Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Stolen Voices of Our Wizards and Witches

It seems they stole the voices of our wizards and witches. So it seems, for their words have not passed down to us in the literature. Yet these souls knew how to interpenetrate into the fibrous, webbed sinews of the Earth's spirit-matrix. Their songs are still there. But we must use wizard-ears and witch-eyes to hear and see them.

In Heimskringla (Erling Monsen tr.), in The History of Olav Trygvason Chapter 62, we find, "King Olav ... had a thing, at which he bade all the men who were openly or secretly dealing with wizardry and troll craft to ... come before him. And when they came, ... King Olav had all these men gathered in a room and had it all well laid out ; he made a great feast for them and gave them strong drink ; and when they were drunk Olav had the place set on fire and burned it and all the folk who were therein..." Then in Chapter 63, we find, "... Eyvind Kelda came to the island and he had a longship fully manned with wizards and other troll-wise folk ... When the king's men there recognized Eyvind, they took him and all the others prisoner and brought them before the king. ... The king had them all taken out and brought on a skerry which was under water at high tide and he had them bound there. Eyvind and the others thus lost their lives. The skerry was afterwards called Scrat-Skerry." In Chapters 78 - 80, we learn of Raud the Strong. "Raud the Strong was the name of a bonder ... Raud was an ardent sacrificer and very troll-wise. ... Raud was seized and bound ... The king had Raud brought before him and bade him let himself be baptised ... Raud shouted against this and said that he would never believe in Christ, and he blasphemed against God. The king was wroth and said that Raud should have the worst of deaths ... [there follows description of torture and torment] ... He made all the men who had followed Raud be baptised, but those who would not, he caused to be slain or tormented."

Now the historiography of Olav Tryggvason's Saga is difficult and knotted, because it is not only a saga or history, but also a hagiography or saint's tale, and thus represents a blending of two genres : the native Norse saga-form with the imported Christian hagiographical tropes, in which the fight of good versus evil is stereotypically portrayed in the triumph of Christianity over evil heathendom. All of heathendom gets flattened out with the worse practices, many of which were condemned by heathendom itself, and thus we have to be very careful with literature of this kind. It tells us something about heathendom, but often indirectly, and we would be wise to follow the cautions of Carlo Ginzburg about Inquisition documents, whose stereotypes transmit hagiographical or ecclesiastical traditions rather than contemporary historical facts, except when those stereotypes are colored with local, ideosyncratic knowledge. But in this case the stereotypes serve us, because Christianity in its fight against heathendom did in fact as a matter of policy war against the wizards, for shamanic practitioners were their competition. (And in fact, even the Inquisition's stereotypes of the Witch's Sabbat was based on original Inquisitional "research" into native shamanistic visionary-and-ritual practices that maintained a basic form with local improvisations of varying diversity.)

This hagiographical literature, crashing up against the far more realistic and gritty saga-forms, preserves for us in these episodes exemplars of what happened on a far wider basis. Our wizards were purged from us. When we look at the descriptions here and in the Icelandic Family Sagas, we still find the lingering of wizardry linked with blot, an understanding that the wizards were once an integral part of heathenry.

But the Icelandic Family Sagas were written long after these purges had taken place, two to three hundred years afterwards. There were memories of the old wizards, and certainly the survival of a few odd eccentrics in the boondocks, for these things were often passed down in families, but the new Christian mentality made these folk into menaces, and sometimes it was the marginal who preserved the old knowledge. Almost every time we find an instance of someone practicing seidr in the Family sagaic literature, it is of the type of Gullveig : deeply antisocial, combative magic, and that is the part that wizards must play in sagas written by Christians remembering their ancestors from long ago. (And when we say "remember", we also mean "imagining", because two to three hundred years really is a long time when it has passed over a violent conversion that has shook the foundations of a society.) We should not be so naive as to simply tip this Christian perspective on its head and imagine that every seidr-practitioner was holy in heathen days : far from it. Everything depended on benefit to community. Yet we know for a fact that most wizards were not scumbags nor so considered because of the very word "wizard", which contains the word "wise" (and for smart alecks who point out the Old English nature of the word "wizard", let's point out that in the Norse word vitki is also the word vit, wit or wisdom), and means "wise man" or "wise woman".

Of course with any art there are always scoundrels who will use it for ill, and turn it towards their own selfish, deprivative purposes. The Art invented by Freya is perverted by Gullveig. But it is, note, warded over by Freya and by Odin, and this ought to tell us something in the priority of wizardry as a shamanic art of communion and world-affecting through touching of soul to soul. After all, the Earth herself practices seidr, as we can plainly see when Frigga summons all the wights of the world to come and give their oaths that they will not harm Baldur. This means it is a pretty holy art at root. Runes are predominantly a masculine art, while seidr is predominantly a feminine art, and either may be perverted by forces of ill. Christianity flattened out these distinctions and mapped its own dualities onto our far more highly nuanced differentiations. (Can I invent the word "polydualism" for heathenism with its rainbow-array of good forces in coalition and federation against forces of ill, versus the "monodualism" of monotheism with its black-and-white crusades?)

Let us fully digest these exemplars which stand as summative epitomes. Wizards en masse burned and drowned. And then let us recall that in Harald Hairfair's Saga, which can hardly be called hagiographical, we learn in Chapter 35 of the killing of the wizard Ragnvald Rettlebone. "King Harald did not like wizards. ... There he burned ... Ragnvald and eighty wizards with him..." Eighty wizards with him!

These voices have been divested from the Family Sagas. When we hear the descriptions of antiquities found in these sagas, half memories and half-imagination, there is something more prosaic than there would have been. It is not that the Norse voice is not prosaic ; after all, we expect prose and pragmatism in sagas, but the prophetic dimension is missing. How these Sagas would have been taken up and edited by our wise men and women is missing. We are left with fragments.

This is workable, if we remember not to bow down before fragments, and learn to reforge them in the smithy. We will hear their echoes on the wind if we listen. We will hear the underwater reverberations in the deep, old spells spoken in old language that was never banished still carried by the eddies, song in the midst of our cells and in the streams and in the pith of wood. Icelanders of the 1300s remembered back their ancestors of three hundred and more years before, and imagined prosaically, flattening heathen nuances into Sturling-era rivalries and ecclesiastical dramas, and so, since their imaginations, so far as wizardry were concerned, had been dulled (reflecting more their contemporary odd eccentrics lingering on the social margins), we too are enfranchized to imagine, but more poetically, and thus, to regain the soul of our slaughtered wise men and women.


Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Good stuff... but I take issue with one detail: the assertion that "even the Inquisition's stereotypes of the Witch's Sabbat was based on original Inquisitional "research" into native shamanistic visionary-and-ritual practices that maintained a basic form with local improvisations of varying diversity."

Though Ginzburg does indeed document (I think fairly convincingly) some of what I might call cross-pollination between the stereotypes and local practices, I think you're overgeneralizing to say that those practices form the root of the stereotype. I say this because the stereotypes of the witch's sabbat have such clear parallels in the anti-Semitic stories around the blood libel, and indeed, in early libels against the Christian church in Rome. Later, Christians made use of the details of the story in their own propaganda, first against Christian heretics, and then against Jews, and finally against witches.

I am convinced that the root of the witch-hunting stereotype is actually a Roman story--I think we'd call it an "urban legend" today--that then twisted into politically convenient forms as Roman Christianity spread. (The irony that it was first used by Romans against Christians is fascinating. Romans, even as Pagans, were terribly fearful of magic-working outside the legitimacy of the patriarchal family cult or the hierarchy of the state! Not hard to see that attitude picked up by the early Christians, certainly.)

But I much appreciate the look at the interaction between Heathen conversion and witch/wizard hunting.

6:10 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Well, the idea that these trace back to libels against Jews and Christians is Cohn's idea, and his history is faulty, because in fact, the stories trace back to Rome's slander campaign against the Bacchanalias, which provide a strong parallel for what happened later with the witches in the Inquisition. The Romans distorted details in a slanderous fashion, but it was based upon actual ritual facts. Similarly, there's simply too much in the Inquisitional records of actual practices for it all to be libel.

We know for a fact that there were people whose RELIGION consisted of visionary flights on sabbat days to fairy-places where there was dancing, singing, magic-making, love-making, and so forth, and of these, some of them engaged in group prayer, incense, sacrifice, etc.

Believe me : Carla and I spent three years in intense research, translating old Latin texts, etc. The only reason we haven't published it yet is we got so sick of the politics in the revisionist field.

The witch's sabbat is simply the fairy sabbat given a negative slant. Since some witch-practitioners and midwives performed abortions and even very early infanticide, the whole Christian "babykillers" thing we see even today with anti-abortionists got projected onto the witches' gatherings.

Ginzburg doesn't take into account how much the practices themselves documented by the Inquisition formed the basis of their stereotype. He assumes the stereotype means no real information. Au contraire, the Inquisition was a very precise organization, and they found a pattern that was played out all over Europe. Their stereotype, just like any police profile, was a generalization, that had to be filled in with local details.

I realize this information is controversial in the present revisionist atmosphere that would like to erase the historical reality of paganesque religious witches, and I recognize and respect the existing differences in opinion, but I have to stick to my guns on the composite picture my writing partner and I have spent so much time upon.

I enjoy, however, the dialogue! So thank you once more for stopping by!

6:25 AM  

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