Even though it’s about a year old, recently a post over at The Shadows of Arden started appearing in my Facebook feed, so I thought I’d take a peek and see what was up. The post’s title, Tools of the Craft: The Gods don’t shop at Hobby Lobby, certainly got my attention, because coincidentally, I don’t shop there either.
At any rate, most of the discussions I saw about this post were of the “Neither do I!” variety, which is perfectly okay, because like I said, I don’t patronize Hobby Lobby for a couple of reasons myself. First of all, they’re closed on Sundays, which is the only time I really have time to shop for craft supplies anyway, but more importantly, they’re also big-time evangelical Christian dominionists who got involved an equally big-time lawsuit (based on Really Bad Science) when they didn’t want to allow employees to get their Whore Pills while on the company insurance plan because abortion/sluts/Jesus/whatever. But I digress.
However, the Shadows of Arden post isn’t really so much about Hobby Lobby per se, but about people who are eagerly scooping up potential ritual tools at big box discount chains, using them in Craft workings, and generally moving away from the notion that magical tools are uniquely personal. Instead, we’re part of a community in which our magical tools are often mass produced, typically overseas, and made of plastic and resin – that’s the gist of Silas’ original post.
And to some extent, he’s kind of correct. Would we all love to use natural items in our practice, like stones and bones harvested in the wild, or yarn lovingly hand spun from the wool of an organically raised alpaca by isolated priestesses? Sure. That would be great. I’d also like to build a forge and learn how to blacksmith my own nails and tools, I’d love to go out a-gathering crystals straight from the damp soil of mother earth herself, and if I wasn’t sort of allergic to bees I’d maybe have some hives and gather up the wax to make my own candles from scratch, because none of those things take time or money or anything.
But when I first started out as a Baby Pagan three decades ago, the Internet was without form and void, and there weren’t any Olde Witchy Shoppes in my city. However, there was certainly a Walmart that had some cool-as-farq witchy decor every fall, and I think I had a mail-order catalog from some store that sold crystals and pentacle jewelry, and I certainly bought candles by the bazillion at craft stores (I don’t recall seeing a Hobby Lobby then, but I’m sure there was Michael’s and Joann).
Buying things like this at places like these wasn’t wrong, and didn’t make them less effective for me, because they were just tools. And the best tools are the ones that are accessible to you – for some people, Hobby Lobby (or Walmart or Big Lots or Witches-R-Us) might be the only place around to get what they need.
Silas says, “There are times when we do find things that will fit in our world of magick that are worth purchasing. For instance, most of us are not blacksmiths and have no experience building an athame (knife). But we have to remember; let’s pass on that fancy plastic handle, and settle for that simple wooden or bone handled athame. Let’s etch that handle ourselves with images the Gods will adore.” That’s a great idea, and I wish that we all had a Diagon Alley to go shop at when we need stuff. For a lot of practitioners – especially newbies, who often are younger and have less disposable income than us veterans – that simple wooden or bone handled athame is just not in the realm of affordability.
As an example, when I first started practicing, I bought a very simple athame with a wooden handle – it’s of the variety you see in every single witchy shop, very basic and utilitarian, and probably cost me about $20. I’ve used that damn thing in thousands of workings over the decades, but about three years ago it just decided it had had enough. It was done. I did everything I could think of to recharge that puppy back up but it was all NEWWWWP and so it sat on my altar being more decorative than anything else. I’ve spent the past three years looking for a new athame – I found on online last summer that looked perfect for me, but turned out to be just plastic and chrome, so I returned it. I found one I kind of liked at the Renaissance Faire, but it was just too heavy and masculine and felt clunky in my hand. I thought about buying one made from a railroad spike, because I love those, but I just didn’t get around to doing it. And then this past weekend, I was at a festival, and the first vendor table I arrived at was selling hand-crafted athames.
My hand immediately gravitated towards one made of iron and applewood, and it practically hummed in my hand, saying “Haaaaay gurrrrl I’m yourrrrrs” and you’re damn right I bought it on the spot. Was it expensive? Sure – although I think I got a way better deal than I could have, because I’d have paid anything the guy was asking for it. But for a newbie young Pagan, throwing down the equivalent of three full tanks of gas isn’t an option when it comes to buying a single magical tool. On the other hand, if that newbie young Pagan finds a decorative knife they like at Hobby Lobby for $8, who am I to tell them not to use it?
The reality of it is that the tools you should be using are the ones that are available to you – and if that means you’re doing a bit of binding with some acrylic yarn you got on clearance at Hobby Lobby, or you’re crafting a witch jar with nails you found at Home Depot instead of hand-forged iron ones, then so be it. Our ancestors used roots and sticks and rocks because that was all they had. I promise I won’t judge you for where you got your stuff, as long as you know what you’re using it for and why. You do you, use your tools as you need to, and make your damn magic.
About a thousand years or so ago, some clever soul sat down and wrote, in Old English and Latin, a collection of folk medicine, charms, and prayers. Later named the Lacnunga by a nineteenth-century editor, this text included what has come to be known as the Nine Herbs Charm.
In addition to referencing Woden himself, the Nine Herbs Charm lists – wait for it – nine different medicinal herbs, which translate into the modern mugwort, betony (although some scholars say it’s cockspur), nettle, plantain, thyme, fennel, crabapple, lamb’s cress (or watercress), and chamomile (mayweed).
Ben Slade over at Heorot has a great translation of the text, so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say that this was considered some pretty powerful healing magic. Essentially, a practitioner would sing a chant calling out the names of these nine herbs and their various attributes, and then crush them into a powder. This powder could then be used in a salve which was applied directly to the patient in an effort to heal or stave off infection and illness.
So… how do we, as 2017 practitioners, translate an early Anglo-Saxon charm into healing magic? Here’s what I’ve come up with, and it seems to work pretty effectively. I’ve used this healing salve on my skin for a number of purposes – and it also works well as a massage oil, if you’ve got someone who likes you enough to give you a rubdown.
Equal parts of dried:
1 Cup coconut oil
1 – 2 oz shaved beeswax
Use your mortar and pestle to blend all nine herbs together into a fine powder. Combine the powdered herbs with the oil, and place them in the top pot of a double boiler (if you don’t know how that works, here are the basics). After the water in the bottom pot has come to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, and let the herbs infuse into the coconut oil for about an hour.
Place your cheesecloth over a bowl, and CAREFULLY pour the herb-infused oil into it, so you can strain out the herbal residue. Then place the beeswax in a pan, over a VERY low heat, and slowly pour the oil from the bowl on top of the wax. Once it’s all melted together and smelling amazing, pour it into a mason jar and refrigerate it for about half an hour just to firm it up. Now you’ve got a magical healing salve that you can use for any number of purposes!
Note: the amount of beeswax you use will determine how creamy or firm your salve is. I like mine easily spreadable with a couple of fingertips, so I use slightly less beeswax. If you want your salve harder, use more.
If you’re not familiar with Byron Ballard’s writing, you really should check out her blog over at My Village Witch. As the official village witch of Asheville, NC, Byron has spent many years studying and teaching the traditional mountain magic of her ancestors. She’s also an absolutely amazing person who always seems able to conjure up early morning coffee, even if you’re watching the sun rise in front of a tent in the woods with her.
Her newest book, Embracing Willendorf: A Witch’s Way of Loving Your Body to Health & Fitness, is one that I can’t even begin to say enough good things about. It chronicles her journey to a healthier lifestyle – and to loving her own body – by making spiritually conscious and empowering choices. It’s a practical and no-bullshit guide to self-transformation, of both the physical and the emotional varieties.
Don’t for one minute think, though, that you’re going to be sold a bunch of snake-oil products or empty promises. In fact, Byron leads in with this sharp piece of straightforward advice: “Changing your body from fat to fit is not easy, and I don’t care who tells you it is… if you think it is, you will fail again. You will be another fat American at the mall, grateful that they now make clothes in your size.”
Byron suggests starting small – in fact, with just one body part. Whatever it may be – your butt, your nose, your dainty ankles – find that one part that’s amazing and glorious, and love it. Embrace it, show it off, treat it right… and then find more parts you love. Eventually, you’ll learn to love the sum total of all of those various and sundry parts.
As if all of that doesn’t sound challenging enough, there’s more! What about the idea of self-care? Get radical, follow Byron’s advice, and learn how to take care of yourself first by meeting your own needs. You’ll be much happier for it, once you learn how to shift from being overwhelmed by the needs of others, into a mindset that allows you to treat yourself with the respect and love that you deserve.
One of my favorite sections in Embracing Willendorf is Chapter 15: Do I Have to Uncoil My Kundalini? This is a frank and honest approach to looking and feeling sexy, no matter what your size. As a curvy woman myself, I have learned that sexy is more mental than anything – if you feel like you’re sexy, you’re gonna act like you are, and other people will pick up on that.
Byron approaches pleasure and sex as sacred, which they indeed should be. She says, “In modern Paganism, we have this beautiful liturgical piece called the Charge of the Goddess, originally written by Doreen Valiente. One of the lines is All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. Pleasure as prayer is something so shocking to the Western mind that you may have recoiled from that line. But in this uncoiling chapter, we can touch on another aspect of loving your body and that is allowing yourself the thought of using pleasure as a sacred act, as prayer.”
We are powerful and amazing, and Byron never lets us forget it. Pick up a copy of Embracing Willendorf and get started on loving your earthy, strong, badass, magical self.
I totally give this one five broomsticks out of five! Order Embracing Willendorf directly from Sky Bridge Publishing, here: Embracing Willendorf
It’s summertime, which means plenty of us are celebrating ritual outdoors. Inevitably, each year a few cautionary tales trickle out about people who had a gigantic OOPSIE involving a ritual fire, so I wanted to take a few moments to talk about something that should be basic common sense.
Ritual fire safety is super important, because few things can bring a ceremony screeching to a halt faster than someone sustaining a burn injury. In no particular order, here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re cavorting around the ritual fire.
If you’re doing some sort of fire indoors, such as a candle or a tabletop brazier:
Make sure candles are sitting on a sturdy and fireproof surface. A plate or bowl of sand or soilis good for this. A sturdy altar reduces the chance of knocking your candle over and setting your whole living room on fire.
Be sure to tuck your sleeves up – if you have long flowy sleeves on your ritual robe, it’s easy to catch them in an open flame. Roll or pin them so they’re out of the way. If you have long hair, tie it up or pull it back so it’s not at risk.
Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
Make sure robes are made of natural material – if you do end up on fire, it’s less likely to fuse to your skin when it burns.
If you have a big bonfire or even a small outdoor fire pit for ritual:
Make sure your fire is built in a location that is away from anything that might be a hazard, and a safe distance from houses or trees.
Appoint a Fire Keeper to be the only person who adds wood or anything else to the ritual fire.
Keep buckets of sand nearby so you can extinguish the blaze effectively. Shovels and water come in handy too.
Don’t allow anyone to throw anything into the fire that might explode, spark, or cause toxic fumes. Make sure you only burn dry, seasoned wood – no treated lumber, garbage, plastic, or furniture!
Establish a perimeter so that no one accidentally stumbles into the fire. Be sure that kids are properly supervised around a fire.
In general, most of us go our entire lives without encountering anyone who has the skill set or level of motivation required to hex or curse us. In fact, if things are going badly for you, the odds are good that you’re NOT cursed or hexed, but simply (1) having a run of bad luck or (2) making really shitty life choices.
However, it’s always POSSIBLE that bad things in your life are a result of some sort of magical attack. Before you go assuming this is the case, though, ask yourself a few questions:
Did you seriously piss someone off in some way?
If so, does that person have the level of magical ability to curse or hex you?
Is a hex or curse absolutely the ONLY possible explanation for the bad things in your life?
If the answer to ALL THREE is “yes,” then you MIGHT be cursed. And if that’s the case, then you need to do something about it. That’s where this handy dandy spell comes in.
I have a habit of, when I’m out roaming the woods, collecting up interesting things. Rocks, sticks, weird plants, animal bones, and other assorted forest detritus always come home with me. In particular, I’m a fan of things that are – as Byron Ballard says – stabbity. Pokey, pointy, sharp stuff is one of my favorite categories, and I’ve discovered that hawthorns are especially useful.
This spell will turn negative energy back towards the person who sent it your way. You’ll need a collection of nine hawthorns, and a nice, ripe juicy orange.
Start by writing the name of the person who has hexed you on the orange – if you don’t know who it is, you can simply write You who have cursed me, or something along those lines.
Speak directly to the orange, saying things like You have no power over me, you will not harm me. I send back to you that what you have sent to me, and you work is no longer effective. I return it back to you nine times nine.
As you do this, slowly and methodically use the thorns to pierce the skin of the orange, inserting each of them and pulling them back out. Basically, you’ll use each thorn to stab the orange nine times – nine times nine. Once you have all nine thorns stuck into the orange nine times, leave them in place.
Dispose of the orange somewhere far from your home – you can bury it, throw it into running water, or even hide it near the home of the person who hexed you. After that, forget about them and move on.
In ancient Rome, Juno was the goddess who watched over women and marriage. Vesta was the protector of the hearth, and of virginity. Together, these two mighty goddesses were sacred to Roman women.
Although Juno’s festival, the Matronalia, was actually celebrated in March, the month of June was named for her. It’s a month for weddings and handfasting, so you could easily honor Juno at this time of the year. During the Matronalia, women received gifts from their husbands and daughters, and gave their female slaves the day off work.
Like nearly all Roman deities, Vesta had her own holiday as well. The Vestalia was celebrated from June 7 to June 15, and was a time in which the inner sanctum of the Vestal Temple was opened for all women to visit and make offerings to the goddess. The Vestales, or Vestal Virgins, guarded a sacred flame at the temple, and swore thirty-year vows of chastity. One of the best known Vestales was Rhea Silvia, who broke her vows and conceived twins Romulus and Remus with the god Mars.
When they arrived in the British Isles, the Saxon invaders brought with them the tradition of calling the month of June Aerra Litha. They marked Midsummer with huge bonfires that celebrated the power of the sun over darkness. For people in Scandinavian countries and in the farther reaches of the Northern hemisphere, Midsummer was very important. The nearly endless hours of light in June are a happy contrast to the constant darkness found six months later in the middle of winter.
The period following the solstice was called Aefterra Litha, according to the Venerable Bede’s eighth century writings about the “heathen” Anglo-Saxons.
Author Sandra Kynes says in A Year of Ritual: Sabbats and Esbats for Solitaries and Covens, “The ancient people of Europe left their legacy in stone all over the continent, the Mediterranean area, and the British Isles in the form of standing stone circles, alignments, and dolmens… It has been known for a long time that these places mark the rising and setting of the sun at the winter and summer solstices. They also mark lunar cycles, eclipses, and other astrological events.”
The Norse society valued art and craftsmanship, and left behind some exquisite work, much of which can still be seen today. From the ship burial of Sutton Hoo to the Harrowgate hoard, Viking artwork depicts men, animals, gods, and pieces of the natural world tied together with interlacing knots and spirals. This stylized blend of elements has made Viking artwork instantly recognizable the world over.
For some three hundred years, beginning in the late eighth century, the Scandinavian explorers known as the Vikings wreaked havoc upon much of Western Europe. Starting with the sack of the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, the Vikings invaded, plundered and destroyed villages and harbors around the British Isles, Ireland, France and even as far east as parts of Russia. They were well known for their fierce bravery in battle, their tactical skills, and their unflagging devotion to the warrior gods that called each man towards Valhalla, the hall of Odin the All-Father.
A man who died with honor on the battlefield was given the privilege of spending eternity with Odin in Valhalla, a realm where the dead engage in combat with one another, in preparation for Ragnarok, the great battle the signifies the end of the world. Worthy warriors were selected for and escorted to Valhalla by the Valkyries, Odin’s shieldmaidens, and welcomed to the hall with feasting and song. Battles took place all day, eating and drinking went on all night, and each evening, every warrior’s wounds were healed so they could fight anew the next morning. Depictions of Valhalla, the gods, and the coming of Ragnarok are popular themes in the artwork and mythology of the Vikings.
The most commonly seen Viking artwork still in existence is work carved in wood and stone, or etched in metal, particularly in silver or bronze. These stylized designs also appeared on textiles, although there are few well-preserved examples left. Perhaps the best-known textile containing Viking art is the Överhogdal wall hanging discovered in Sweden. Dating to around the tenth century, this tapestry depicts both pre-Christian imagery of the entire battle of Ragnarok, along with images of the incoming Christian religion and its churches (Brink et al, 2008).
Vikings even celebrated their artwork on human skin in the form of tattoos, although it is unknown just how widespread the practice was. We can make certain assumptions about Viking body art from writings of the time period by reliable observers. Ahmad ibn Fadlan was an Arab diplomat who was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad as an emissary to the Bulgars. Somehow, on his way to the lands of the Bulgars, ibn Fadlan fell in with a band of Norsemen in the tenth century as they explored what is now Russia.
He wrote, “Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark-green lines, pictures, and such like (Montgomery 2000).” At present, however, no tattooed skin has been found on bodies in Viking burial sites, but we know that ibn Fadlan’s reports are reasonably accurate, because he takes great pains to differentiate between things he sees, and things he is told. He deliberately uses phrasing like, “And this I saw with my own eyes,” versus, “This is what I was told by the men.” In addition, ibn Fadlan makes it clear that his writing is not meant to glorify or praise the Vikings he is traveling with; he finds them somewhat repulsive, particularly when it comes to matters of personal hygiene. As an outsider, he gives us an honest and almost clinical interpretation of what he sees and hears.
Scholars have also been able to determine through written words the details of some lost works of art. The Norse prose and poetic eddas and sagas contain passages describing the paintings on walls and shields that have since been lost to time.
In the remaining fragments of the Skaldic poem Ragnarsdrapa, 9th century Skald Bragi Boddason, alternately referred to as Bragi inn Gamli, describes in several stanzas the type of artwork contained on shields, which illustrated great battles, heroes, and journeys:
On the fair shield of Svolnir
One may perceive the onslaught;
Ragnar gave me the Ship-Moon [the Ship-Moon refers to a shield]
With many tales marked upon it (Pulsiano et al, 1993).
The Skaldic tales, or shield-poems, were typically performed live at a large gathering, and were generally used to extol the virtues a chieftain or ruler, celebrate his victories in battle, and pay homage to the strength and power of his ancestral line. However, they also reveal details of a variety of ornamentation, describing everything from the previously mentioned shield decorations to pictures of wall hangings in a great hall (Heslop).
Today, a thousand years after the last Viking ship set sail, we still see new interpretations of Viking artwork themes recreated in films, particularly of the fantasy and historical genres. Viking imagery appears in doorways and portals, ship design, and jewelry in a number of movies and television shows, and it is perhaps nowhere more visible than in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, based on the books by the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien himself was a highly-regarded scholar of Norse mythology, and well versed indeed in the eddas and sagas of the Vikings by the time he wrote his classic Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. The tale itself is deeply rooted in Norse legend, particularly in the Saga of the Volsungs, which tells of the adventures of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, an exiled king on a quest to find a magical ring that will unite the tribes of his land. When Jackson made Lord of the Rings into not just one but three films, the Norse influences of the books carried over heavily into the story’s appearance on screen.
On the side of a fjord in Urnes, Norway, there is a small church. Built around the middle of the 12th century, not much is left of the original building, constructed of wooden staves. It’s a remarkable combination of traditional Viking artwork meeting up with the new Christian architecture of the time, and the Urnes church is one of only a few such structures left in the world. Its very name, stavkyrkje, means “church of staves.”
The church’s placement and location is significant. It is placed on the east side of the fjord, and is three miles from the closest village, Hafslo. The Urnes church sits on a promontory overlooking the Sognefjord, and can be approached by a simple footpath. For someone walking along through the green fields of Norway, en route from the village of Hafslo, there would have been ample time to ponder thoughts of a spiritual nature, with the church on its hill sitting in the distance, ultimately becoming a goal to reach at the conclusion of the climb up the promontory, an end to the spiritual journey.
The church, in its present form, dates from the mid-1100s, when a chieftain owned a farm in Urnes and its surrounding area. The exterior of the building is modest, and is reminiscent of the simply wooden style of a longhouse. However, as one arrives in front of the building, the imagery and artwork of the doorways and portals become apparent. The portals themselves, and the interior, are heavily decorated in the Viking style. The main portal, an early piece of architecture that was incorporated into later reconstruction, is decorated with elaborate intertwining animals, plants, leaves, and stalks, all surrounding an equally elaborate keyhole-shaped centerpiece.
Today, the interior of the Urnes church contains artwork from the 17th century, which was created as part of a renovation project. However, it still includes early pieces that were restored from the early medieval period, reflecting the blend of pagan Viking imagery with Christian icons and themes.
Jackson utilizes the image of doorways regularly in the three films. From the early sequences of the first movie, when young hobbit Frodo Baggins opens the round door of his home to permit the wizard Gandalf entry, to the scene in which doors are breached by Orcs and Uruk-Hai at the great battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, doors are significant. In Norse mythology, doorways are very important too – there are five hundred and forty of them leading into the Hall of Valhalla, where warriors hope to find themselves after falling in battle. The doors to Valhalla show the power and scope of Odin’s rule; each is wide enough that eight hundred warriors can walk through them, fully armed, side by side.
Much like the Urnes portal, the doorway to the Mines of Moria sits in a far-away place… on a mountainside in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. As portrayed by Jackson in Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the trilogy, the entrance way to the abandoned mines – known as the Door of Durin – is sealed with a series of magical runes. It too is decorated with scroll work, although not nearly as elaborate as that of the Urnes stavkyrkje. Jackson’s door is less complex, but still carries over the themes of spiraling branches, trees, and leaves on both the right and left side. The top arch, rather than echoing the natural elements found on the vertical aspects, instead is inscribed with Elvish runes. The runework is part of Tolkien’s original manuscript, in the Elvish language he created, and based upon early Scandinavian runic alphabets such as the Elder Futhark, said to be a gift from Odin himself.
In The Two Towers, the second film of the trilogy, Viking-inspired artwork can be seen much more clearly in the decorations of the Golden Hall, the stronghold of Theoden, king of Rohan. Complex scrollwork details the walls and pillars throughout the Hall, which is structured exactly the way a Viking longhouse would have been a thousand years ago. Behind Theoden’s throne, intricate knotwork and spirals adorn the wall.
Most significantly, the massive set of double doors that welcome guests to the Golden Hall calls the artwork of Urnes to mind. Giant pillars on the Hall’s threshold are covered with interlacing branches, leaves, plant elements and even animals that are reminiscent of the artwork on the stavkyrkje’s portal. The doors themselves include sophisticated curves and spirals, painted boldly in gold upon black, carrying the centuries-old artwork of Viking craftsmen into the fantasy world of Middle Earth.
Later in the series, we see yet another prominently displayed and significant set of doors. Near the end of Return of the King, the last film in the series, Aragorn, the exiled son of the House of Gondor, is crowned as king before the giant doors of the city of Minas Tirith. Like the Golden Hall of Rohan, the doors of Minas Tirith are covered in elaborate carved spirals and knotwork, but they reflect to us that Gondor is a more modern kingdom than the lands of Rohan. While Rohan’s capital is a simple village, a giant hall built of wooden beams surrounded by peasant huts, Minas Tirith is full of massive stone buildings, twisting stairways, and complex masonry, towering high above the fields of Pelennor as a tribute to the power of the realm’s ruling kings. The technology of Minas Tirith is far more advanced than that of Rohan; the city has a warning beacon system, sophisticated weaponry and even aqueducts. The city is the hub of all trade and commerce for the entire kingdom of Gondor.
Like the church at Urnes, the doors of Minas Tirith, a city some three thousand years old, see their ancient artwork combined with the symmetric and geometrically aligned arches that blended with and then eventually replaced the art of the pre-Christian era.
Although Tolkien denied repeatedly during his lifetime that Lord of the Rings was an allegory for the technology of battle developed between the two world wars, the evolution of the realms of Middle Earth can often be paralleled with the developing societies of Europe. Interestingly, there can be comparisons drawn to the wars that brought about the destruction of Middle Earth in Tolkien’s books, and the saga of Ragnarok, the end of the world, in the poetic eddas left to us by the Vikings.
Other elements of Viking artwork are prominent throughout Lord of the Rings, and it is prominently displayed in the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell. In the final scene of Return of the King, Frodo Baggins, mortally wounded in the first film by the blade of a Ringwraith, joins his elderly uncle Bilbo on “the last ship leaving Middle Earth,” which will take them on to Valinor, the Blessed Realm. The Elvish vessel is styled much like a Viking longship, complete with runework and scrolls on the stern, and an animal-head post at the bow.
We can compare the artwork on the Elvish ship at Rivendell harbor to the remains of Viking boats that have been unearthed at places like Oseberg and Oslo. A typical Viking ship, used for exploration, would have been anywhere from fifty to ninety feet long, with a large, square sail and a carved wooden totemic animal at the front. These zoomorphic carvings represented family and kinship ties to the Vikings, and were often intertwined with typical Scandinavian stylized motifs, such as scrollwork and knots. When placed on a ship, they would have been not only a representation of kinship, but also a fear tactic – imagine being the enemy who suddenly saw the snarling face of a wolf appearing on the prow of a massive ship on a misty morning. For Tolkien’s Elves, and subsequently Jackson’s, however, a ship’s prow is a thing of grace and beauty, rather than of terror, with an elegant swan’s head taking the place of more frightening figures.
In addition to decorating their buildings and ships with artwork, the Vikings also wore intricate and beautiful jewelry. Burial hoards have been found in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany containing exquisitely detailed brooches, necklaces, armbands and other adornments. In 2007, a farmstead on the Danish island of Zealand revealed the remnants of a Viking settlement, which included numerous pieces of metal jewelry. Most notable was a copper pendant with human-animal heads depicted upon it. According to archaeologists, one of the figures features a “drooping moustache, but above its eyebrows two ears or horns emerge, giving the humanlike mask an animal character (Davis, 2013).”
A metal detecting enthusiast discovered an equally impressive hoard in North Lancashire, England, in 2011. The collection, now in the custody of the British Museum, contained nearly two hundred coins, brooches and bracelets, engraved with serpents, dogs, birds and plants (Daily Mail, 2011).
In Jackson’s films, the characters’ jewelry and body adornment is subtle rather than ostentatious. Each of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring wears a simple brooch, a green leaf with a spiraling silver stem. In appearance, it’s not terribly fancy, but the sweeping curve of the lines is clearly influenced by Viking elements. While the hobbits of the Shire are plain folk, with little to no ornamentation on their garments or person, the Elves of Rivendell and the citizens of Rohan seem to enjoy the elegance of simple curved lines of design with a Norse flair. The citizens of Minas Tirith wear armor and headwear decorated with curves, spirals, and tree motifs.
Lady Arwen, the last daughter of the Elven lord Elrond, wears a pendant known as the Evenstar. Made of the brightest silver, it features a floral motif, accentuated by knotwork and curves. Interestingly, the Evenstar is not part of Tolkien’s original source material. However, a pendant much like it appears in a short story by Marion Zimmer Bradley, called The Jewel of Arwen, which takes place in the lands of Middle Earth and describes a white jewel, one of the Seven Stars that shine over the lands of men and Elves, on a floral background (Bradley, 1961).
One prominent design seen in Viking artwork is that of the tree – the roots, the leaves, all of the branches. Because the story of Yggdrasil, the World Tree at the center of Asgard, features so prominently in Norse cosmology, representations of the great ash often appear in Viking art. The poetic edda Havamal describes it as the tree from which Odin hung for nine days, as a sacrifice to himself, before being granted the wisdom that would allow him to rule over all nine of the realms represented by the World Tree.
A key theme in portrayals of Yggdrasil is that it is represented not only by what is above the ground, but by what is below. Three great roots hold the tree up, each symbolizing a different realm. The first represents Asgard, the land of the gods themselves. The second is associated with Jötunheimr, the land of the giants, and the third is Niflheimr, the ice-covered domain of the goddess Hel.
Near the end of Return of the King, as Aragorn is finally crowned King of Gondor on the steps of Minas Tirith, his loyal army is shown bearing shields which display a tree, roots and all. This is a symbol of the legendary White Tree of Gondor, which also appears on Aragorn’s crown and armor. The White Tree features prominently in Middle Earth history, although this is not portrayed in the films. With Aragorn’s return, the once dead tree begins to flower again.
According to Tolkien’s original works, the White Tree is not just a symbol of a family, or even of a kingdom. In the text of The Return of the King, he describes the lineage of the tree as part of a speech by the Elven leader Elrond, detailing the tree’s association with the kings of Gondor; as the tree slowly dies off, so does the line of the royal family.
Later in the book, although not depicted in the film, when King Aragorn finds a lone sapling that is a descendent of the first Tree of Gondor. The wizard Gandalf points out to him that the once-withered tree is now in bloom again, a symbol of the light of the stars and the moon, and of the triumph of good over evil in the land of Men. He tells Aragorn, “[T]his is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake (Tolkien, ROTK, 1954).”
Tolkien’s original vision was a retelling of several Norse myths blended into a magical world of Orcs, Hobbits, Elves and Dwarves, and strongly colored by his knowledge of early Scandinavian culture. He managed to incorporate heavy symbolism found within Norse artwork and literature into the tales, from magical doors and graceful ships to elegant jewelry and the spiritual iconography of the World Tree. While the three films that comprise The Lord of the Rings, and their original source material, are certainly fantasy, it’s clear that many aspects of the films’ appearance draw significant influence from what we know today of the artwork left for us by early Viking craftsmen.
So I know this is technically Sunday, but honestly, I had this post scheduled to drop yesterday… or at least I thought I did. Instead, I actually had it set to drop on June 10, 2018, and when it didn’t appear in my feed… well. There it is. Anyhoo —
This is a simple spell that you can use to change your own fortune – and let’s face it, we’ve all had some runs of bad luck, where it seemed like nothing would ever get better. It does, eventually, but using a bit of magic is a great way to move the process forward.
You’ll need a cup of unused coffee grounds, a clean washcloth, and a green ribbon, because green is associated with luck. Put the coffee grounds inside the washcloth and tie it up in a bundle, securing it with the ribbon so the grounds don’t come out. Go take a shower, and use your handy dandy coffee bundle to scrub yourself from head to toe. As you do, say, Bad luck goes down the drain, wash all my bad luck away. Brand new fortune come to me, good luck is all my life will see.
After you’ve given yourself a good scrubbing, wait until you see the last of the coffee grounds go down the drain before you get out. And yeah, you’re going to smell like coffee, but who doesn’t love that, amirite?
Recently, several readers have reached out to me asking for clarification on items they had read elsewhere online; specifically, articles that correlated Islam with Paganism. According to these articles – which I’m deliberately not linking to here, because they’re fucking AWFUL, but you’re more than welcome to Google them if you’re really interested – Islam has its roots in Pagan beliefs, and therefore the two are the same, right?
Actually, no, not really, and I’m going to explain why. However, before I do, I should clarify that the information I’m about to present shouldn’t be interpreted one way or another as an approval or disapproval of another religion. It’s not my job to tell people what to believe, nor is it my job to tell them what not to believe – my job is to break things down and answer the questions of readers, in an academic and objective way. So that’s what I’m about to do. If you’re looking for an article that says ISLAM BAD or ISLAM GOOD, you’re not going to find either of those things here, just like you won’t find any articles about GOOD or BAD with regards to Christianity or other religions.
The Question of Terminology
Okay, so moving on to the question at hand: is Islam connected to or somehow related to modern Paganism? It’s not, and one of the reasons it’s not is because the people who are making such claims are not using “Pagan” in the same way that we, the Pagan community, generally do.
What I’ve found, after slogging through numerous websites that make these claims (yes, folks, I’ve taken one for the team so you don’t have to) is that these are sites that, more often than not, are run by what I’ll politely call the more fringe element of the Christian evangelical population. In other words, gentle reader, they are people who have a vested interest in perpetuating negative information about both Muslims and modern Pagans, with little regard for things like accuracy.
First of all, there’s the issue of semantics. Many of these sources are conflating the word Pagan with non-Christian. If you go by that logic, any religion that is not Christian must clearly be a Pagan one. That includes not just Islam, but Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Shinto, and numerous flavors of non-evangelical Abrahamic faiths – Catholics and Mormons, for instance. That’s in addition to the modern Neopagan movement, in which the word Paganism is more of an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of nature based and often polytheistic belief systems.
Secondly, Islam is a younger religion than Christianity, and can trace its roots back to the seventh century. Prior to this, polytheistic, non-Christian beliefs and practices were found all over the Arabian Peninsula. In the Qur’an, the existence of five pre-Islamic deities is referenced. A 1946 annotated translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali says, “The five names mentioned … represent some of the oldest Pagan cults, before the Flood as well as after the Flood, though the names themselves are in the form in which they were worshipped by local Arab tribes. The names of the tribes have been preserved to us by the Commentators, but they are of no more than archeological interest to us now… It is not clear whether these names are to be connected with true Arabic verbal roots or are merely Arabicized forms of names derived from foreign cults, such as those of Babylonia or Assyria, the region of Noah’s Flood.”
So, certainly, before Islam came along around the year 610 C.E., there was definitely some polytheistic activity going on in the Arabic world, just like in a lot of other places. However, the five deities of the local tribes of fifteen hundred years ago are not who modern Muslims are honoring in their beliefs and practices.
The Crescent Moon
A few of the websites that are promoting these articles declare that Islam is really a modern version of a Pagan fertility cult that honors a moon god, hence the use of the crescent moon as a symbol. While they do use the crescent moon symbol, that doesn’t mean that today’s Muslim is following a Pagan belief system, in the same context as the early settlers of the Arabian Peninsula. About.com Islam Expert, Huda, explains the crescent moon and star:
“Information on the origins of the symbol are difficult to ascertain, but most sources agree that these ancient celestial symbols were in use by the peoples of Central Asia and Siberia in their worship of sun, moon, and sky gods… It wasn't until the Ottoman Empire that the crescent moon and star became affiliated with the Muslim world. When the Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, they adopted the city's existing flag and symbol. Legend holds that the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman, had a dream in which the crescent moon stretched from one end of the earth to the other. Taking this as a good omen, he chose to keep the crescent and make it the symbol of his dynasty.”
The Bottom Line
So, what does all of this mean? Is Islam a Pagan religion? It’s not, no more than Judaism is Pagan or Christianity is Pagan. Certainly, there were Pagan cults all over the classical, pre-Christian/pre-Judaism/pre-Islamic world, but that doesn’t mean that people today are practicing the same thing. After all, even those of us who consider ourselves Pagan today are not practicing in exactly the same way as our ancestors might have done two or three thousand years ago.
Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a monotheistic religion, and from an academic perspective, today’s version of it just doesn’t fit into any of the same parameters or definitions as modern Paganism. I’d suggest that if someone tries to convince you that Islam is a Pagan religion – I mean, really tries hard to persuade you – you might ask yourself why it’s so important to them that you accept this theory as fact. What vested interest do they have in convincing you?