A Heathen Sorcerer's Walk Through the Sacred Season of the Yuletide
There is snow falling, and a bright, large moon riding across the sky between great continents of cloud. When a man stands outside on the dark ground, on pale fields of snow glowing in moonlight, it's like standing in a dream. Shadows are never more black, and moonlight never more radiant, than when it becomes trapped in web-works of ice and shines out in a pale radiance.
The most powerful part of any walk in the winter night, to me, is the sight of houses from a distance- they are dark, too, but their windows glow in the most inviting orange and gold hue. Each of them is a warm center of life, their walls holding back the life-withering cold and ice. In a sea of freezing power, these ships of glowing life drift in place- seen from the shadowed sky, they would make the dark landscape seem aglow with golden stars.
All around me, in the village, in the woods, in the countryside, are islands of golden warmth, each of them the hearth of a family surviving another winter. Human life is persistent; its allies in the struggle for life are likewise persistent- fire, masonry, beams of wood, stone, and ingenious contraptions of wire and pipe that bring water and electricity in through the worst storms. We are enduring beings. We have endured countless winters.
From one window, a cat peers out at me. That tabby-colored cat sits in pure bliss, legs tucked under his furry chest, eyes narrowed into that tranquil meditative relaxation that cats seem to specialize in. The cat dozes in the warmth, totally unconcerned about the falling flakes of ice and snow that cascade down in front of its face just inches on the other side of glass. How many other cats, throughout the ages, have sheltered next to the warm fires of their masters in this time? That cat is a fellow traveler through time and history with me. I'm glad to see him so warm.
There are candles and wreathes and colored lights dancing about in places. The Winter Solstice time is here, and in the middle of all this frozen desolation, people are preparing to celebrate something as old as humanity itself. Most don't have any clue how far back it goes- most wouldn't think of it as going back before the birthday of Jesus, but these same people drag trees into their homes in this season, keeping alive a Heathen tree worship that certainly pre-dated the Nazarene by a great distance in time.
The name given to the supposed Galilean miracle-worker- "Christ"- has come to dominate what people in the west call this season of ancient power- Christmas- and the "advent" so awaited by the traditional faithful is nothing more than the appearance of this miraculous child. But older names for this time lurk below the surface, known to all who "Toll the ancient Yuletide carol."
When I stand in the cold and dark of the Yuletide, I always become introspective about the vastness of history and the chasm of eternity that yawns behind it. This time of year, more than most, sends my mind and imagination on a journey through the story of the West. That story begins in places that most people would shrug off as fiction more than fact, but fact it is- every bit of it. If you could have seen it, you would see more golden circles of fire glowing on snow under the veil of night- because ages ago, in the coldest and most distant of places, that's where the ancestors lived and held back the cold and dark.
They had tents, lodges, roundhouses, and villages, all glowing with healthy blazes that were beacons of survival in the frost-gripped world. They wandered a world that was not conveniently mapped out for them or easy to conceive of by whirling a plastic globe around. To the north was mountain; the east, forest; to the west rolling hills and valleys, and south, more forest, stretching as far as the eye could see. The life-giving flow of a river cut through nearby, and the Goddess of that river provided much for them. What was beyond what the eye could see? They didn't know. They would discover what; they were brave and always on the move. Where did the river come from? Who were the other people, the strangers, stalking through the forests south?
The ice and snow that blanketed their world, it was not just the predictable result of a meteorologists' report; it was magical power. It was the footprints of giants, the breath of giants, covering the world with their brutal power. It was power from a world of ice which lay far beyond, and the one day, they knew, the powers of light and life would shift and banish those cold powers, at least for a time. There was a struggle in the cosmos about them, which paralleled their struggle right here in the village or camp- to enclose themselves with safe circles of fire and strong men and women, safe in the sacred enclosure of kin.
There was nothing in the world that didn't hold some fascination, for all of it was mystical or magical power of a kind. For these people, the presence of something mystical or magical wasn't such a shock; they lived in a world full of Gods, a world full of powers. Some powers were human and animal; others were immensely greater. All were part of a web of power which excluded nothing. There were magical treasures, things humans could create or obtain, which granted safety or skill or power to their owners or their groups. There were places of power in the landscape to be found, the work of previous hands, either lost groups of human beings or perhaps the Giants themselves.
It sounds like high fantasy, but it is reality, plain and simple. This is our origin. Not just these people or their technologies, but their worldviews- their belief in the awesome sacred powers which surrounded them. When we forget these people, or consign them to a realm of fantasy, we forget so much about who we are. For who we are is partly determined by who we were- and in fact, I might say, the very best parts of us owe so much to who we were.
If we want to know where we are "going", as a culture, as massive groups of people whose bloodlines run back to those distant times, we have to look back to the ancients, for the clues to our final destination are found in our beginnings. The end is always present at the beginning, and the beginning at the end, because life and causality finally and ultimately describes a great circle of power. We aren't in an "open ended" universe, and we never were. We are enclosed in power and destiny, though it is a vision so massive as to seem quite bottomless to the person who lacks the poetic vision to really look.
My journey continues, through more dark trees and snow-covered fields, down the course of great rivers, to a southern sea that encloses the reaches of many glittering ancient civilizations. People here placed stone upon stone and raised monuments of awesome power. Here, they raised temples and gleaming cities by the water-lanes of commerce. Here, they forged ideas of philosophy that transcended their own concerns and attempted to embrace the entirety of things. Here, the Gods still lived and still joined with mortal men in the great work of destiny.
For countless generations, these societies- so different from the people of the Northern fires, and yet, so similar in other ways- wore out their Fated time, and achieved reaches of glory which have still not been matched by our vain modern day. Something of the old mysticism from time's first human dawn still lived in these ancient cities and cyclopean temples. Among the Romans, the great reign of king Saturn the Sower was commemorated in the darkness of December; the rites and celebrations of the Saturnalia were simultaneous to the joyous birth of the Persian savior Mithras. Life wasn't just enduring; it was being reborn, a new golden age was being celebrated, at the deep of winter.
These rites were half civilized and half barbaric- at times wild, orgiastic, yet solemn and profound at other times. Don't mistake me- the barbarism was found in the solemnity, not the celebration, for only people out of touch with the sacredness of the wild ever innovate the technologies and social systems that truly harm this world. But the ancient struggle of the wild and the structured pranced on in its mesmerizing leaps then, as it does now.
These Pagan people are my Ancestors, and yours. They are who we were, and in so many ways still are. I embrace them, all of them, and I love them. I appreciate their wisdom, their aesthetics, and I know their hopes in dreams by having a long look at my own. Without these great and brave people, nothing we have now would exist; not this language, this computer that I am staring at as I type, not our social values of democracy and humanitarianism, of liberty and scientific inquiry, our spirit of philosophy and our very souls. The very glass I lifted to toast with tonight, under a fresh sprig of mistletoe, was raised first by the Northern people from whom I gain this flesh and blood.
My journey has to take a dark turn now; the ragged ruins of the world around me still have some of the old wisdom glowing in them, like heat and light in the embers that remain after a majestic building is burned down. And the edifice of the ancient world's true life was burned down by fear and ignorance. Let us never forget the awful power of these twin forces- ever more devastating than any modern nuclear weapon, more pervasive than any political unrest. The precious Gods that once wandered with the Ancestors through the same snow that is under my feet, and who were once praised in temples of great majesty, were once abandoned by Kings and people of power, and gradually, by the commoners that followed them. Not everyone left the Gods behind, but many did, and soon, it was the sword that assured that only one way of believing would be allowed.
This shift wasn't simple, nor fast, nor did it reflect only a drama in the human mind; the world fell to ruins around it. Rome was undermined by it; Rome burned to the ground over it. The next fifteen hundred years are called "Dark Ages"- and not for no reason. The lamps of Greek learning were dark. Civilization's order collapsed. Literacy was lost. Ancient cultural arts and achievements were lost. The great spirit of the Northern folk was torn from the land itself and crowded into dirty villages and towns and cities, and into churches, whose harsh bells drove the spirits of the land away in disgust and fear.
There was no more magic to be found in the landscape or the mountains or in the worlds of Gods; that magic was categorized as satanic trickery and a snare of diabolism. No longer could the sun or moon or stars, or wells or groves of trees be a merging point for human souls to enjoy their connection with the sacred All; now, Popes wrote documents containing the penalties for those who enjoyed these ages-old activities.
When I look at the crosses on the church buildings near me, I see the cruelty of these ages staring back at me. I see the cross of ignorance, which has crucified countless people of my blood and of the same legacy as me. I see the old solar Gods, blazing out from their own ancient crosses, and even bloody dead Gods from Pagan times who emerged from their own deaths to the great joy of their followers, now sunk low while Jesus reigns from on high, morally pure, ready to judge the quick and the dead.
I see the continuation of the most distant and degenerate form of Roman Paganism in those churches. I see great hopes for eternal happiness, and I see despair. I see ages of ancient power echoing in the cross, that old power forming a great austere background of force that informs the entire edifice of Christianity, but which is ignored fully by the faithful themselves. That power, they reason, is God; that power is the Holy Spirit. A rather simplistic final product for so many centuries of hope and fear, of blood and conquest, of dead Gods and risen Gods, of decadent Roman courts and of dark incense-filled temples and churches covered with colorful mosaics.
Christians have never been free of the Saturnian Pagan Yuletide. Their savior gained a birthday on the winter solstice, taking for his company an ancient cavalcade of divine figures; Christians were latecomers to the ancient power of the season. But they joined, and added a new dimension to it. That dimension is, to me, the least of all; it is the least wise, the least compelling, and the most superficial. But it is the most pronounced, today- especially when you walk through the snowy village in your head, like I am now.
I see the nativity scene, complete with big plastic camels poking up with their humps out of the snow. Camels in the snow- Semitic shepherds and Persian astrologers huddled around a plastic manger, covered in snow, in a northern forest, in the front yard of a family whose surname is "Bachmeier"- as Teutonic a surname as you can get. There you have it. While the sacred Yule-season of their ancestors is glowing in power around them, the Bachmeiers place faded plastic statues of Near-Eastern goat herders and Persians and camels in their yard, and pray to an ancient Hebrew man, and the ancient God of Israel- who was never worshiped in a Yule or a Saturnalia.
Does Father Bachmeier know about Sigurd and Sigrdrifa, or Arminius? Does he know about Jolnir or the Disir of this time? Does he know what the "Weihnachten" really stands for? Or does he really sit around singing about Angels and Bethlehem and Jerusalem? We have truly lost our souls when a person even needs to ask these sorts of questions. We have lost our true senses. Thank the Gods for remaining with us through these dark times. Gods, we are coming home- but excuse us; some of us have lost the way. They'll take a little longer getting there. We know you understand, and remain with us anyway.
There is something about the West- our great spirit, our great contribution to the world- which is tied into our theism. We've always believed in Gods. Recently, we've betrayed the living Gods for the spiteful Monotheism of the ancient Hebrews, but as I said before- just wait. The end is in the beginning. The Gods are not gone, nor done with us, nor we with them. We are going through a painful growing phase. We are the ones that changed, and not so long ago, all things considered.
But something around us isn't changing. This snow- this night- it is the same. Night is night, in any age. Her darkness has touched the face of every human being that has ever lived. The same water that fell as ice onto the ancients melted and rose again to freeze again and fall onto me, now. Nature, majestic Nature, She is forever young and forever ancient. She is something we all have in common. She has seen many religions come and go, many civilizations rise and fall. She is common grave-mound and tomb to us all, and to all things. She is common mother to us all. Want a truly enduring religion? Worship her. In her is the essence of all religions arisen before or arisen recently. She is the true Godhead of creation and destruction. In her, all things come to pass. In her, all things are made new.
We Westerners are "Godists" if there ever were any. While the highest philosophical ponderings of the East lead people away from God or Gods, we hang on to our "big man in the sky". I hang on to my ancestors' "big men and women in the sky and under the earth", but that's just me and a few others like me. And I am, of course, risking the comical here- the Gods aren't men and women. Something about the spirit of the West is found in theism, found in our own belief that one day, we have to journey beyond this world to face a mystery.
For some, that mystery is in judgment. They will die and cross the final veil hoping for their heavenly retirement plans to be cashed in, and fearing that perhaps they won't be. It will be for the judge to say, after all. For others, that "final" mystery is another long journey to be back again at the beginning, and among the people of the beginning- the ancestors. And from there? Who can say?
But I can say one thing- the dead are not gone, not taken from this world, and nor is there an escape from the world. The supreme selfishness, the supreme lack of wisdom of any religion would be in how it teaches escapism of the soul or spirit. I will be dead and yet alive in the land, in the rivers, in the mounds, in the sky, in the winds. I know this, because I've seen it. I will be present to this collection of sacred powers then for the same reason I am now- because there is no other place to be. In the enclosure of life, of power, this is it. See the snow with your earthly eyes; see the trees; when you are dead, and seeing in a new way, they will still be there and so will you, though how it will seem to you then, only the dead can know.
I'm walking now, in my head, remembering a real walk through snow; I know that my journey is ongoing and won't end, ever. I'm moving through the forest now like the ancestors, and remembering them in the season of memory, the great Yule season.
While my Christian neighbors are singing happy birthday to Jesus, I will be sitting around a fire with the Ancestresses, with the Yule-father and his host, with my family and with the giants of the great cold. A collection of sacred kindreds is precisely what this season is- along with any other season, truth be known. But this sublime cold and dark cracks open a special kind of perception for those who can brave it long enough. In this darkness, we can really go back to the beginning. And we must go back to the beginning if we want to complete our circle and be whole.
My Yule-wish for all of Europe's sons and daughters- and truly, anyone else- is this: do not live on the "timeline" of the soteriologist- live in the natural circle of power which no God can create. This world did not "begin" one day at the whim of a creator, and will not "end" just as quickly; it is not an arrow-shot story with a single conclusion, but a woven circularity of eternity that has no ending. I want you all to be whole, complete, and joyful.
Your completion is not found in Judeo-christian triumphalist religious fictions, but in this very snow, this very world, in the spirits of those who came before you and who believed in the Gods. Do not isolate yourself behind the walls of churches; let the world become your temple, as it was for your ancestors. Reject the lies of human exceptionalism, and take your place as equal kin to the land and the wild beasts and the Gods.
Understand that the womb is the most sacred thing, and that our Greatest Grandmothers are the beings to whom we owe all of this. If you discover a religion blaming women for the downfall of the world, or crushing women underfoot- commanding them to subservience or silence- reject it as an enemy of the common sacred life that we all share.
Our ancestor-women were not weak women, second to men: they were women of power; seeresses, valkyries, spear-disir, women who ruled as queens, women who raised children in brutal and dangerous circumstances, who held the keys to our homes and hearths, and who remembered our sacred stories and passed down rare wisdom through many generations. They wove the threads of our Fates as certainly as they wove the sails on the ships that carried our ancestors to glory and renown, or as certainly as they wove the linens and wools that our people wore to survive in the cold and weather.
As dark irony would have it, even the Abrahamic barbarians owe their entire existence to the women they accuse of mothering sin and death, and whom they punish for leading men astray to sin with lust. For the women in those faiths, trapped without choice, or simply ignorant of the great legacy to which they belong, I wish for freedom and justice.
For those women outside of that bondage, I wish them the strength to remain outside of it, and raise strong daughters and sons like themselves, to make our new Pagan future a great one. May the strength of our woman-kind make us whole and strong, now, as always.