Some Thoughts About Anglo-Saxon Medicine

August 30th, 2015

While re-reading some Old English healing charms, it came to me that scholars seem to make certain assumptions about early Anglo-Saxon definitions of disease.  Since the 1950’s the charm Against a Dwarf has often been interpreted as “Against a Fever” even though the word is clearly dwarf (dweorh).  It is as if the word must mean something else simply because many people today don’t perceive dwarves to be real.  We sometimes see the same treatment of the charm For the Water-Elf Disease.  Griffiths, quoting another scholar, postulates that the Water-Elf Disease (wæterælfadle) may refer to either chickenpox or measles.  But I have my own theory.  I suspect the Water-Elf Disease is exactly what it purports to be, a treatment for those afflicted with wæterælfadle, which may be only incidentally related to any modern, anatomical definition of disease.

Assigning modern disease paradigms to early Anglo-Saxon ailments may be as erroneous as trying to reconcile so-called “Western” medicine with Traditional Chinese Medicine.  An issue of Consumer Reports presented a study in the 1990’s showing TCM to be as effective as Western medicine, despite there being no Western explanation for this.  (Of course the reverse is also true, using the definitions and concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine there is no explanation for the efficacy of modern Western medicine.)  Today many people with absolutely no background in TCM nevertheless accept that modalities such as acupuncture and Chinese herbalism may be useful and valuable healing techniques.  Why then are scholars so quick to assume Anglo-Saxon medicine as “superstition”?

In his book The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, Ted J. Kaptchuk shows how a single “Western” disease might be defined as half a dozen different ailments using the diagnostic tools of TCM.  Likewise, a person suffering from a deficiency of liver qi might be diagnosed with any of several ailments by a physician trained in Western anatomical medicine.  Perhaps the same is true of the diseases described in Old English sources.  The symptoms of wæterælfadle include discolored fingernails and teary/watery eyes.  Watery eyes are one symptom of measles, but wouldn’t a description of measles or chicken pox include some mention of a skin rash?  And discolored fingernails aren’t symptomatic of either.

Taking this further, I wonder to what extent the Anglo-Saxon læce may have been influenced by Hippocratic medicine.  Perhaps the Water-Elf Disease was only peripherally related to physical water and instead described a phlegmatic (cold and moist) condition associated with elemental water.  If so, then the charm Against a Dwarf may have addressed a melancholic (cold and dry) condition, since dwarves are perceived as being subterranean and thus would be associated with elemental earth.  But this is only conjecture.  Anglo-Saxon diseases may have had no more relationship with Hippocratic elemental theory than they do with modern definitions of disease.  We may never know.

One thing we do clearly see in the Old English remedies is the Anglo-Saxon holistic approach to healing.  For the early English people, disease was as much a spiritual imbalance as a physical phenomenon.

Why I Left the GFS

August 22nd, 2015

It has been nearly seven years since the folk of Earendel recused ourselves from the Geferræden Fyrnsida (GFS), an Anglo-Saxon religious organization we were once affiliated with.  Leaving GFS was hard for me.  I doubt that I would have done it on my own.  In fact, I didn’t even vote; it was a decision my kinsmen agreed to while I was out of town giving a presentation at Pantheacon.  I knew they were going to make a decision, and was pretty sure where it would lead, but that didn’t make it any easier.  I’d devoted five years of my life to GFS.  I had a seat on the Witan.  I’d created a newsletter for  the organization and developed a clergy training program.  Leaving GFS felt like a divorce, which I suppose it was, in a way.  I’ve never said anything publicly about the issue, but even now I occasionally hear a rumor and I think it’s time to put those to rest.  Most of the rumors fall into one of the following categories:

I left the GFS and joined ADF.  I don’t understand the either/or reasoning here.  The truth is that I was a member of both the GFS and Ar nDraíocht Féin (ADF) for several years.  My membership in ADF had absolutely nothing to do with me leaving the GFS.

I left the GFS to start my own organization.  So where is this alleged group?  I don’t have the time for or interest in doing that.  In fact I’m not entirely sure how I feel about national organizations in general.  I do think they have their place, particularly for networking, but I sometimes wonder if national organizations detract from the development of local IRL tribes.

We broke our oaths when we left the GFS.  This is an outright lie.  Everyone in Earendel was an oathed member of GFS, and of course we took those oaths very seriously.  When we left the organization we carefully released each other from the web of oaths.  Scott and I were the last to do so, as we had given our oaths to another member of the Witan.  I was intimately familiar with the wording because I helped construct the oath.

After leaving the GFS, I secretly contacted the other members of the Witan and convinced them to do likewise.   Because, you know, I have this mesmerizing quality.  It is true that the rest of the Witan left the GFS shortly after Earendel did.  However I didn’t ask them to do so, nor did I expect anyone to.  I presume they left for reasons similar to our own.

I think that covers most of the rumors.  So why did Earendel leave the GFS?  Essentially, we disagreed strongly with the leader of the organization concerning the extent of his authority.  And that’s all I’m going to say about it.  It doesn’t belong in any public forum.  People will make mistakes, and those can be forgiven if they aren’t displayed for all the world to see.  Someday the GFS may realize its potential.  It has great possibilities.

Saxon or Norse?

August 8th, 2015

Recently on one of the many networking sites that I’m on, a person asked about the role of Scandinavian lore (meaning the Eddas and the Icelandic sagas) in Anglo-Saxon worship.  I shouldn’t have been surprised by the responses saying Saxon Pagans must rely on the Eddas and sagas because there is “nothing” else out there.

I have to disagree.  Yes, Norse Pagans have an extensive body of writing, but then so do Hellenic Pagans, and Snorri was no more Anglo-Saxon than Homer was.  Less, perhaps, since the former wasn’t even a Pagan man.  (To be fair, though, all northern lore – Saxon as well as Norse – was recorded by Christians and thus suffer from that bias.)  The idea that we Saxon folk have no lore of our own is a reflection of sheer laziness.  Do you need some Anglo-Saxon lore?  Get a copy of Griffiths’ Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic just for the 75 pages of historical texts in the second half of the book.  Or a copy of my own Wyrdworking: The Path of a Saxon Pagan, where you will find the Old English Rune Poem both in its original language and a Modern English translation.  There is plenty of solid, historical material to inspire our Anglo-Saxon spirituality if a person bothers to look for it.

As Brian Branston points out in his seminal The Lost Gods of England, the Anglo-Saxon Woden bears little resemblance to the Norse Odin.  I won’t go as far as some do and claim that they’re different deities – I don’t believe that at all – but are you going to give worship to Woden as a Saxon, or to Odin as a Norseman?  Reliance on foreign source material must be approached with caution, otherwise “Anglo-Saxon” simply becomes Norse with funny names.

Hammer of the Gods

July 13th, 2015

I’ve recently read Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times (second edition) by Swain Wodening and was struck by the similarities between this book and my own Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan.  Indeed, had I read this book first, it is likely that I never would have written the latter, as I would not have perceived a need.  This isn’t to say that the books are identical, or that if you’ve read one book you won’t gain any further insights by reading the other.  Swain has his own voice and writes from the perspective of a Theodsman.

Nevertheless, the similarities are interesting.  The second edition of HoG was published in 2008, a year before TME and five years following the first edition HoG.  In the second edition Swain leaves out two entire chapters on Anglo-Saxon magic, a decision that I made when writing TME.  Not everyone who reveres the Old Gods has a talent for or interest in magic, and so a book on Pagan spirituality (in my opinion) should focus on worship rather than divination or spellcraft.

HoG has a lot of information.  The book begins with a history of Anglo-Saxon Paganism, followed by a description of the cosmology (Swain gives nine worlds rather than seven, following what I believe to be more of a Norse paradigm, but it stands to reason that we disagree on some points).  He mentions an array of Anglo-Saxon deities, including many minor deities that I didn’t address in TME: Forseta, Geofon, Neorð, Sceadu and more.

I have only two real complaints about Hammer of the Gods, and both pertain to the book itself rather than to the author.  First, it needs more or better editing.  As an author, I am well aware of the importance of a good editor.  In this respect I am fortunate that my non-fiction has been published by Llewellyn, which assigns an acquisitions editor, a production editor and a small staff of other people to ensure that the book looks as nice as possible.  HoG reads like a series of essays that have been thrown together, but let me add that they are very good essays.

My other complaint is that the book was essentially self-published.  I did this with my novel Once Every Season and intend to do the same with its sequel, but I know how hard it is to distribute a book by yourself.  You will not find Hammer of the Gods on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, and that’s a shame because Swain Wodening is a voice that should have a wider audience.  If you want a copy of the book you will have to hunt it down, probably on the internet.  But the hunt is worthwhile.  I recommend Hammer of the Gods to anyone who would increase his or her understanding of Anglo-Saxon Paganism.

Traditional Backlash

June 29th, 2015

Three days ago the United States took another step forward towards the goal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the Supreme Court decreed that marriage equality will be the law of the land.

A great number of people – all of the Abrahamic religions – have bemoaned the redefining of “traditional” marriage.  Of course those of us with any understanding of history are well aware that there is no such thing as traditional marriage; it is an institution that has been continuously redefined to accommodate societal needs.  (I find it interesting that the some of the same people opposed to marriage equality are alarmed that the change could lead to things like the legalization of polygamy, despite the fact that polygamy was a venerable “tradition” for literally thousands of years.)

I am waiting for one particular tradition to kick into effect, and that would be the “traditional” backlash.  While traditional marriage may be an illusion, the traditional backlash whenever Christian values are challenged sadly is not.  (And by “Christian” I mean the values of the majority of people who strongly identify as Christian, not the teachings of Christ as given in the New Testament.  I have never seen any correlation between Christianity and what Jesus supposedly taught his followers.)  While I’m pleased that I can visit or even move to any place in the United States and know that my marriage is recognized, I worry about the backlash that I believe will inevitably come.  I hope I’m wrong.  I hope this will be the first time in over 2000 years that the Christians will accept that other people (including other people who identify as Christians) may have equally valid needs and values.  I hope there will be no deaths, that nobody will be hurt.

But tradition suggests otherwise, and so I pray that Þunor will protect the innocent.

A Gathering of Tribes

June 16th, 2015

Something happened this past weekend that I found both amazing and inspiring.  A local event, Pagans in the Park, was held to raise money for Pittsburgh’s Pagan Pride celebration.  I was the guest speaker, and had a booth where people could talk with me and purchase my books.  The day was beautiful and the event was very enjoyable, with games, vendors, live entertainment and food.

What amazed me, though, was the source of the food, which volunteers served up for reasonable prices – three bucks for a burger, a dollar for a can of soda pop, and so on.  All of the food had been donated by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center.  If the significance of this is not readily apparent, let me add that over the past 45 years I have never, ever known a non-Pagan organization to give anything to our community except disdain.  I’ve seen Pagans and Pagan groups try to find acceptance in “interfaith” organizations, but the effort always flowed in only one direction.  Nobody ever extends kindness to us.  Ever.  And so when I heard that the GLCC had donated all of the food for the fundraiser, my immediate response was “Why?”

I directed that question to Lyndsey Sickler, the woman who initiated the GLCC’s generous gesture.  “A few years ago we didn’t have anything,” she told me.  Now the GLCC has enough resources to share, and so they extended some help to the Pagan community because we are (for the most part) gay-friendly.  It still seemed like a strange thing to do, and took some time for me to process the idea.

I may be gay myself, but throughout my life I’ve experienced the same disrespect from (most) gay Christians as I have from (most) heterosexual Christians.  As a result, my world view has been very much Us-versus-Them.  But the world has changed over the years, at least here in the United States.  I still think it’s important to cherish “Us”, but perhaps the  time has come to change my perception of “Them”.  We may not all be the same, but we are all interdependent to some degree.  Imagine how much could be accomplished if the tribes – the Pagans, the gays, the radical wimmin, etc – all reached out to each other a bit.  The GLCC bought some admiration and support from a number of Pagan people this weekend.  If we Pagan folk were to give back in some way, perhaps our own community would gain some admiration and support from the gay community.

It can be difficult to lower one’s shield and look beyond the safety of the þeod.  On the other hand, I think the reward of giving support to other tribes could be well worth the effort.

Runic Mysteries

June 1st, 2015

The other day a friend asked me about the rune Eolh.  My friend draws a rune each day for guidance, and Eolh had come up several times in a row.  He knows the rune is protective, but wondered if Eolh was trying to convey something more.

Eolh is indeed a protective rune.  I use it in charms and spells for protection.  In the rune oracle on this website the keywords for Eolh are “protection”, “safety” and “defense”.  But the Rune Poem doesn’t specifically say that Eolh means protection.  What it says is:

The elk-sedge is native to the marsh, it grows in the water, it can wound cruelly, the blood of any man burns who in any way dares to seize it.

No rune has one, simple finite meaning like protection or wealth or family.  The runes are mysteries.  It is our nature to extrapolate finite meanings from runic mysteries so we can more readily understand them, but this same practice can as easily impede understanding.

A few years ago I’d had the same experience as my friend, but with the rune Nied.  Perhaps my experience was a little worse, for Nied has no happy, reassuring meaning like “protection”.  When Nied is reduced to a finite meaning, it is “need” (the literal modern translation of the Old English word nied).  In the rune oracle here, Nied has the keywords “hardship” and “loss”.  Seeing it come up over and over in various omens was becoming rather a bummer.  Then my kinsman Taren pointed out that if the rune was continually making an appearance, maybe it was trying to convey something more.  And so I went back to the Rune Poem and contemplated its words concerning Nied:

Need is oppressive on the heart, although it often befalls this affliction of men to help and to heal somewhat if it is heard beforehand.

The Rune Poem tells us that need is unpleasant, but we avert this by anticipating those needs.  By “hearing them beforehand”.  The repetitive appearance of the Nied rune wasn’t a dire prediction; it was giving me advice!  Going directly to the Rune Poem – looking at the mystery itself, rather than a distilled, finite definition – I came to an understanding of what Nied was trying to tell me.

And so that was the advice I gave to my friend, and what I would give to anyone who would understand the runes.  Go directly to the Rune Poem, which reveals their deeper message.  The finite meanings that people give to the runes are useful tools, but there is so much more to the mysteries!

(The Old English Rune Poem can be accessed on this website.  Go to “Runes”, scroll down to the bottom of the page that opens, and click on “Old English Rune Poem”.)

When a Name is Unnecessary

May 17th, 2015

The other day a man asked me the name of my path, and I jokingly told him it was Bob, because the idea of naming my spirituality with any more precision than “Saxon Pagan” or “Saxon Heathen” seems pointless to me.  He said that he liked what I’ve had to say in my books, and suggested that he might start telling people he follows the Alarician Saxon tradition.  To that I could only respond with two words:

Please don’t.

First of all, Alarician sounds silly.  But more to the point, using that name is sort of contrary to what the Alarician tradition is all about.  If you want to follow a path similar to mine, then don’t box yourself in with contrived boundaries.  I certainly don’t.  Am I Wiccan?  I guess so, if you want to call me that.  My coven identifies as Seax Wiccan, and we honor Woden and Frige as master and mistress of the old ways, but that’s where most of the resemblance to Wicca ends.  We don’t call quarters.  We are true polytheists, believing in many gods and goddesses, not just two.  There’s no question that we’re wiccan (witches) but whether we’re Wiccan depends on your definition.

I’ve also been asked if I’m theodish, which is another label I neither embrace or deny.  Theodish is simply an old word for tribalist, and I’ve met very few people who are more tribalist than I.  Once I decide you’re my folk, you’re stuck with me.  But I’ve never been part of a Theodish-identified group.  I agree with the Theodish position that the tribe is important, but I don’t think a person really has to be part of a tribe.  My inhíred, Earendel, is undoubtedly theodish in spirit, but we are much less formal about it.

So my coven is Wiccan and my inhíred is theodish, but my coven and inhíred aren’t constrained by those labels, and neither term defines my spiritual path.  Nor does “Alarician”, except in the most general sense that I, Alaric, am going to live and worship in the way I believe is right.  I don’t think my path needs to be set aside with its own special name.  I am a Saxon Pagan.  By that I mean I’m a polytheist whose inspiration comes from the early English people.  And that should be enough definition.

Beltane at Holendun

May 4th, 2015

Of course I’m using the word Beltane in a very modern generic sense.  My folk are predominantly Anglo-Saxon in our spirituality, not Gaelic or Gallic or Welsh.  Nevertheless we often use the word Beltane for our May Day celebrations welcoming the warm, bright months of summer, and I don’t think this confuses anyone.

People began arriving around 1:30 in the afternoon.  We caught up on what was happening in everybody’s lives while I sewed up the “head” for our effigy of Jack Barleycorn, and Diane and Jason sewed up small pouches of red cloth for spells we would be working later in the evening.  Our dogs – all of them together – ran around in the house and yard, delighted to have the whole pack together.  Like us humans, the dogs love these tribal gatherings.  Well, all except for Chewie, who lives with Diane.  Chewie’s ambivalent about the whole thing.

When everything was ready we assembled Jack.  This is a long-standing tradition with us.  “Long” meaning since the mid-1990’s, which in Neo-Pagan culture is practically ancient.  Our Jack Barleycorn effigy is a scarecrow, in jeans and a flannel shirt, a representation of the life of the land.  Earlier, while I sewed the scarecrow’s head, Taren cut squares of cloth, and each of us stitched a rune on a cloth to symbolize what we want to bring into our lives.  (No, I’m not telling what rune I chose – that would break the spell!)  After the scarecrow was built, we attached our runes to various parts of his body.  Then he was raised to where he will stand until this coming Hallows.

After this, we went to the fire pit and held a húsel for the elves.  The fire was large and blazing and hot as we gave offerings of flowers, mead and cheese.  And by the time the fire outside burned down, the chicken roasting in the oven indoors was done, and so we followed the húsel with a May Day feast as we watched the original version of the 1972 film, “The Wicker Man”.

In the evening the dynamic of our group changed slightly, for not all of the folk of Earendel are part of my coven.  Those who are gathered under the Thrimilci moon to work magic.  Spells were cast, we gave praise to Woden and Frige, and the circle was eventually closed.  Some very tired dogs went home with their very tired humans, and we soon went off to bed here at Holendun as well.

Summer has come.

May Day

April 26th, 2015

Summer is a-comin’ in!

Today Sunne’s rays of light are almost palpable.  Daffodils bloom throughout the back yard.  The garden is partially tilled now, almost ready for planting tomatoes, squash and corn.  The grass is thick and green.

Next weekend will be a busy time for us here at Holendun.  Earendel, my spiritual family, will celebrate the coming of summer with praise and offerings to the elves.  We will feast and, as we have for years now, we will build a scarecrow representing Jack Barleycorn.  That in itself would be a full and satisfying weekend.

But wait, there’s more, because the Thrimilci moon grows full.  In the Saxon calendar this is the “Three-Milkings Moon”, so called because cattle had to be milked thrice each day at this time of the year.  The name reflects the abundance of the season.  And so my coven will be gathering, as we do each month when the moon is full.  Magic is in our plans, at this inherently magical transition between winter and summer.

What will you be doing for May Day?

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