Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ghostpitality (Gestrisni)

A question which has vexed modern heathenry is whether "possession" by spirits is a legitimate experience connected with the magic arts of spa and seidr. Eric the Red's Saga clearly demonstrates Thorbjorg summoning "nattura", or nature-spirits to her, with magical, enchanting songs, and they bring her information about the fate of the farm for which she is prophecying. Frigg summons to her all of the spirits of the earth, of fire, water, iron, plants, etc., to make them swear oaths to her. Clearly there is something akin to "possession" that is experienced in these magical states, but it is perhaps more akin to a kind of visiting custom. In other words, it is a matter of hospitality, for which there is no better guide than the Havamal.

The Havamal, the inspired words of the High One, Odin, that brilliant practical manual of proverbs and saws for good living, can be read as a manual for how to host the ghosts, because it is full of good advice on hospitality and friendships. In this light, it may be read as a virtual Wizard's Manual, a guide to conjuring and how to host the spirits who come. The word "guest" comes from *ghostis "strange", which is obviously related to *ghois- "to be excited, frightened" ; the former refers to someone from a different place, while the latter refers to a ghost, who comes from a different place! In other words, there is an oblique but very real etymological kinship between the words "ghost" and "guest". The Havamal, being a manual of guestliness, is also a manual of ghostliness, or as I have quipped here, of Ghostpitality.

Havamal's Rede of Gestrisni (Hospitality)

Havamal teaches many rules of thumb to guide the host-and-guest relationship, which I shall summarize here. Hosts should provide guests with warmth, food, water, and a good reception. (Havamal 3,4.) Guests should have some knowledge, but should also demonstrate caution, and not be overboastful in what they know. (Havamal 5, 6.) A guest should not be incoherent, completely silent, or drunk. (Havamal 17.) For the guest's knowledge to be reliable, the guest should have had travelled wide and experienced a lot. (Havamal 18). Guests will return to visit those who treat them in a friendly fashion, even if they hale from far, but even local guests will avoid the hospitality of those who are unfriendly. (Havamal 34, 121, 122). Guests should never be insulted or mocked, regardless of their kin or origin. (Havamal 134, 137.) Guests should enjoy their stay but not overstay their welcome. (Havamal 35). Regardless of how humble his station, a host is always master of his house, and should not grovel or beg. (Havamal 36). Hosts and guests should exchange gifts and attempt to empower each other. (Havamal 41, 42). When hosts and guests trust each other, they should blend their minds together (geði skaltu við þann blanda (Havamal 44), Sifjum er þá blandat, hver er segja ræðr einum allan hug (Havamal 124)). Hosts and guests should enjoy each other, with a spirit of fun and laughter, but dishonest or untrustworthy guests should be treated by the same standard they mete out. (Havamal 44, 45). One should not share much information with a bad or foolish guest, and should not contend with them. (Havamal 119, 124, 125, 127). Before they blend their minds with each other, they should make sure that they have taken the time to get to know each other well, for new acquaintanceships often begin with enthusiasm, but peter out. (Havamal 51). One should take the time, therefore, to make sure that the relationship is characterized by trust, confidence, the ability to keep secrets if necessary, and the safety that good faith provides. (Havamal 44). With one's confidant, one should avoid quarreling. (Havamal 123.) Hosts should be generous and brave, and not characterized by undue superstition and fear. (Havamal 48). The prudent one will be able to defend his or her own by taking appropriate precautions, having one's weapons at hand if they are needed. (Havamal 38). It is good for hosts and guests to put their minds together in this way, because self-reliance, while important, is not sufficient; we are enriched by company and exchange. (Havamal 50). One does not need to overgive, because sometimes the simplest offerings, of a little bread, and some drink, are good enough to establish good relations. (Havamal 52, 147.) When inquiring of news from a traveling guest, it is wise to be moderate and careful for what one asks, because too much information may simply weigh the mind down ; therefore, the appropriate, and just the proper, needed information is what should be explored. (Havamal 54, 55, 56). Sometimes all the guest needs to do is get the spark going in the host, and the host will be able to figure out all that is needed from this initial inspiration. (Havamal 57.) When they confer, the host needs to know how to properly inquire, as well as what information to impart, and it is best if they both keep their counsels confidential, lest gossip spread what only concerns a few to those whom it doesn't concern at all. (Havamal 63).

If host and guest(s) intend to embark on any adventure or enterprise together, the best time to commence work to their advantage is in the wee hours of the morning, the ótta (1) just before daybreak. (Havamal 58, 59.) Before they embark on their adventures, and in fact, even before the guests arrive, the host should take stock of all material needs, including especially making sure that the shelter is sound, and the fire warm, for the guests. (Havamal 60.) All such materials and tools should be prepared oneself to make sure they are trustworthy. (Havamal 128.) When the folk meet in council to decide on their course of action, their clothing or superficial appearance does not matter, but they should make sure they have washed and are well-fed. (Havamal 61, 118). Timing is important in such matters ; while the work proper may be done at ótta, travelling is often best done at night, and one should pay attention to the season and the weather. (Havamal 74). Night is also the best time for scouting-missions. (Havamal 114.) Those embarking on these kinds of enterprises, however, should remember that fortune is often quite variable, and gain, which is easily lost, does not always translate into wisdom. (Havamal 78, 79). Not until the results are certain and the fruits already enjoyed should the enterprise be praised. (Havamal 81). One should exercise appropriate caution at every step of the way, for many things turn out to be untrustworthy, and it does not pay in such things to be too trusting.(Havamal 84 - 89.) One's intentions in such things ought to be to either do good or to fight the wicked(Havamal 129, 130), although one should remember that no one is wholly good or bad. (Havamal 135).

When host and guest(s) blend their minds together in an intimate way, great affection can arise, but one must be careful, because love is tricky, and beings can be fickle with one another. (Havamal 90 - 94.) Our own desires can make fools of us. (Havamal 93, 94).

Wizardry and Havamal's Rede of Ghostrisni

So what are the implications of all this for wizardry?

When one welcomes a spirit into one's self, one should treat the spirit with hospitality, but it should behave with guestliness. You are always in charge in your own home, and a good guest does not overstay his or her welcome. You should never beg, but only ask what is prudent. You should invite in those who are experienced and wise, and who you have learned to trust over time. Spirits who babble incoherencies or refuse to speak should be kindly dismissed. Be generous with the spirit (s), dismissing superstitious fear for a spirit of boldness. Thus, while this is akin to "possession", it differs inasmuch as it is not supposed to be either a frightening experience, nor one where the spirit "takes over", but one where there is mutual hospitality and guestliness.

The best time to do magical work is at night and the wee hours of the morning. One should be washed and well-fed, and a fire should be lit to keep oneself warm. One should have one's weapons and tools about one, and one should have made them oneself. The space or shelter in which the operation is to take place should be secure. One's clothing does not matter much, but the timing does, paying attention to the season and the weather. One should exercise caution, and intend the best, whether one's mission is for blessings or cursings of ill-doers.

The entire point of the operation is to blend one's mind with the ghost. This is expressed as "geði skaltu við þann blanda", "mind/wits shall blend together" and "Sifjum er þá blandat, hver er segja ræðr einum allan hug", "There is a blending of affinity where one may share all the rede of one's heart with another." This blending or mixing of mind, heart, and desire, is very intimate, and may even have sexual overtones, as the word "blanda" not only means "to mix" but also "sexual intercourse"(2). Great love may arise from this, and here one has to be careful. One will often encounter beings with "beauteous countenance", whose fair form is so dazzling that one's wisdom can easily be captivated. One must speak praises, offer gifts, and court such beings, because one may obtain their love thereby, but one should be careful to not lose one's head! One must be careful not to let down one's guard in their presence (Havamal 115), for their beauty may be the cause that one cares not anymore for things of this world (Havamal 116). It is the typical theme of one who has fallen in love with a Woman of Faerie, who afterwards wastes away because her world is so beautiful and enchanting that the mundane world holds no charm. One must exercise appropriate moderation here, even in the midst of such beauty, lest our desires make fools of us. At the same time, it is appropriate to laugh and have a spirit of celebration. Odin shares his own adventures of love, with Rind and with Gunnlodd, to underline opportunities and provide cautions for such exploits (3).

The purpose of such blending is mutual empowerment, where both sides give to each other. One offers the spirit(s) bread or cakes and wine, milk, or ale, and they offer their own powers. One may learn of the news the spirit has learned in his or her travels, which may be extensive, if the spirit is experienced, but one should be wary of spirits who boast too much. One should be very careful with the information one seeks, and how one asks it, because too much information may be unpleasant. Not only may one scout out the unseen through the familiar's powers, but wealth may be gained, and threatening enemies eliminated (Havamal 58, 59 ; Ynglingasaga 7) (4). But one should never be cocky about such things, because fortune can turn very quickly, and one should not praise the working until its fruits are certain. The spirit itself may go out hamfaring to gain such information or gains, or it may lend its form to the wizard, allowing him or her to ride upon it, so they may travel together.

With a friendly spirit, one ought to visit often, to build up rapport. One can clothe wood shaped into humanoid form (Havamal 49) to symbolize the spirit, and give it a welcome home ; alternatively, one can shape a wand which welcomes the wight, and from which they can be summoned. If, in the course of operations, one runs into trouble, one has recourse to various herbs and magical substances (Havamal 139) as well as special rune-songs (Havamal 148 - 165) that tell how to receive assistance, to heal, to disarm opponents, to free oneself from fetters, to stop projectiles, to turn back hate, to stop fires, to bring peace, to calm the wind and waves, to make astral travellers return to their bodies, to protect in battle, to speak with the dead, to make oneself invulnerable to wounds, to tally up the deeds of men, to utter the blessings of dawn, to bring and to avoid love.

With such advice, such preparations, such careful friendship, and such tools, the wizard is well-armed.


1 In Hrólfs Saga Kraka 48, we learn that Skuld, there an elf-maiden and sorceress, but also the name of Urd's sister who is considered a valkyrie as well, is followed by álfar ok nornir ok annat ótöluligt illþýði, "elves, norns, and the ill crowd of the last part of the night". The word ótöluligt is from the word ótta, which denotes the last part of the night just before daybreak. In this saga, her retinue of elves, luck-fairies (norns), and those who travel about in the last part of the night, fits her function as a sorceress.

2 Seidr seems to always have been associated with sexuality. Ynglingasaga calls it "ergi", which implies a kind of nymphomania or promiscuity, as well as a kind of receptive sexuality that welcomes others to come in. Someone characterized by "ergi", in other words, is a good host with many guests. The term nymphomania, if taken literally, actually translates what ergi is all about in the context of seidr, literally a mania or enthusiasm for nymphs or elven fairy-spirits (also called "nattura"). Such receptive sexual-spiritual hosting was considered in the context of patriarchal sexuality to be effeminate, and therefore unmanly. The term ergi can also be used to denote a man who is sexually penetrated. There are cross-gender implications here. In this regard, we find the word seið-skratti, which denotes a wizard, but which literally means "seidr through skratti". Well, what is a "scratt"? Here my friend Carla O'Harris has done all the relevant research, and I gratefully draw upon her analysis here. A "scraett" is a hermaphroditic spirit of the wild, a kind of elfin or satyr-like incubus/succubus. (And noting their hermaphroditic nature, let us recall all of the cross-dressing ritual in European festive folklore.) This is why witches were always accused of relations with an incubus, as well as having intercourse with demons. From the indigenous side, the folk-culture referred to "fairy brides" (as well as fairy husbands), where not only the enchantment of sexuality, but also love, are experienced. Several modern studies of astral travel have noted that there is a kind of sexuality experienced in hamfaring, and reportedly, sexual sharing with those encountered in such states can be quite powerful. As I've stated before, Freya, being the Teacher of the Art of seidr, is also the Goddess of Love, and it is clear that it involves a blending of mind, heart, and soul on a level of intimacy which only physical sexuality is capable of symbolizing and expressing.

3 Consider that Odin says that Vel keypts litar hefi ek vel notit, "A well kept form had I good use" when he was at Suttung's with Gunnlodd, and that Skaldskaparmal 1 says that "Þá brást hann í arnarham ok flaug sem ákafast," "Then he changed into the shape (ham) of an eagle and flew with eagerness," all of which imply that he was ham-faring on this adventure. Similarly, in Saxo's telling (in Book Three of his History of the Danes) of Odin's wooing of Rind (Billing's lass), he assumes many different forms in an attempt to woo her, and that this constituted seidr is confirmed by the fact that the gods found this conduct on his part extremely shameful, while Ynglingasaga 7 says that seidr is "fylgir svo mikil ergi að eigi þótti karlmönnum skammlaust", "followed by mighty ergi (sexual shamefulness) that it is not thought without shame for a freeman". We know Odin practiced it, however, for Ynglingasaga 4 states that Freya taught it to all the Aesir, and Loki in Lokasenna 24 reveals that Odin pounded on the vats with volvas at Samso. All of this suggests that Odin's adventures with Gunnlodd and Rind may very well have been hamfaring adventures, where the element of love was involved, shared here to remind the wizard to exercise moderation in such wooings.

4 One ought to compare the language of Ynglingasaga 7, "Óðinn kunni þá íþrótt svo að mestur máttur fylgdi og framdi sjálfur, er seiður heitir, en af því mátti hann vita örlög manna og óorðna hluti, svo og að gera mönnum bana eða óhamingju eða vanheilindi, svo og að taka frá mönnum vit eða afl og gefa öðrum.", "Odinn knew that skill in which the most might follows and which he practiced himself, that is called seidr, because of which he might know the orlog of men and their un-ordained lot, so he could cause the death of a man or unluck (rob luck) or bad-health, and so take the wit or strength from one man and give it to another." with Havamal 58, "Ár skal rísa sá er annars vill fé eða fjör hafa", "Early shall rise he who another man's wealth or life will have". In the Ynglingasaga passage, Odin demonstrates the power to take the life of another, and to rob from one man to give to another, and we find the same powers in the Havamal passage. With this, however, it is best to remember Odin's words of caution, how fortune may quickly turn in such matters. One follows here Havamal 129, hvars þú böl kannt,kveð þú þér bölvi at ok gef-at þínum fjándum frið, "where you know misfortune, declare that that is your misfortune, and do not give your foes peace." In other words, don't let ill escape justice ; on the other hand, in these matters, one would be very wise to consult Havamal 130, whose spirit must guide all ventures : illu feginn ver þú aldregi, en lát þér at góðu getit, "Of ill never be joyful, but let good get for you joy." A word to the wise is sufficient.


Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

I want to add to Footnote 3 that Skaldskaparmal 54 quotes a stanza from the skald Kormákr that includes the lines, "Seið Yggr til Rindar", which clinches the case that Odin utilized seidr on Rind. My analysis led in the exact same direction, but this is explicit proof.

6:58 PM  

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