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21 Sep 2007

A True Lady of the Folk

Conversation with Diana Paxson conducted by A von Rautmann

To those already immersed in neo-Heathen culture, Diana L. Paxson hardly needs an introduction.

To those just dipping their toes in, we are pleased to bring you a leading woman in the traditional Pagan movement. From actively practicing/teaching the shamanic path of our ancestors and compiling a comprehensive guide to the runes, to writing novels based on myths of Northern Europe, to openly addressing modern topics such as gender, race, and sexual orientation, Mrs. Paxson is: A TRUE LADY OF THE FOLK.

HEX: It seems reasonable to start at the beginning. How would you describe your experiences of, and your contribution to, the earlier days of the modern pagan revival?

PAXSON: I grew up reading mythology, sitting out to commune with the moon and finding a lot of spiritual nourishment in nature, and envying Native Americans and others with a living ritual tradition, but my first introduction to actual polytheistic practice did not happen until I was in my twenties, in a ceremonial lodge led by Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband. It was called the Aquarian Order of the Restoration (AOR) and was based on the works of Dion Fortune. At that time, the books by people who came out of the Order of the Golden Dawn tradition, such as Fortune, A.E. Waite, and others were just about the only magical works available. Marion insisted that each member take charge of one of the seasonal ceremonies, which is how I discovered that I could write rituals.

A few years later, in 1978, a young woman in the group asked me to write a coming-of-age rite for her. I thought that working with the idea of the triple goddess might be interesting, and asked a bunch of women from the community to participate. In the ritual we all made a powerful connection with Goddess-energy, of a kind that even those who were involved in Wiccan groups had not encountered before, and decided to keep working together. That group became Darkmoon circle, which is still meeting regularly today. Throughout the early 80s Marion and I went to every workshop and lecture we could find, and brought back what we learned to the group. I have sought to learn and share spiritual skills and knowledge ever since. Some of us found we were being called to act as clergy, so we started a clergy training program. There was an exciting spirit of discovery in the air.

At that time most of the people who were interested in the Norse gods practiced solo, although Steve McNallen actually lived in Berkeley for a while and started holding meetings of the Asatru Free Alliance here. My brother-in-law used to attend, and said it was quite amusing when the Old Norwegians ran into the neo-Nazis. The AFA had its ups and downs, but I remained friendly with Prudence Priest and kept in touch with what was going on with proto-Heathenry. I got closer to the Norse gods when I wrote a book called Brisingamen (1983), which apparently all the other early Heathens read, so when I finally did encounter them they all knew who I was.

Darkmoon hived off a number of other groups, which eventually allied as the Fellowship of the Spiral Path. After working with Kabbalah for several years, I started exploring neo-shamanism as a balance. I found the techniques useful, but I had done enough work with Native Americans (writing educational materials) to wish I had a tribal tradition of my own. In 1987 I attended one of Harner’s shamanic workshops, and when asked to journey and seek a teacher in human form, quite unexpectedly I encountered Odin. When he asked if I was serious about learning Norse shamanic techniques I said yes. Little did I know that would be the beginning of an enduring relationship. To get started, I gathered some of the very talented people in our community together for a Rune Class (the basis for my book, Taking Up the Runes), and from there began to figure out how to do oracular seidh. The class eventually developed into Hrafnar kindred.

In 1991 I was First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess (another educational experience). At the National Meeting I met Phil Nearing and Bill Bainbridge, who were members of the newly formed Asatru Alliance and the Troth, and wanted to make contact with other kinds of pagans. They also had some very good mead, which after presiding over the Grand Council all day I really needed. They persuaded me that Heathens were not all racists, and encouraged me to subscribe to Idunna, the Troth’s journal.

At that point Prudence Priest had become Steerswoman of the Troth, and started holding the Troth’s annual meeting in the Bay Area. I brought my kindred and we performed seidh at Trothmoot, the first time anyone in Heathenry had ever seen anything of the kind. Since then I have taught our approach to seidh in many workshops, and gotten the idea started in general. From that time to the present, my focus has moved steadily from eclectic Paganism to Heathen practice, although old oaths and relationships keep me connected to the general Pagan community.

HEX: As HEX is “for the Heathen Household,” I think our readers would find an explanation of your household, Greyhaven, interesting.

PAXSON: In 1968, when I got married, no one in our community had any money, and it was common to share housing. So my husband (writer Jon DeCles) and I formed a family with his adopted brother, Paul Edwin Zimmer (brother of Marion Zimmer Bradley), and his wife, and his mother. In 1971 we jointly bought a big old house in Berkeley that we named Greyhaven, in which we raised our children. Since then it has sheltered the extended family and assorted friends. Today, it is still a multi-generational household, shared with my son Ian Grey and his wife and three children. In many ways, our situation is like the kind of extended, family-based household one sees in the sagas.

HEX: Even the more mundane, daily aspects of seasonal change hold magical qualities. What are some of your favorite parts of these darker months of the year? Are there any traditions that you feel especially drawn to?

PAXSON: Since well before I was a practicing Heathen, our family has had its own traditional Yule celebration. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, we gather before the hearth, read a seasonal story, and light the Yule log. We then make offerings of gingerbread animals to the gods and goddesses, which we hang on the Yule tree. By then, the feast should be ready. I bring in the pork roast, garlanded with bay and rosemary, and we all sit down. After dinner, we finish decorating the tree. All this is accompanied by appropriate songs, which you can find in the Troth’s Book of Yuletide Carols.

We celebrate Christmas as a secular family holiday, but the children do put out milk and cookies for the Jul-tomte the night before.

HEX: With all the reading material available on runes, their lore, and divination, what moved you to write Taking Up the Runes?

PAXSON: There seemed to be a need for a book that would give people the essence of the evolving tradition in one volume. Unfortunately, many of the excellent rune books to which I refer in the text are out of print. I encourage people to buy them if they can find and afford them.

The other reason is that I have found no other book that takes this holistic approach to studying the runes. Some people do very well by simply reading and thinking about the material, but others need hands-on, real-world activities to internalize their meaning. The ritual work will also help embed the material in the unconscious.

HEX: Freya Aswynn defines seidr (pronounced ‘sayth,’ where the ‘th’ is voiced) as: “Literally ‘seething,’” Seidr is the name of a variety of magical and shamanic practices involving sorcery, divination, and “soul journeys.” (Leaves of Yggdrasil, Llewellyn Publications, 1994) What is your approach to seidh, also seidr? How does it relate to what we know of the seidh of our ancestors? How much is based on intuition?

PAXSON: In the lore, the term ‘Seidh’ (or ‘seith’) is used to cover a variety of magical activities, all of which involve altered consciousness or trance. It may or may not mean “seethe”—the scholars disagree on that one. Steven Glosecki, for instance, derives it from ‘sittan,’ which would make it cognate to ‘séance.’ However, stirring a cauldron while cooking up magic would certainly qualify as seidh-work.

A longer list can be derived from the description of Odin’s seith skills in Heimskringla (Ynglingasaga VII). The author, as a Christian, presents them as negative, but they include: predicting the future, causing harm to come to men (and presumably also bringing them luck), causing soul loss and illness (or good health), taking or giving wit and power, astral journeying in animal form, using spells to extinguish fires, calm the sea, and call the winds.

In the sagas, however, most of the episodes referred to as seidh refer to an oracular ritual. The best example is found in the Saga of Erik the Red (ch. 4), in which a Völva (seeress), in Greenland, prophesies. The Eddic poems in which Odin seeks information from the Völva in the underworld feature a pattern of question and answer that may be based on seidh practice.

In our private work we use a number of seidh skills, but publically I am most associated with the oracular practice, which incorporates as many features from the saga and edda material as possible. The seidhmadhr (male) or seidhkona (female) sits on a raised seat and is put into trance with a sacred song. The questioning includes the formulaic words from the eddas. To this I added other songs, invocations, and a pathworking to Hel, mainly to provide a setting that will move the people attending into the Norse sector of the collective unconscious. I also use a drum—its authenticity can be debated, but it is definitely effective. So most of the ritual is definitely based on the lore. The way those elements are combined and applied is what comes from intuition.

For a more extensive discussion of my approach to seidh, see my website: www.seidh.org, especially the article, “The Return of the Völva.”

HEX: I would like you to address the topic of genetics as it relates to spirituality. You touch on it in the introduction of your book Taking Up the Runes (Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC, 2005): “The runes are an expression of the spirituality of Northern Europe, but the culture in which they are currently flowering is diverse and pluralistic. Just as people of all ethnic origins may be attracted to Native American spirituality or the worship of the orishas, individuals of many backgrounds are becoming fascinated by the runes. There has been a great deal of discussion about the value of genetic links in accessing ethnic spiritual systems. Many people find that the magic of their own ancestors is easier to learn. I myself approach the Northern tradition with more confidence because I know that my foremothers did the same. However,…there are many individuals who have a natural affinity for the religious practices of cultures with with they have no genetic connection. The gods look at the colors of our spirits, not our skins. Today, spiritual traditions are becoming as exportable as ethnic foods.”

I would like to contrast this to a Thorsson quote:
“Modern people seem to think that they can choose to become something which they are not in reality, e.g., an Amerindian shaman, or a Kabbalistic mystic. But one can never truly become that except in one’s own imagination (and perhaps in the imaginations of others). In truth, we can only, to paraphrase Fichte, become who we are. Within that realm of possibilities is an infinite number of directions, but the tradition is a fixed one…One must simply ask oneself: ‘Of what can I be a ‘first class’ exemplar?’ Can I be a first class Amerindian shaman?? No, an Amerindian can be that. Can I be a first class Kabbalist? No, an orthodox Jew can be that. The positive answer to this question can be many things. But in one’s own heart, if the honesty of that answer is complete, the authentic awakening will be unmistakable and and irrevocable in life.” ~Stephen Edred Flowers (2nd issue of TYR, Dominion, 2004)

You use Edred Thorsson (Dr. Stephen Flowers) books as a main reference for the study of runes in Taking Up the Runes so you obviously think highly of his research, insights and opinions. What do you think causes this split in perspective among those who practice our tradition?

PAXSON: I think the problem here is that Thorsson, like many others, is identifying cultural with genetic heritage. Someone who is the product of a given culture will certainly have a head start on mastering its spiritual traditions, whereas someone who is new to the culture will find it more difficult, no matter what his or her ancestry may be. Thus, Native Americans who were taken from their parents as children and raised in the White Man’s world have the same problems learning how to fit into tribal culture as someone of English ancestry would, although their bloodline may make it easier for the tribe to accept them. Similarly, a ‘secular’ Jew has no inherent advantage in learning Kabbalah. In the days when I was working with that system, a number of Jews joined my classes in order to learn something about that part of their heritage.

On the other hand, tribal cultures will sometimes adopt people of other ethnic groups who marry into the tribe or otherwise seem to have a natural affinity for their ways. A “first-class Amerindian shaman” is someone who has been trained by an authentic tribal shaman, and who is accepted by the tribe, whatever his or her ethnicity. My friend Elisheva, who comes from Israel, can teach anyone to interpret the Hebrew lots as simple concepts, in the same way we read the runes. But to interpret them as words and reach the deeper meanings, one has to be fluent in Hebrew and brought up in the culture.

Thus, although those who are genetically kin to the culture whose spiritual traditions they are practicing may have more confidence in their right to do so, their success will depend on how embedded they are in the culture.

Those of us who practice the Reconstructionist religions have a somewhat different problem. Our traditions have been patched together from bits and pieces of lore, illuminated by personal inspiration. Where a folk tradition survives, as in rural Ireland, it has been so overlaid with Christianity that it can be hard to identify the real Pagan survivals. All of us, whatever our genetic background, have to steep ourselves in the lore in order to recreate the cultural background that a tribal person grows up understanding. But no matter how much we might wish it, we do not live in a traditional Heathen society. Even if we had access to a complete manual on Viking Age religious practice, we would have to adapt it to meet modern needs (Not even the most dedicated Heathen is likely to be willing to splash sacrificial blood all over his living room walls).

Today, people seem to come to Heathenism because they have developed a strong relationship with one of the gods or goddesses, and/or because the Heathen worldview fits their personality and lifestyle. Neither of these factors is dependent on heredity. The only advantage that being half-German has given me is that my authenticity as a Heathen priestess is accepted more easily when I do interfaith work with tribal people. However, we have a deep need for identity, and claiming an inherited right to a religious tradition gives us a sense of entitlement and authenticity. I think this is why many people who are trying to recreate a tradition are using heredity as a mark of spiritual identity.

HEX: Lastly, what new Heathen-related projects are you currently turning your attentions to?

PAXSON: Many of you have probably heard that the Wiccans finally got the Veterans’ Administration to add the pentacle to the list of symbols approved for grave markers. This got me thinking once more about the need for inspirational materials for Heathens in the military. At Trothmoot this year I took oath to put together a devotional booklet for Heathens in the military. I have already written a ritual to bless someone about to be deployed, and am working on one to reintegrate someone returning from active duty. We are also working on informational materials for military chaplains and a book that covers the religious rights of military Pagans, how to set up a faith-group on base, and the like.

I have also been working on protecting religious rights in general by invoking the Founding Fathers as alfar—ancestor spirits—to help us protect the rights they fought for. I had the privilege of leading a ritual for this purpose at the Pagan Religious Rights Rally held across the street from the White House on the 4th of July this year. For more information on this, see www.freedomfathers.org

My other great concern is exploring those elements in Heathen theology and lore that relate to the current challenge of climate change. I use the ‘Gjallarhorn Alliance’ for those who hope that if Heimdall blows his horn softly now to warn us to change the way we treat the environment, he won’t have to blow it in earnest in a few years to announce the end of the ecosystem in which we, our civilization, and our gods evolved.

The Spring 2008 issue of HEX will include a reprint of Diana’s article Sex, Status, and Seidh, which originally appeared in the journal Idunna.

For a list of upcoming seidh workshops or for information on bringing one to your area, go to: www.seidh.org,

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