a priest, or healer, or ordeal worker to serve and be of use to their Gods one still walks away--in general--with the feeling that if you are a Spirit Worker in the Northern Tradition and not a godatheow then, on some level, UR DOIN IT WRONG.

My teacher has over 20 years of experience and is in the service of Freyja. While I am working on three years in my Spirit Work training, I have around 11 years work as an occultist and have been service of Odin for over 4 years. Most of the members of my group have similar--or more--experience in a variety of different occult communities. I have friends who have undergone a full shamanic initiation, others who are shamanic practitioners of varying degrees of "immersion," and many who are members of initiatory magical traditions. Very few of these individuals--spirit workers, shamans, and occultists--could be referred to as godatheow. Not that there is a problem with being a godatheow, but I have to believe that it is fully possible to serve the gods--even as a spirit worker--without being a full slave to those deities.

In short, I would like to challenge the assumption that it goes with the territory, and say that there are a growing number of us that are not god slaves--are for one reason or another not suited or required to be god slaves--but are still dedicated, Northern Tradition spirit workers. I also want to emphasize that I am approaching this with an attitude of this also rather than this instead.

The Vanic-oriented practitioner Nicanthiel commented on this as well, stating that:

As such, there has been a lot of talk in spiritworker circles, especially those connected to Cauldron Farm, of god-slavery as the default spiritworker paradigm; the assumption seems to be, either you are completely en-thralled by your Boss(es), or you're not really a spiritworker.

I challenge that assumption, because not everyone is suited for slavery, and indeed, not every God wants a slave, Frey being the most obvious example. Are people called by such Gods, or lack the nature required for full slavery to be denied the right to serve their Gods? Even Odin doesn’t always want slaves; sometimes, all He wants is just a warrior, or just a magician, or just a tool.

Nicanthiel presents the term godaþegn/godathegn as an alternative, where "þegn" would be a noble servant of a higher noble. Raven Kaldera summarizes this term nicely and gives it his stamp of approval, saying that a godaþegn would be someone who had a strong (perhaps oathbound) bond with their deity, but had full agency except in some limited areas, and could leave if worst came to worst. I feel that this accurately encompasses my path as a spirit worker, it correlates with my own UPG of my relationship with Odin, and am going to start using it in my own practice.

I firmly believe that one does not need to be a godatheow to serve the gods, even as a devoted spirit worker or shamanic practitioner, and that a god may find one person well suited to be a godatheow, and find a completely different use for another individual that doesn't require that kind of relationship. These paths are mostly just different, and come with their own risks and characteristics, and some come with their own unique safety considerations. Like with relationships: Internal Enslavement isn't "higher" than Total Power Exchange isn't higher than M/s isn't higher than D/s isn't higher than vanilla and polyamory is not higher than monogamy or vice versa: they are different models and suitable to different people, to negotiate with each other. This will be dealt with in a lot more detain in some of my future essays on boundaries.

Further Reading

17 May 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 2: The Norns

The Norns appear repeatedly throughout the prayer beads, forming spacers between each of the major groups.

By the name of Urd, I seek the spinning thread of my true path.
By the name of Verdandi, I weave my life with the threads of those I love.
By the name of Skuld, I make peace with the blade of my final wyrd.

All three make an appearance in Völuspá:

Þaðan koma meyjar
margs vitandi
þrjár, ór þeim sal
er und þolli stendr;
Urð hétu eina,
aðra Verðandi,
skáru á skíði,
Skuld ina þriðju;
þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
alda börnum,
örlög seggja.
Thence come maidens
much knowing
three from the hall
which under that tree stands;
Urd hight the one,
the second Verdandi,
on a tablet they graved,
Skuld the third;
Laws they established,
life allotted
to the sons of men,
destinies pronounced.

They are said to weave the faits of men, the easiest visualization for which is as a large, multi-dimensional tapestry that incorporates many threads.


By the name of Urd, I seek the spinning thread of my true path.

Her name means "Fate" and she is one of the three Norns in charge of weaving the fates of men. A bit of a digression: In Gylfaginning we see that the three most famous Norns named here are not the only ones:

Sundurbornar mjög
hygg eg að nornir sé,
eigut þær ætt saman;
sumar eru áskunnar,
sumar eru álfkunnar,
sumar dætur Dvalins.
Far asunder, I think,
The norns are born,
They are not of the same race.
Some are of the asas,
Some are of the elves,
Somea are daughters of Dvalin.

The "spinning thread of my true path" deliberately invokes the image of a spindle: spinning many fibers into a single strand. Our wyrd is active--constantly spinning, forever tied in with others at the level of other dimensions. This serves as a reminder of that: Wyrd can change.

By saying that you seek your true path, you are committing yourself to finding your Purpose, whatever that may be. This is a large commitment, but one that humans are preoccupied with. Quoting Nathaniel Branden in his essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

We humans have a need to feel we understand the world in which we live. We have a need to make sense out of our experience. We have a need for some intelligible portrait of who we are as human beings and what our lives are or should be about. In short, we have a need for a philosophical vision of reality.

But twentieth-century philosophy has almost totally backed off from the responsibility of offering such a vision or addressing itself to the kind of questions human beings struggle with in the course of their existence. Twentieth-century philosophy typically scorns system building. The problems to which it addresses itself grow smaller and smaller and more and more remote from human experience. At their philosophical conferences and conventions, philosophers explicitly acknowledge that they have nothing of practical value to offer anyone. This is not my accusation; they announce it themselves.

During the same period of history, the twentieth century, orthodox religion has lost more and more of its hold over people’s minds and lives. It is perceived as more and more irrelevant. Its demise as a cultural force really began with the Renaissance and has been declining ever since.

But the need for answers persists. The need for values by which to guide our lives remains unabated. The hunger for intelligibility is as strong as it ever was. The world around us is more and more confusing, more and more frightening; the need to understand it cries out in anguish.

We long for purpose in our lives, to find our "True Path" but the challenge isn't in finding it: It is in committing yourself to seek it. This is not a trivial promise, and it is not one to be made lightly.


By the name of Verdandi, I weave my life with the threads of those I love.

Verðandi, second of the Norns, has a name that means something to the effect of "happening" or "present." The word is the present tense of verða: To Become. This brings mind the image of the "Eternal Now." By saying that I "weave my life with the threads of those I love," I am recognizing the importance of others in my life. It is a reminder that I cannot make it alone. A single thread is always very weak, but a tapestry is always much stronger.

I saw a quote by Jane Howard recently in The Tattered Cover which said:

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.

This to me is the essence of this prayer: a reminder that the tapestry of my life cannot be woven alone.


By the name of Skuld, I make peace with the blade of my final wyrd.

Often portrayed as "future," she is the youngest of the three and her name means "debt." Interestingly, she is portrayed as a Valkyrie in Völuspá (where she is seen holding a shield), Gylfaginning, and Nafnaþulur.

Gylfaginning states:

These are called Valkyrs: them Odin sends to every battle; they determine men's feyness and award victory. Gudr and Róta and the youngest Norn, she who is called Skuld, ride ever to take the slain and decide fights.

How appropriate that it is in her name that we "make peace with the blade of our final wyrd." At the end of it all, "make peace" we must. It says in Hávamál:

Veit-a hinn
er vettki veit,
margr verðr af aurum api;
maður er auðigr,
annar óauðigr,
skyli-t þann vítka váar.

Deyr fé,
deyja frændr,
deyr sjalfr it sama,
en orðstírr
deyr aldregi
hveim er sér góðan getr.
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
the doom on each one dead.

(On a side note, where I don't have the Old Norse I use Icelandic).

So we must, at the end, recognize that as mutable as fate is in the Norse compared to other systems, over a long enough timeline the probability of survival drops to zero.

15 May 2009

OT, PSA: Do Not Talk To The Police

This is somewhat off-topic from my standard posting, but the message should be spread far and wide to anyone who reads this in the US: Do Not Talk To The Police. It cannot help you, and can very seriously hurt you. If you are innocent it can lead to you being convicted, and even if you are guilty you still have the right to proper legal counsel.

Hat tip to Star Simpson (yes, that Star Simpson).

13 May 2009

Boundaries, Part II: "I have a message from God..."

In my last essay on Boundaries I discussed emotional boundaries between people. In Part II, I plan to take this concept one step farther and discuss Spiritual Boundaries between people and how to deal with it when you hear a medium convey a message from a god, or even your god.

Religions have long struggled with the question of how to handle people who say "I have a message from the Divine..." Kaldera states of such a position that:

This is the voice of the mystic, and it is secretly or not-so-secretly hated by both the other sides. One reason for that hatred is that it seems dangerous to trust the word of someone who has no credentials except a claim to talk to God, or the Gods, or the spirits, or whatever. [...] Who are you, anyway, that they should believe what you say? You could be delusional, or lying in order to manipulate people, or just earnestly mistranslating the puppets in your head. And, to be fair, those are rational fears; any of those things could be true.

The other reason is that in order to believe in the slim chance that you're telling the truth, they must confront their feelings about the fact that Jesus or Freyja or the ghost of the dead guy is not talking to them.

The question for most of us--including those of us who are spirit workers ourselves--is what to do when someone else conveys a message on the behalf of some entity supposedly outside of ourselves. Should we believe them? Should we automatically reject what they say? Should we go to that deity ourselves and ask? If our own UPG or established Lore™ contradicts what we are being told, does that mean they are wrong or that we are? How should we respond if that's the case?

I will talk about proper boundaries when delivering these messages in a future essay, but for the moment the focus will be on receiving that information.

No matter what the status of your UPG is or the state of the message, you should probably respond to the deliverer the same way and then performing the same sanity check, as Danielle Higgins puts it:

I think the best way to respond to this is with a “Thank you for your concern, I’ll think on that,” and then check with your gods yourself.

Telling them "no, you are wrong!" even if you have radically differing gnosis is generally not a good tactic: it won't go over well with them, and they may earnestly believe what they are conveying to you. They may even be right, no matter how strongly you think "that can't be right" or respond negatively to it. On the other hand: Blindly following the advice, no matter what it is, also is a good way to get badly burned, even if you are 100% confident in the deliverer and that the message is itself genuine.

Thus, regardless of what the message is or who it is coming from--a well respected Shaman of your path, a newbie spirit worker, or a crazy man on the street--the first response should always be the same: Thank your for concern, I'll think on that, Thank you, I’ll ask Him further about that, or some other variation on the theme. Even if the information was delivered via someone acting as a medium or a Horse, the best response is to courteously say Thank you for your concern, I'll think on that.

The next step is to check with the gods/spirits/universe yourself. Even if you have poor signal clarity or are not a spirit worker, performing this check is essential. Even if "all" you do is sit down and meditate or pray for a while and never receive a definitive "answer," this process allows you some space to let your mind process the message properly, and to help separate yourself from it and understand it. It will give you a gut reaction, and--more importantly--give you a chance to understand where that gut reaction is coming from. It gives you a chance to run through a sanity checklist on your own, asking questions along these lines:

What is my gut reaction to what was said and to who delivered it?

Your gut reaction is very important, because it is part of one of your judgement processes. To quote Nathaniel Branden: A clash between mind and emotions is a clash between two assessments, one of which is conscious, the other might not be. It is not invariably the case that the conscious assessment is superior to the subconscious one; that needs to be checked out. So, first question, what is your gut, emotional reaction to the message and to who delivered it.

It is also important to distinguish between these two reactions. To quote Raven Kaldera, in his essay Defining the Conundrum of Academic Research Into Spirit-Work: I know from experience that the Gods and spirits do not choose their targets on the basis of intelligence, competence, sanity, morals, life history, or general goodness. Actually, most spirit-workers (including myself) are completely bewildered as to what criteria the Gods and spirits do base their choices on.

You may love or not be able to stand the person delivering the message. You may find their behaviors vile and revolting, or you may find them to be a paragon of virtue. Either way, you will need to separate out your response to the message from your response to the messenger.

Why is my gut reaction what it is?

Having established what your reaction is to both the message and to who delivered it, the next question becomes why. Why do you react that way?

This is where Mindfulness becomes extremely important. We need to dispassionately exam our emotions and our reactions to and determine what is causing them. Is a past bad experience, a schema, some latent doubt coloring my reaction, or just my subconscious putting together something I can't quite put into words? Regardless, I need to think about it and analyze that subconscious assessment.

No one's gut reaction is perfect. Frequently that reaction is colored by schemata, past experiences which may-or-may-not apply, and current circumstances which may have nothing to do with the advice given.

On the other hand, no one's conscious rational process is perfect. Frequently the rational process--which is conscious--ignores subconscious data that may be lingering just beyond our conscious perception. It may also factor in data that is relevant, but not directly enough so to be included in our conscious process. Either way, they both can be strengthened by applying one to the other.

Regardless of the quality of your own UPG, those are the first things to ask.

Next, you can check out the message itself: check on your own and/or (preferably and) check with someone else to get a "second opinion." If it is really important, the gods have ways of making sure you get the message even if your signal clarity is down, and certainly won't mind you asking. You don't have to follow it--especially without checking it out on your own first--but you also shouldn't dismiss it out of hand simply because it came from an outside source.

There are three basic cases that need to be addressed:

  • You have no UPG on the matter and cannot get any
  • You have agreeing UPG on the matter
  • You have contradictory UPG on the matter

Some thoughts on this topic and all three of these cases will be part of a future essay on boundaries. For the moment, the key questions are: What is my reaction, why am I having that reaction?

12 May 2009

Tag/Label Update

I have updated a few of the tags/labels I've used for a few of the posts here, most notably adding the label essays to refer to original essays (prayer exegesis, book reviews, links, etc are treated separately).

10 May 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 1: Moon, Yggdrasil, Sun

I am going to start an exercise of walking through the Northern Tradition Pagan Prayer Beads, going through three at a time, starting with the set that makes up the Moon, Yggdrasil, and the Sun. This will involve my musings and some sources on the entities mentioned, any contemplations I feel worth making at the time. This is just going to cover a surface layer of meaning, but it is a good way to get started.

My plan is to release a new set on each Sunday. This is based on a previous exercise I was working on with my personal blog, but I stopped since I started this blog. My plan is to now finish that work, now that this blog is better established.

Week 1

In the eye of the Moon, I walk willingly into darkness.
In the circle of Yggdrasil, the Great Tree, I find my place within eternity.
In the eye of the Sun, I celebrate that which gives life.

The beads technically start and end with Yggdrasil, but this set of three makes a convenient place to start for analysis, since they come in a set of three.


The Moon is masculine in the Norse tradition, represented by the god Máni. In Vafþrúðnismál we see the jotun Vafþrúðnir answer Odin (in the guise of Gagnráðr) on the question of the origins of the sun and the moon.

Segðu þat annat,
ef þítt æði dugir
ok þú, Vafþrúðnir, vitir,
hvaðan máni um kom,
svá at ferr menn yfir,
eða sól it sama.

Mundilfæri heitir,
hann er mána faðir
ok svá Sólar it sama;
himin hverfa
þau skolo hverian dag
öldom at ártali.
Tell me secondly,
if thy wit suffices,
and thou, Vafþrúðnir! knowest,
whence came the moon,
which over mankind passes,
and the sun likewise?

Mundilfoeri hight he,
who the moon’s father is,
and eke the sun’s:
round heaven journey
each day they must,
to count years for men.

These passages indicate, on the roughest level, that they both provide measures of time but not much else is mentioned or known (beyond that they are pursued by wolves in Grímnismál). It seems fairly fanciful stuff, and I tend to think that it should be taken as an allegory rather than interpreted literally. The question is, to what? In this I am currently uncertain, and so I do not have the key to unlock this particular story. Thus, there isn't much in the Lore for me to work with. So perhaps in this case we should simply associate the "Eye of the Moon" with "Night" and focus instead on the later half of the prayer.

Darkness is a recurring theme in the prayer beads. It occurs for three different beads:

In the name of Hermod, Traveler on Hel's Road, may I never fear to
walk in darkness.
In the name of Mordgud, Guardian of the Gate, may my barriers of
darkness open to my hand.
In the Eye of the Moon I walk willingly into darkness.

The fact that the Moon is the last of these seems significant, as taken together they tell a story: I do not fear to walk in darkness, may my barriers of darkness open as I approach them, and "I take that step into darkness." I find the use of the word "my" in the second part to be particularly meaningful: the hardest challenges we face are seldom external to ourselves. Dion Fortune wrote in The Mystical Qabalah that:

Whosoever is thus inhibited is unfit for the Mysteries, over whose portal was
written the words, "Know thyself."

Coming at the end of the beads, as it does, we see that the cycle never ends. "Having completed my journey, I begin again, walking into darkness." Walking into the unknown or perhaps into the unknowable, walking into the depths of our own soul, the parts that we scarcely acknowledge even to ourselves. Doing this takes more courage--and I, at least, approach it with more trepidation--than staring down any tangible enemy ever will. No matter how far we travel, it is still there, waiting for us.


Yggdrasil has a bit of a disputed etymology, but the most commonly accepted one is to interpret askr Yggdrasils as "horse on which the highest god is bound," viewing the gallows as the "horse of the hanged." Interpreting the first part "Yggr" to not refer to Odin but rather to its root meaning of "Terror," we could also see Yggdrasil as the "Tree of Terror."

It is said to form the center of the the nine worlds. Raven Kaldera describes visions as part of his Shaman Sickness where he "kept seeing a Great Tree that turned and rotated as I watched; worlds lay in its branches like ripe fruit."

Suffice it to say, Yggdrasil is an amazing sight.

So what does it mean, "In the Circle of Yggdrasil, the Great Tree, I find my place within eternity." For me an interpretation would be "this is where I have chosen to start, from here I will find my wyrd." The beads themselves represent a journey through the nine worlds, and keeping with our theme from the moon: From here it starts, here it ends, and here the journey begins anew.


Like the moon, the extant lore on Sunna, the sun, is fairly minimal. We see that the deity is clearly represented as Female, which helps contribute to a double-meaning for the prayer:

In the eye of the Sun I celebrate that which gives life.

I celebrate all of the life-bringing forces of the world. Where the previous two prayers focus on the self and one's personal journey, this one is a pure celebration of the world around us. In it we can almost smell the slow coming of spring and feel the chill of the longest night. It is also a celebration of pregnancy, sex, and everything else that goes into the process of life for animals.

What a wonderful way to start the journey.

07 May 2009

Link: Fame

I want the respect of my peers--Quaker or Pagan. I want to be taken seriously--seriously enough to be heard and disagreed with when I'm wrong, or guided deeper into an idea when I'm right. This kind of discernment is something Quakers are at least seeking to give to all members of the Religious Society of Friends, however often we may fail.

Pagans don't even recognize the need, yet.

Fame by Cat Chapin-Bishop is an outstanding read on the desire to be famous in the Neopagan community. It touched on something very Pagan, very human, and is a very good essay.

Link from The Wild Hunt.


The author wrote a followup--The Son of Fame--that is also worth reading.

06 May 2009


One of the expressions we use in my martial art is that "No matter how long you have trained, if you begin to think of yourself as knowledgeable, you commit an error." No matter how much I know, no matter how much I learn, there is always more out there. Knowing something only means that I have laid a little more of the groundwork required to learn more, and eventually I may find that what I thought I "knew" was in error, requiring me to constantly reevaluate my foundations in the light of new understanding.

In the Japanese mindset there are certain errors that are required for understanding. There is no judgement attached to the making of those errors, because if you do not make them at some point then you cannot eventually master the subject at hand. In martial arts we run into much the same phenomena: I have to understand on a visceral level how to move my body, and to do that I have to train my body and make a huge number of mistakes.

No matter how well I think I understand something, it is best to show humility on the subject in the presence of both those with less experience and with more. Those who I think have less experience may still surprise me with a new insight, those who I think have more experience--even if I disagree with them in some fundamental ways--may be able to point out things that will lead me to new realizations, or help me improve myself. If I believe that I am knowledgeable about a subject, chances are good that I am very very wrong.

This means more than not "comparing dick sizes with Odin" (though that is also important). It means laying ourselves before our gods, before the universe, before others, and before ourselves and recognizing the fundamental truth that we know very little. The more that we learn, it should be the more we realize we don't know not just about the universe, but about the very assumptions that led us to this point.

Magical practices--especially shamanic practices--are often difficult to keep in perspective. The force of Will needed often requires an extremely firm belief, because doubt makes it very difficult to get anything to work, much less work safely. It also becomes a challenge, when we believe we talk to the gods and spirits, to remember that we are--at best--an imperfect receiver for Their messages, and that in many respects even They are not perfect. My instructor in martial arts is an 8 dan in Tae Kwon Do and an 8 dan in Hapkido, but if something doesn't look or feel right it is my responsibility to recognize it and try to understand why (this doesn't mean "contradict the instructor in class," but it can mean "be sure to ask for reasoning, even if the answer is going to be of the form 'because the fence needs to be painted'").

Yet for us, as Occultists and Spirit Workers, this is even more important than it would be otherwise simply because it is so difficult. If we pretend to authority, capability, or powers we do not have, then we serve no one: not our clients, not the gods, and not ourselves. If we believe we know more than we do--if we believe ourselves as knowledgeable--then we approach the world with preconceptions. These preconceptions then block further development. As we say in my martial arts class: "Disregarding criticism because of pride in knowledge is a sign of ignorance."

Of course, I can hear the complaint now "Humility is not a Norse virtue." This is basically true, but as it is said: If there is one person in all of the Nine Worlds you cannot afford to lie to, it is yourself (Loki's lesson). You cannot--as an occultist--tell yourself that you know more than you do, for as Dion Fortune indicates in the Mystical Qabalah, above the gates of the Mysteries are written the words "Know thyself." What you show others isn't nearly as important as what you tell yourself.

I can be justifiably proud in my progress while at the same time recognizing that my progress amounts to less than a single grain of sand's worth of knowledge on a vast shore. Showing humility doesn't mean that I must grovel and debase myself for the sake of debasing myself, but it does mean that I should not flatter myself as being stronger than I actually I am.

This is, after all, about my own personal development and growing both as a person and as an occultist. Not about showing off.

Further Reading

02 May 2009

Book Review: Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner

✭✭✭✬✩ (3.5/5, to quote Daven's rating system: "Good, there should be more books like this")

Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner: A Book of Prayer, Devotional Practice, and the Nine Worlds of Spirit by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera is a difficult book to review. One the one hand, the book has excellent content and the author's aims in writing the book were laudable: we really do need more books like this. However, I feel that what it claims to accomplish (and what my expectations might have been, though they aren't precisely fair), what it feels like it is aiming to accomplish, and what it actually accomplishes are three different things.

Claims and Expectations

The title, reminiscent of Cunningham's famous Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, evokes an image that this book is about practicing the Northern Tradition alone, and that this is a very basic book for beginners. Containing things, perhaps, along the lines of ritual outlines, ceremonies throughout the year, solid groundings in the cosmology, or a discussion on topics such as Heathen ethics.

This position is encouraged by the back of the book, which says that the book "features an in-depth exploration of altar work, prayer, prayer beads, ritual work, sacred images, and lore, and a thorough examination of the common cosmology that forms the foundation of belief of Northern Tradition communities." Reading that, one expects a that all of these areas will be covered in enough depth that a beginner could easily find what they are looking for in this book. It also looks like there should be an emphasis on practicing strictly as an individual, which raises its own set of issues independent of group practice.

The back of the book also claims that it is a "look at devotional work in religions from Theodism to Asatru to Norse Paganism, all of which encompass the umbrella of the Northern Tradition." This leads one to expect that these religions will be given more than a superficial treatment, and to see information on a variety of different branches of Germanic Neo/Mesopaganism.

What the Book Aims To Accomplish

The book is divided into nine chapters, plus an introduction and a set of appendices:

  • Introduction: Solitary Spirit
  • Chapter 1: Tribe and Tradition
  • Chapter 2: Defining Devotion: The Evolution of Practice
  • Chapter 3: Nine Worlds of Spirit: Core Cosmology
  • Chapter 4: In Reverence: Meditation and Prayer
  • Chapter 5: Counting on Faith: Prayer Beads
  • Chapter 6: Footsteps to the Gods: Solitary Rites
  • Chatper 7: Sacred Images: Altar Work and God-Posts
  • Chapter 8: Right Action: Doing the Work
  • Chapter 9: Sacred Inquiry: The Conundrum of Words

The appendices contain an Epilogue, a table of deity altars, offerings, and associations, footnotes, a bibliography, further reading, an index, and a section touching very briefly on the authors. From an initial glance, the topics seem reasonable and hit the major points for a book on spiritual development in a Northern Tradition.

The Introduction helps to clarify the purpose of this book a great deal: this is a book about devotional practice. It talks about how in some branches of Neopaganism books of this nature focus "partly on opersonal ritual, and partly on magic and spellwork." It explains that they will be avoiding the latter topic, not because it isn't valuable, but because they want to "stress that this is a religion, and devotional work is a good place to start in any theistic faith." Excellent, we get a clear picture that this is a work of devotion, not of magic and that this book is talking about devotional practice in the context of that religion. This doesn't contradict the claims and expectations, and reinforces what this is all about.

It further explains some of what is addressed in each of the chapters, mapping some of them loosely to Dale Cannon's Six Ways of Being Religious.

Despite the title of the introduction being "Solitary Spirit" and the title "Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner," the issue of being a solitary Heathen is not really addressed. We get the impression that this is not a book for the solitary practitioner, but for developing one's own spirituality, which is a very different thing from what is implied by the phrase "solitary practitioner." The latter conjures the image of the individual working alone without any firm connections to the surrounding Heathen communities; the former would seem to imply that it is a book about growing oneself and one's relationship with the gods independent of whether you are in a true group.

This impression is reinforced when we look at the chapter on Solitary Rites, where we see devotional rites and rites honoring various deities, but nothing about seasonal rituals, "holidays," celebrations, or things of that nature. At no point that I could find do we really see a discussion on finding or starting a group. This is fine, but it emphasizes that this is a book about developing one's own spirituality, and not about being a "Solitary Practitioner" who has no real tribe, kindred, coven, or similar structure (what "solitary practitioner" meant in Cunningham's work).

This makes the book slightly more advanced than the initial impression would indicate, and a careful reading of the back of the book doesn't give any indication that it is for a "Solitary" beyond the title.

It seems that this was an intentional design decision, and we as Heathens (or just Neopagans in general) definitely need books on developing our spirituality. Books on the practice of centering prayer and developing our own spirituality are an extremely welcome addition, even if it isn't quite the same thing--in my mind--as what the title or some of the chapter headings would indicate.

What the Book Accomplishes, A Review on Content

Having established that this is a book about spiritual development, the rest of this review will be on how it accomplishes that goal. Overall it does well and the content is well laid out and informative, and all of the basics are covered. Getting into more detail by chapter:

Chapter 1: Tribe and Tradition, The Northern Tradition Landscape

This chapter is the only place in the book that we get a glimpse of the various traditions that form what can be loosely described as the "Northern Tradition Religions." They get into the difference between Reconstructionist and Reconstructionist-derived religions and describe a few of the major paths:

  • Asatru, with a brief reference to Vanatru, Odinism, and Rokkatru.
  • Theodism
  • Culturally-based denominations, such as the Urglaawe
  • Norse Wicca
  • Northern Tradition Paganism

They get heavily into terminology here, and use the definition of "Heathen" to be "Reconstructionist" but include quotes indicating that not everyone sees it this way. Beyond that, the coverage of the various religions is fairly superficial. Forn Siðr--which forms the largest Danish pagan society--gets a single mention inside of a quote which doesn't reveal much about it. Most of the others receive between one sentence and one paragraph describing them, with a lot more text discussing terminology about the difference between Reconstructionist and Reconstructionist-derived, Pagan vs. Heathen, and the difference between Tribalist, Folkish, and Universalist.

This is all good content, and we need to be having a discussion about these differences, but it doesn't quite fit what I expected given that the book purports to "look at ... religions from Theodism to Asatru to Norse Paganism." I wanted more meat talking about what each of these religions is, what it means, and what someone who is looking at each religion in turn would find in the various Northern Tradition paths. That said, what is presented tends to be presented fairly, and while the author's have biases they refrain from "bashing" those who disagree. It at no point indicates that any path is inferior, and does a good job of "stepping back" to look at the different approaches reasonably and rationally.

Chapter 2: Defining Devotion, the Evolution of Practice

This chapter talks about how there is a growing movement toward devotional practice among modern German Neopagans. More than any other, this chapter talks about being a solitary vs. being in a group. It also talks about how devotional practice works in these settings. It talks in a great deal of depth about the reactions to devotional practice, and how the Path of Devotion. All-in-all excellent stuff.

Chapter 3: Nine Worlds of Spirit, Core Cosmology

This chapter would be difficult to write for a book of this nature in the best of circumstances, and shows where the stress of finding a good "level" for this book comes in. The readers of this book likely range from people just of the door and who are somewhat lost, to people who have read everything from The Saga of Grettir the Strong and several translations of the The Poetic Edda, to The Road to Hel.

In order to narrow this, the authors chose to focus on just the cosmology and the nine worlds. It talks about how the cosmology involves three key components: the gods, the nine worlds, and wyrd. It then goes on to present a creation myth with some analysis, a prayer to the elements, and how ultimately the nine worlds were created.

It then goes on to talk about the three "tribes" of gods:

  • Aesir
  • Vanir
  • Rokkr

It gives a brief explanation about each of these, and talks about how each of them tend to be viewed by Northern Tradition religions. It at no point says that you must "worship Rokkr," which is some of the propaganda I've seen about those who follow certain NT paths.

It also talks about the nature of Wyrd, giving one of the clearer examples I've seen for this.

This chapter definitely hits its mark: it doesn't get bogged down in mythology, while presenting a clear overview of the Nine Worlds.

Chapter 4: In Reverence, Meditation and Prayer

The chapter starts off with the elegant Sigdrifa's Prayer, which is one of my favorite prayers in any tradition. It then goes on to talk about the nature of prayer and the question of "why we pray." It talks about a few basic prayers that are nearly universal in nature:

  • Thank you
  • Please
  • I love you
  • I am sorry

This reminded me of something a Christian minister once told me: That the two most authentic, most heartfelt, and most common prayers were:

  • Help me Help me Help me!
  • Thank you Thank you Thank you!

After this it gets in to the topic of meditation. Here it doesn't ever really discuss the how or even the why of meditation, but mostly keeps itself to the what along with some mild diagnostics for common complaints. While it might have been useful to include at least one simple breathing exercise--or at least some more comprehensive references on the subject--I can understand not putting it in there. This does, however, elevate the level of the book to include someone who is already set off down this path, rather than evaluating it.

The final section of the chapter involve some "Prayers for Personal Devotions." It includes a reference to Be Thou My Hearth and Shield: A Northern Tradition Book of Prayer by Elizabeth Vongvisith which, while it looks excellent, isn't out yet and doesn't have an "approximate publish date" listed in this book (though I'll be including a link on this blog as soon as I hear about it being finished). The prayers included are:

  • In Praise of the Vanadis by Gudrun of Mimirsbrunnr
  • Vanir Meal Blessing by Sigrún Freyskona
  • A Parent's Prayer for Patience by Raven Kaldera
  • A Prayer for Faith by Elizabeth Vongvisith
  • Prayer of the Lone Worshipper by Elizabeth Vongvisith

Overall I have no serious issue with this list. It is a reasonable selection without distracting from the purpose of the book. It would be nice if there were a morning or an evening prayer of some variety just for the sake of coverage (and devotional work of this nature is found in Chapter 7), but most of the major areas are covered.

Chapter 5: Counting on Faith, Prayer Beads

This chapter talks about the use of prayer beads in the Northern Tradition. It starts by talking about the nature of prayer beads and the "why" of their use, along with some basics of their construction, and then gets in to six different sets of bead prayers covering 24 pages (this is as long as all of Chapter 4, excluding the prayers at the end). These are presented with no real introduction, just one after the other. While the book claims in the previous chapter that "There isn't room in this book for prayers for every Deity and occasion," they seem to take a stab at including bead prayers for as many situations as they could reasonably fit.

Let me say that I like the prayers, and like the nature of bead prayers for devotional practice. That said, I feel that this chapter doesn't really belong: It would have been better to include one bead prayer, a link to a few others online, and to have then merged it with the previous chapter's section on prayer.

Chapter 6: Footsteps to the Gods, Solitary Rites

This is one of the best organized chapters in the book. It has clear section headings for it's various subsections, which break down the subject matter in a clear, logical fashion. The material is well organized and presented, covering benefits and hazards, along with the basic components for constructing a ritual. The selected rites for demonstration provide good coverage, and each one has introductory text talking about the rite, what it means, and how it relates to what has been covered so far. Despite the chapter's title, nothing in here requires a solitary practice, except in the choices of example rites.

This leads me to my one complaint with the chapter: Its choice of rites:

  • Devotional Ritual for Sigyn
  • Devotional Ritual for Njord
  • Solitary Rite for the Ancestors
  • Rite for the Land-Wight
  • Rite for Tyr (asking his aid)

All of these rites are good, powerful rites, but it again goes back to the "developing one's personal spiritual independent of being a solitary practitioner." These are rites to be performed alone, not rites for what I think of as a solitary practitioner. The choice of coverage here is also interesting: we lack a devotional rite to Thor, Frey, or Odin: three of the most popular deities both in modern times and historically. There are no seasonal rites, rites of passage, or mention of rites such as ordeals. While this is clearly not supposed to be a "book of rites," it would be nice if there were more comprehensive coverage in this area.

That there is no discussion of seasonal rites at all really feels like a missing component of this book, since there isn't even a calendar, "wheel of the year," or list of holidays. Particularly for a solitary practitioner, but even in a group setting, these can form an important core of practice.

Beyond that, however, this chapter is probably the strongest in the entire book.

Chapter 7: Altar Work and God Posts

This chapter is divided into two major sections: Altars and God Posts.

The section on altars is excellent. The authors talk about the nature of sacred images, what goes on an altar, and how to set up your first altar. A photo of an altar to Hel is presented, along with one to Frey and several daily prayers that can be performed at that altar.

The section on God Posts is informative and interesting, but I do not feel it belongs in anything resembling an introductory book for solitary practitioners. What it takes to pull off a God Post--in terms of skill, time, resources, and land--is fairly nontrivial for most people, especially those who are "solitary practitioners." It isn't the kind of thing you can erect in an apartment building all that effectively, or put up in a public park. While they are very powerful devotional acts, I would have liked it if we had more on devotional altars, and maybe a side note and a few photographs to cover God Posts.

Chapter 8: Right Action, Doing the Work

This is the closest thing we have to a section on ethics. It talks about the various ethical systems, the challenges of ethical systems in reconstructionist religions (e.g., it is no longer acceptable to hang people in sacrifice to Odin), and on the few universal constants in Heathen religions. It talks about the idea of exchange and some very important key principles, and gives some examples of applying those principles.

I like this chapter a lot. One thing that we need is to have a comprehensive discussion of ethics, and this isn't nearly as well summarized in any other book I've seen as it is here.

Chapter 9: Sacred Inquiry, The Conundrum of Words

This chapter is about written lore. Not so much the actual contents of that lore, but how it is approached. It discusses the challenges, the issue of UPG vs. lore.

To someone who has been around the community for a while, there isn't much new in this chapter: it provides a bird's-eye survey of the landscape on how written lore is treated, along with it's use. Still, this coverage is extremely valuable and is presented in a fairly balanced--if somewhat Reconstructionist-derived--view.

Further Notes on Content

There were two issues regarding information presentation that I feel need to be brought up. These points may seem minor, but I feel like they are important because we are starting to see them come up more frequently in instructional books by Pagan authors.

The first is that the authors avoided lists. In numerous cases throughout the book, three or more items are presented in a series of paragraphs, each paragraph covering one option. While this is fine for exposition, I kept thinking back to my training in technical writing: people remember bulleted lists better. They also help break up the mass of words on a page, thus making the entire page easier to read. Instead we see a reference to the Six Ways of Being Religious, followed by eight individual paragraphs about them. I feel that it would have been better to prefix that by listing the "Six Ways" in a bulleted list, and then followed them with the paragraphs explaining them.

In Chapter 4, it lists the prayers "Thank you," "Please," "I Love You," and "I am sorry" and delving in to them, yet at no point are all four listed together, put into a list at all, or attached to a subject. There's nothing to indicate where each one might be, or where it's discussion might really begin or end. You are simply reading along and then come across "The fourth prayer is 'I am Sorry.'"

Another example where this comes up is in the first chapter, where there are no section headings or lists indicating what exactly I am looking at. This all makes finding specific information difficult, and diminishes the book as a reference text after it has been read through.

The second point is something I've noticed about Kaldera's style. He likes to present a point of view, and then provide a set of quotes "of interest" which provide other points of view. This works well in fairly conversational works or works where one's building a shared PCPG, e.g., in Kaldera's Pathwalker's Guide to the Nine Worlds. I don't feel that it worked nearly as well in this book, which is more instructional and informative in nature. It would have been better to integrate these in to the content--with a sentence introducing or explaining it (even as little as a "As X has said..."). The use of back-to-back block quotes or a multi-page quotes with no paragraphs, in particular, with no lead-in or following explanations can be very jarring.


The overall content of the book is excellent, and I recommend it highly. We need more books like this one, which provide a good and up-to-date coverage of the Northern Tradition path itself, rather than the mythology or individual practices associated with such.

The major issue I have is that it is suffers from a lack of good editing, e.g., gap analysis, focusing and clarifying of the scope, and a lack of structure and flow in several of the chapters. There are also smaller issues, such as words being presented both with and without the accent mark (e.g, "Sigrún" on page 96 vs. "Sigrun" on page 122).

The material that is included is excellent and if it could fix these issues, and address how the book is billed in terms of it's name and focus, the material that is there would be worthy of 5 stars.

01 May 2009

The Role of Religion

One of the things that is frequently misunderstood in our society is the role of religion in people's lives. There are two opposite errors that people make:

We see in the modern atheist movement--typified by individuals such as Dawkins and Hitchens--a concept that religion basically amounts to superstition, who's role in people's lives is to substitute and fill in the individual's gaps in knowledge. They treat religion as a competitor to Science™.

We see in the modern fundamentalist movement--typified by entirely too many politicians--a theory that their religion is external. Something to be forced on others. It doesn't matter why their god believes that homosexuality was wrong, it is and therefore others should be strongly discouraged from practicing it.

In many of the important respects both of these get confused about what I believe the purpose of religion to be: religion is a tool by which we can gain fulfillment and happiness in our daily lives, it is a tool by which we can bring about health and happiness in others, and shows a grasp of theology reminiscent of "God wants a bigger goat!" They both treat religion as the crudest of superstitions: "If I do/don't do X, the gods will smite me!"

This may be true of some religions, but it is not true of my path, and I do not believe that it is the proper role for religion in our lives. Rather I believe that there are three pillars for the proper role of religion:

  • Similar to Psychology: "To help us become rational, moral human beings." This forms the "mind."
  • Similar to Action: To help us improve the world around us. To help others find their way, by ourselves becoming the change we would see in the world. This forms the "body."
  • Similar to Philosophy: To help us understand ourselves, the mysteries of human existence, and our own inner realities. This forms of the "soul."

These three are not independent: they work together to help us realize Ourselves in service to the Gods. In serving myself I serve others, in serving others I serve the gods. In serving the gods I serve others, in serving others I serve myself. This is one of the fundamental concepts behind the Wounded Healer: Using one's own wounded nature to help others in our service.

In essence, religion is a way of helping us attain clarity of understanding and a better world, not merely as individuals, but as a people. It is not the only way, and we don't all have to be the same in order to realize it, but it is a powerful tool that helps some of us on the road.