Crowned in Prayer: Hair Care as Spiritual Practice

Hair has had a special significance in spiritual practice for millennia. Whether we consider it our crowning glory, a symbol of self, or the part of our bodies closest to the Divine, tending our hair as a spiritual practice has a long and varied history. We polytheists can use that foundation to support our own spiritual work. 

How can hair be spiritual?

When considering our hair as a tool for our spiritual practice, it’s important to consider what our hair means to us, or what it might symbolize in our lives, before we start. Most of us take our hair for granted, but we often do have pretty intense feelings when we think about it a bit.

Is your hair merely something you ignore? A frame for your face? A method of self-expression? Perhaps it’s your favorite feature, or favorite fashion accessory, or preferred way to pamper yourself. Maybe your hair is a sexual thing for you, and you consider colors and styles to be your plumage. Maybe it’s something to hide behind, a curtain between you and the world. Maybe, like the Biblical Samson, you think of your hair as the seat of your power. Maybe your hair is one way you identify with your culture, heritage, or community. Maybe having someone else pet and play with your hair is relaxing. Maybe that makes you feel vulnerable, though, or you feel violated when other people touch your hair. Maybe it’s a safety hazard at work. Perhaps you don’t have any strong feelings attached to your hair but your spouse loves it.

Once we know how we relate to our hair, we can begin to see how we can relate it to our spiritual practice. If your hair is your favorite way to express yourself, then it can be used to express your devotion too. If it makes you feel vulnerable, maybe you want to cover it up so only those with whom you feel safest – including the Powers – can see it. If it’s a symbol of vanity for you, and you see vanity as a flaw you’re trying to improve, maybe shaving it off completely would be incredibly meaningful for you. If it’s a matter of heritage or cultural affiliation, then obviously look back to any hair practices that might be associated with that and work from there. If you don’t feel any kind of way about it, maybe you can start using it as a mindfulness tool and give it meaning.

There are no right answers here. It’s all about your personal relationship to both your hair and your practice, and that’s going to vary individually. Really give yourself some time to work it through, and keep it in mind as you check out the below options. You’ll naturally find that some of these methods speak to you more than others do. And that’s great! Those are the places to start exploring.

Some Practices to Consider

When it came time to put this post together I did a lot of research. Interestingly enough, everything I came up with fit rather neatly into three general categories. I love when that happens!

Those categories are Hair Care, Styling, and Covering.

Hair Care

This is the easiest and most subtle place to start. If we consider our hair to be a symbol of ourselves, and we either incorporate it into our spiritual practice or dedicate it to a specific Power, then the way we tend it can symbolize the way we tend our spiritual practice or the Power(s) to Whom our hair is dedicated. Cool, huh?

Some options here can include (but are not limited to):

  • Ritually rinsing or washing our hair before ritual or during sacred baths

    This is easy peasy. We can ritually rinse or wash our hair before engaging in ritual, on High Days, and/or on days sacred to a given Power. Light some candles, use smell-good products, sing or chant, lavish our hair with care and attention, the whole time keeping in mind the reason behind the action. Then, every time we see or smell our hair afterwards it’ll bring that symbolic action to mind again. It’s a great way to encourage mindfulness, and no one around will have the slightest idea that there’s anything different going on.

  • Using products made with ingredients or scented with a fragrance sacred to a Power
    This takes the above idea and advances it a single step. For instance, let’s say you’re cultivating a relationship with Aphrodite (for Whom hair care would be an excellent devotional act). Why not use rose-scented hair products? The scent would be another reminder of Her, or even of Her place “above” you. That can work for a wide variety of different Powers! Can’t find anything scented for the Power you’re working with? Consider buying an unscented product and adding your own essential oils. Problem solved!

  • Using only natural hair care products
    This whole ideas runs right along the same path as “don’t use plastic ritual tools”. If you hold by that, and you’re tending your hair as a spiritual act, then it just makes sense to use natural products. This doesn’t have to be complicated, though. More and more natural hair products hit the market every day. My favorite brand – Shea Moisture – is even carried at Target. No trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s required.

There are TONS of options when it comes to natural hair care!

There are TONS of options when it comes to natural hair care!

  • Using only hair care products we’ve ritually made ourselves
    Again, this is a natural continuation of the above. Making our own products allows us to choose all the ingredients and scents with intent and then ritualize every step of the production process. Using what we’ve made would continuously remind us of the energy that went into the making. There are recipes and tutorials all over the internet, so I won’t get into all the possibilities, but here are a few to consider:

    • Making your own shampoo/conditioner soap bars
    • Brewing tisanes (herbal teas) and using them as hair rinses
    • Using soap nuts to wash and condition your hair
    • Making various deep conditioning treatments
    • Going no ‘poo (shampoo, that is)
  • Never cutting our hair

    This is a more long-term strategy, but it can be a pretty powerful one. If we see our hair as symbolic of our relationship to a Power, then cutting it could be seen as cutting the relationship. So don’t. Let your hair grow forever, only trimming it as necessary to maintain hair health. This naturally slides into some of the Styling options listed explored below, too.

  • Shaving our heads

    This is obviously a polar opposite view of the “never cutting our hair” option above. There the hair itself as seen as symbolic of the relationship to a Power, so cutting it would be bad. However, if we instead see hair as symbolic of our relationship to the world, to vanity or attachments or a secular life, then shaving it off can by symbolic of both our rejection of that and of our putting our spirituality first.

    Shaving might strike some folks as more extreme than never cutting our hair, but it’s becoming more accepted for men and women every day. And don’t forget that different lengths and even styles are possible with shaving. It doesn’t have to mean “completely bald” unless that’s what you’d like it to mean.

Captain Picard, boldly (and baldly) going where no man has gone before.

Captain Picard, boldly (and baldly) going where no man has gone before.

Hair care can be as simple or complicated as you’d like it to be, and as you can see there are a ton of options that fall into this category! It’s also something that’s dead easy to include in just about any lifestyle. Bonus!

Styling

Regardless of what methods you use to care for your hair, how you style it after can also become a significant part of your practice. As a bonus, many of these methods will work under full veils if you’d like to transition between the two.

Here are some options:

  • Wear a Blessed/Sacred Accessory
    This is a rather simple approach that won’t draw much attention.
    Pick up a hair accessory – a jeweled bobby pin, for instance, or a hair comb – and dedicate that to whatever Power you’d like. Then wear it when you feel the need.

    How about a hair stick?

    How about a hair stick?

    There are so many options available that it’s easy to tailor our choices so that the color(s) and/or materials used in the jewelry are sacred to a particular Power. We can also do a formal dedication blessing, ask for the accessory to be blessed every morning during devotions before tucking it into our hair, etc.

    Don’t worry if you’ve got little or no hair, either – you can still get in on this! If nothing else, headbands (and the things we attach to them) are options too. No hair required! Other options include hats of all kinds, beanies, etc. Get creative!
     
    How gorgeous is this look?

    How gorgeous is this look?

  • Dyes

    The current trend of unnatural dye jobs plays beautifully into this. It’s hair styling via color correspondences! Do you follow a Power associated with purple and gold? Why not dye your hair purple and wear gold accessories? Scarlet, green, purple, brown, the sky’s the limit, and you’ll be reminded of the Power you’re honoring every time you look in the mirror. There are even temporary spray-in colors, or colored chalks, that let you do this for shorter periods of time. Those preferring natural hair care aren’t left behind either – natural box dyes, vegan semi-permanent colors, and henna are all options too.

    This technique might work out very nicely for some folks depending on their God(s) and their lifestyles. Considering recent trends it’s also likely to be less fraught to explain to the general public, although you might run into problems in the workplace.

  • Updos

    Want to save the sight of your hair for the Powers or because modesty is a part of your practice, but don’t want to cover it entirely? Keep it up!

    This very traditional approach can be as easy or complex as you like and definitely works for more professional environments. Crown braids. Buns. French twists. Snoods. Clips. Combs. Spin pins. Whatever works for your hair and lifestyle. (I don’t really recommend ponytails for this because they’re too free-flowing for me to consider them an updo, but you do you. 🙂 )

    Personally I’m a huge fan of the Scunci Upzing. It’s made of two combs connected by elastic cording (my preference) or elasticized beadwork. The elastic makes the combs hold beautifully while adapting well to various lengths and hair thicknesses. I can securely put my hair up in about 5 seconds flat.

    An Upzing used for a bun. Suitable for any professional environment, no? Works for a night out, too, and easily transitions between events.

    An Upzing used for a bun. Suitable for any professional environment, no? Works for a night out, too, and easily transitions between events.

As a bonus, almost all updos can be worn under veils. The Upzing I mentioned above is crazy comfortable for that!

Veiling (aka Covering)

Veiling can be loosely grouped into partial veiling and full veiling, but the lines between the two can be pretty blurry. For instance, lots of folks who do full covering may also leave their bangs exposed, or cover the crown but leave the back open. I define veiling as “anything put on the head to block visibility of the hair/scalp”, and that can include lots of options!

  • Hats and Beanies

    This is super easy, especially in the winter. Who doesn’t already wear beanies anyway? They don’t even rate a second look. They’re a little more noticeable in the summer, but there are enough styles that even that can be navigated.

    On the plus side, hats and beanies have zero learning curve. Put your hair up (if you have any) and pull one of these beauties over it. Done! They’re also an excellent option for folks who want full coverage but don’t have the mobility to wrangle a scarf regularly.

    A selection of beanies and pull-on hats from https://www.headcovers.com.

    A selection of beanies and pull-on hats from https://www.headcovers.com.

    Beanies provide adjustable coverage. You can wear them so your bangs show and your hair hangs out of the bottom, or you can wear them so your hair is completely covered. Not all hats are created equal in this regard, though. If you’re looking to completely cover all your hair, maybe check out places that cater to those experiencing medical hair loss (like the site in the photo above) as those products are designed to cover the whole scalp. Just keep in mind that they’re not designed for people with lots of hair.

    If you do have a lot of hair, and find that even beanies don’t accommodate you, consider a “slap“, or a satin-lined cap. These are especially good for folks wanting to pamper their hair and/or looking for sleep cap options. They also come in a variety of contemporary colors and styles. The video below shows the versatility of the turban-style slap, but there are other styles that do the trick too.

  • Wide Headbands and Bandanas
    This is a great option for covering regardless of how much hair you have, and can get the idea of covering across without being particularly note-worthy. The ones marketed as yoga headbands seem to be particularly wide, or you could go even wider by looking for the stretchy tube underscarves used by hijabis.

    A yoga headband.

    A yoga headband. It can be stretch to maximum coverage like this, but it can be folded or scrunched when less coverage is desired.

    Even better, almost all of these styles (depending on print) are completely unisex. Guys can get in on this too! I’ve seen the above style of headband on guys with longer hair and dreads, for instance.
  • Wear a Wig

    This option is very well established in Jewish communities, where married Orthodox women are encouraged to cover for modesty reasons. Wigs worn for this purpose are called sheitels, and ideally they cover the hair so naturally that it’s hard to tell it’s covered at all. It’s a great option for those who want full coverage in the workplace without drawing attention, it can adapt to various trends as needed, and styling it can be fun. Wigs/sheitels are absolutely not cheap options, though, so be prepared for a significant up-front investment if you want to go this route, with even more required for upkeep.

    A sampling of sheitels and their prices from http://www.sheitel.com.

    A sampling of sheitels and their prices from http://www.sheitel.com.

  • Scarves

    Scarves are the budget-friendly go-to for the majority of folks who cover, all around the world. They can easily be found for less than $20, in a wide variety of colors and materials, and the same scarf can be worn in a variety of creative ways. I recommend checking out Youtube for a plethora of different styles, as there’s no way I can cover even a tenth of the possibilities out there!

    What I can do is help with sizes. While technically a scarf is simply a piece of fabric of just about any measurement, there are some standardized size ranges that dictate the kinds of wraps we can do with them. I’ve listed the most common ones below to help you narrow down styles you might be interested in. I’ll let Youtube do the rest. 🙂

    • Bandanas: A bandana is really just a small square scarf (the size often used for neck scarves), but with a very distinctive “bandana” print on a whole rainbow of colors. They typically measure 22″ square, but a jumbo size of 27″ square is also available. Bandanas are great for headbands and partial covers, and make awesome skullcaps for folks with short hair and bald scalps.
      Wearing a bandana as a skullcap. A particularly masculine look.
      Wearing a bandana as a skullcap. A particularly masculine look.
    • Square Scarves: Typically larger than a bandana, square scarves used for covering generally hover between 36″ square and 44″ square. They’re great for those preferring retro looks, turbans, and Turkish hijab styles, but they aren’t as flexible as rectangular scarves when it comes to tying options.
      A Turkish hijab.

      Yes, this Turkish hijab style is done with a regular square scarf. The stiff front is achieved by folding the scarf corner-to-corner and inserting a flexible piece of cardboard or plastic in the fold before tying.

    • Rectangular Scarves: There are lots of sizes possible here, but the typical size used for covering tends to be around 28″ wide and 70″ long. Much larger than that and it’s unmanageable, while anything much smaller won’t provide enough coverage. Thinner rectangular scarves can make excellent sashes, though, that can be worn on top of another wrap or on their own for a pop of color/interest. These are the scarves most often used for both tichels and hijabs.

    • Infinity Scarves: An infinity scarf is a simply a rectangular scarf that’s been sewn together along the short ends to make a long loop. They’re not as standardized size-wise as rectangular scarves but the above measurements for good coverage still apply, so check sizes before buying. Infinity scarves make super-simple hijabs, can be used as tichels with a little work, and are especially nice for draping and pinless styles.
 

A Final Note on Timing

Please note that timing for all of these can vary. We can do any of these as frequently or sporadically as we’d like, on whatever schedule suits us and our practice. I fully cover every time I leave the house but prefer to rely on updos at home. Some folks only cover when at shrines/altars, or while praying, and others only uncover at those times. Some save it for High Days, and others on days sacred to various deities, and still others only toss a scarf over their heads when they feel a call to do it. Feel free to experiment!

The goal of all of these practices is to bolster and support your spiritual practice. If anything on this list does that for you, then yay! You’ve got a new tool! If it doesn’t, though, or you find that these practices are actually distracting, then by all means don’t use them. Tools need to suit the user, and one of the joys of polytheism is that we’re encouraged to find our own way as we go. May you find whatever best works for you!

Advertisements

The Magic of Tidying Up: Connecting With and Honoring House Spirits

Marie Kondo kneels to greet the spirit of the home and invite it to participate in tidying up.

“Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” is on Netflix right now and we’re at the time of year when a bunch of folks commit to reorganizing their homes. Put those together and people are once again talking about Kondo’s 2014 best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up“.

Organizational expert Marie Kondo and the cover of her best-selling book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up".

Organizational expert Marie Kondo and the cover of her best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.

Most Westerners think of this book, and the KonMari method it introduces, as just another approach to organizing the home. However, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is one of the most prized books on my spirituality shelf.

I thought it might be helpful to explain why.

The Sacred Home

Household deities are common fixtures in polytheistic practice. For instance, like many folks I maintain a shrine for the Goddess of the Hearth. She is the flame at the heart of the home and oversees all domestic matters.

There’s another type of household spirit, though, that’s often considered similar to or even a variation of a land spirit. We see them throughout the Indo-European world, albeit with different names and characteristics. Whether they’re Celtic brownies or Norse húsvættir or Roman panes, though, they protect and promote the health/happiness of the home and all within it.

Figuring out how to work with the Hearth Goddess is fairly easy. We have records, right? We have poems and descriptions and temple remains that at least give us frameworks to work with, and when in doubt we can reach out using techniques originally associated with other deities.

That doesn’t really work for house spirits, though. Honoring them wasn’t connected to a temple and there wasn’t a dedicated priesthood. Parents passed the lore of their family’s house spirits down to their children as part of other lessons. “This is how you mop the floor, which both gives you a clean surface and makes the house spirit happy.” No one bothered to write much of that down. For the most part we have to rely on the traces of practice left in folklore and fairy tales.

As a result many polytheists are uncertain about how to interact with our house spirits. I think that’s why so many of us tend to approach them through formal rituals and offerings. We’ll light candles for them, maybe leave them dishes of milk or bread, but these activities are all too often distinctly separated from day-to-day life.

From what we can tell, house spirits were much more integrated into the lives of our ancestors than they are our lives today. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to figure out how to reach that level of integration now, though. Where do we even start?

“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has an answer for that.

The Magic of Tidying 

Marie Kondo is Japanese, with a solid grounding in Shinto. She even spent five years as an attendant maiden at a temple. That’s important, because Shinto is an animistic faith. In Shinto, kami – sacred spirits – take the form of things important to life. This can range from inanimate objects like rocks to concepts like fertility. When people die, their spirits even become ancestral kami, who watch after their descendants.

shinto shrine

A public Shinto shrine.

Some of the things most important to life are the objects we use to actually live. In Shinto, our house and dishes and clothing and craft supplies all possess kami. Working with that kami is so fundamental to the whole KonMari approach that the system is not complete without it.

Animism and polytheism aren’t the same thing. However, in this case the differences are pretty easy to overcome. Whether we’re interacting with the spirit of our home/spirits of our things or a resident house spirit is more a matter of perspective than technique. And since Kondo emphasizes Shinto-based animism throughout her book, we polytheists can use her approach as a springboard for our own practices.

That’s a good thing, because the “magic” of tidying is that fostering a more harmonious relationship with our homes provides a foundation for harmonizing the rest of our lives. Honestly, in my opinion the organizational tips in this book are just a bonus.

Hospitality in Action

My approach to working with the Powers, regardless of type, is to always start with Hospitality. It’s something I’ve emphasized since I started writing this blog, and I consider it the key to both facilitating those relationships and living a virtuous life in general. While the mechanics may differ across cultures, the concept of hospitality itself is universal.

The three steps of Hospitality I work with are Being Ready to Entertain, Offering Food/Drink, and Showing Respect. For the most part, Kondo’s KonMari method does that. It’s just all blended together. Being Ready to Entertain flows into Offerings, which flows into Respect, which flows back into Being Ready to Entertain.

This integrated approach is why I treat “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” as a spiritual guide as much as an organizational one. Tips for interacting with the spirit(s) of our home/house spirit are liberally scattered all throughout the book. Better yet, they’re treated as a matter of course, not as novelties or something woo-woo. It’s just the way things are done.

Because everything is so well integrated it can be difficult to separate the threads out so we can look at them individually. I tried, though!

Be Ready to Entertain

The initial tidying up method Kondo promotes prepares our space for the spirit of the home. She clearly states that as a goal. “One theme underlying my method of tidying is transforming the home into a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” By clearing out extraneous things and keeping only those that “spark joy”, and then neatly and respectfully putting away what we keep, we create a space for the spirit of the home/house spirit(s) to fill. And since everything we keep makes us happy, we’re setting the stage for that spirit to be happy too.

Offerings

Perhaps the biggest difference between Kondo’s animistic perspective and a more polytheist one is that she doesn’t suggest offerings of food and drink for the spirit of the home. However, she does make offerings. They’re simply of service instead. That’s an approach even we polytheists can incorporate into our practices, and other offerings can be seen as a further enhancement.

At a minimum, simply maintaining the organizational system and putting things back where they go can be seen as an offering. After all, according to Kondo storage is “the sacred act of choosing a home for my belongings.” By cleaning and tidying with intent, the things we’d already do become sacred too.

Of course, intent can be used for everything, not just storage. For example, consider the following: “Folding clothes is not about making [them]compact, but [about] communicating your affection and gratitude for their continuous support.”

Folding our clothes with intent? Communicating love for our homes and everything inside while we tend them? How is that not an offering?

Showing Respect

Respect for the spirit of the home bleeds through the whole KonMari method, and it’s approached in a very practical way. There’s actually a whole section in the book on greeting your house/house spirit. “Greet your house every time you come home,” Kondo says. “Just as you would greet your family or your pet, say ‘Hello! I’m home’ to your house when you return. If you do this repeatedly you will start to notice your house respond when you come home. You will sense its pleasure passing through like a gentle breeze. Then you will gradually be able to feel where it would like you to tidy and where it would like you to put things.”

Feel odd just starting out with a casual greeting from the get-go? Kondo recommends doing a formal introduction prior to the tidying process she endorses, and explains exactly how to do so. We can use that technique even if we’re not fully on board the KonMari train!

I was worried that the Netflix show would gloss over this aspect to appeal to a more Western audience, but nope – in every episode, before the family begins tidying, Kondo kneels and greets the house. She explains that she’s introducing herself as well as enlisting the help of the home’s spirit moving forward. According to her, our homes want to help us if we let them. This is their formal invitation to do so.

Marie Kondo kneels to greet the spirit of the home and invite it to participate in tidying up.

Marie Kondo kneels to greet the spirit of the home and invite it to participate in tidying up.

By regularly interacting with the spirit of our home/house spirit, we become more attuned to it and can even learn to “hear” it. Introducing ourselves formally indicates our willingness to listen and act on what we hear. That’s absolutely a demonstration of respect, and it’s a clear and solid technique we polytheists can use too!

Listening for feedback from spirit(s) during the initial sorting, when we’re deciding what to keep and what to discard, is another way we become more attuned to the spirits of our home. Kondo tells us to hold each item in our hands, one by one, to see if it “sparks joy”. If so, we keep it. If not, we thank it for its service and dispose of it. It’s easier to part with something when we do it with a little respect and reverence. Thanking before disposal also helps formally cut any ties between owner and object in a very gentle way. Whether we’re listening to our response to the object, the object itself, or the input of our house spirit is a matter up to personal interpretation.

By the time we get to the hardest stuff to sort and part with – the sentimental items – we’ve become attuned enough to the voice of our home to hear feedback even for that. It provides support and understanding as we go. No wonder so many followers of her method claim that maintaining a tidy space is easy forever after! They’ve learned to listen to their house spirit and act accordingly!

Reciprocity

Kondo is very clear on the importance of reciprocity to a happy home. She’s got a whole section titled “Your Possessions Want to Help You”, and another titled “Appreciate Your Possessions and Gain Strong Allies”. It’s all spelled out for us. Caring for our things motivates them to care for us, resulting in sweaters that don’t pill as much and spills that don’t happen as often. It also contributes to a more harmonious life.

One example in the book is about socks. “I pointed to the balled-up socks [in a client’s drawer]. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?'” By folding socks in a way that lets them “rest”, she’s both serving their physical needs (why stretch out the elastic unnecessarily?) and allowing her care for them to let them care for her.

Later she says: “One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying ‘Thank you for keeping me warm all day,’ when they hang up clothes after returning home.”

Whether we’re directly thanking our things or the house spirit that protects and helps maintain those things is again a matter of personal preference. The techniques are sound regardless. And if nothing else, gratitude is always a useful attitude to develop!

A Place to Start

Shinto and the Indo-European-derived faiths are literally a world apart. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” requires us IE folks to make some adjustments as we go. However, it provides us a tangible, practical, and very specific place to start integrating these ideas into our own lives. That alone is worth the cover price!

Want to dip your toes in without buying the book? Check out the Netflix special! And as always you’re more than welcome to reply in the comments!

 

I’ve always enjoyed organizing and I’m a minimalist by habit and preference, so I didn’t really see the need to have this book in my life when it came out. However, it was Stevie Miller’s post over at Grundsau Burrow that encouraged me to pick it up in the first place. Check that out to see her thoughts on it too!

Libertas – Freedom in Service

For every blessing there’s a burden, and devotional relationships are no exception. The latest over at Gangleri’s Grove talks about some of the highs and lows in a devotional life, and I personally found that it resonated quite a bit. Check it out!

I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I […]

via Libertas — Gangleri’s Grove

Survivor? Or Pioneer?

*Note: I am specifically speaking about polytheisms centered around PIE religion and the descendant IE faiths. There are other polytheisms out there, of course, but they’re both a) not nearly as commonly practiced by those identifying as “Pagan” or “polytheist”, and b) far beyond the scope of this post AND this blog. I’m also American, so writing primarily for that audience. Thanks for understanding.

My deepening study of Proto-Indo-European religion is resonating through my life in some interesting ways. I’m constantly finding new bits of info or perspectives that challenge what I thought I knew.

It was through that study that I was suddenly able to see a perspective so ingrained in modern Paganism/polytheism that I didn’t even know it was there until I had an alternative for comparison.

It boils down to this: When we practice our faiths, do we see ourselves as Survivors? Or Pioneers?

The Survivors

When it comes to modern PIE-descended polytheism, Survivors see the world like this:

The Survivor Scenario.

At one point in history Proto-Indo-European religion ruled the day, at least for a specific part of the world. It was a polytheistic faith, and it established the ground rules for all the derivatives and variations that came after. 

Over time different descendant groups developed distinctly different playbooks, but they were all still for the game established by the PIEs. The Romans and the Celts and the Norse were all different from each other, but they retained their polytheistic roots and were built on that original Proto-Indo-European framework.

Then Monotheism came in like an atomic bomb, blowing all of those beautiful, distinctly different polytheistic faiths to smithereens. BAM! PIE-descended polytheism (with the exception of the Vedic, which took a completely different route) disappeared from the world entirely, leaving us unmoored and adrift from the traditions that came before.

It was a polytheistic apocalypse, and those of us claiming polytheism today are the last survivors. Like the folks in Mad Max or Waterworld, we scavenge the ruins of once-great civilizations for whatever glimpses of authentic meaning still remain amongst the wreckage, because however tattered those remnants are they’re still better and/or more authentic than anything existing in the here-and-now.

Gathered around a campfire in a blown-out hellscape.

“Back before the world ended, people came from all over for training in the Great Mysteries! How amazing would that have been?” “Right? SO much. I was born too late, dammit!” *tosses another stick on the fire, brooding as the sparks fly*

This view – the Survivor Scenario – is why so many Pagans enter their practice with a sense that they’re either reliving or attempting to revive a bygone era. They believe, consciously or not, that the Golden Age of polytheism has passed us by. For Survivors, modern polytheisms will always be fundamentally inferior to ancient polytheisms, and our efforts will at best get us within shouting distance of what our ancestors once had. We often despair of doing even that.

It’s a view of polytheism that forever looks back and never ahead.

The Pioneers

I’ll admit, the Survivor Scenario is the one I’ve been working with for years now. It permeates modern polytheism so strongly that I didn’t even know it was there until I started getting more into my studies. Once I saw it, though, I was able to see an alternative to the Survivor Scenario. I call it the Pioneer Scenario.

Pioneer Scenario

Most of us who claim polytheism today rarely go back to the original PIE culture (at least as far as I’ve seen), instead focusing on individual hearth cultures that came from it. Even worse, we tend to look at the entire body of knowledge belonging to each culture as monolithic. It’s like we think these cultures sprang fully-formed from the ground and didn’t have any growing pains at the beginning, that they didn’t have centuries to develop, that they didn’t have to start somewhere.

We never consider that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans were a migratory people, and every time they reached a new place to settle they were again faced with the task of adapting their practices to fit the circumstances of their new home.

When we see that, though, we begin to see Modern America as simply one more culture in a long line of them. We’re attempting to do the exact same thing with our polytheism our predecessors did – plant it in a new homeland and grow it into a faith that’s rooted in tradition but relevant to the here-and-now.

Like any of the other groups we’ve got a mixed bag of challenges and blessings that will shape how our particular polytheism grows, but to make anything lasting we’ve got to ditch this idea that our culture is inherently inferior. It’s different, to be sure, but it’s not deficient.

Once we accept that, we can venture beyond merely copying what worked for the other PIE cultures. Doing so won’t work, not in the long term, because it’s not ours that way. We have to seize the opportunity to create new traditions that both honor our PIE heritage and this new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves. Just as our ancestors did before. Otherwise we really will be the last polytheists standing.

Lewis_Clark

“What new adventures lie thataway?” “I don’t know – let’s go find out!”

Our challenges and blessings are both significant, though, and we’ll need to keep both in mind if we’re going to succeed in establishing a uniquely American polytheism.

As far as challenges go, our ancestors had the benefit of living in a world where polytheism was the norm. We don’t. It’s also true that we no longer have an unbroken chain of inherited knowledge for any hearth culture. I can’t go to my local Druid, spend 20 years learning the lore, and practice Druidry the same way ancient Druids did. That opportunity is long past. Only a tiny portion of all the writings that once were have survived the passage of time, too, and a huge swath of oral history is forever lost. These losses are truly tragic.

Instead of dwelling on the losses like the Survivors, though, the Pioneer asks “What unique blessings can this new cultural landscape bring to the PIE table?”.

And there we have quite the list.

We in the modern era have archaeology and psychology and sociology, biology and chemistry and physics, to deepen our understanding of our world far beyond what our ancestors had. We can use that to fuel our polytheism. We can share information between continents, in real time. I’m sharing this blog post using a system containing information that rivals the most celebrated libraries of the ancients, and almost 90% of our population can read it. We’re not just locked into studying one hearth culture to the exclusion of the others by virtue of our physical location alone – we’re in the enviable position of being able to study all of them, simultaneously, from the comfort of our own homes, and we can use that knowledge to inform our practices.  We may not have the depth of information our ancestors did, but I’m betting we’ve got way more breadth, and that information is available to damn near everyone regardless of class or family lineage. And while social progress can be debated, I am thrilled to live at a time when it’s more acceptable to challenge traditional gender roles, or openly live as LGBT+, or to hold any number of other individual perspectives that can enhance our collective experiences.

Personally, I think focusing too much on the Survivor Scenario hampers our ability to adapt, and it impedes our ability to appreciate where we are as much as where we’ve come from. Which makes it harder for us to build something that will carry us into the future.

I’m doing my best to reject the Survivor Scenario entirely. It doesn’t serve anyone. I’m consciously choosing instead to focus on what modern America has to offer as we take our place with the other hearth cultures at polytheism’s table. I’m excited to see what this branch of the PIE family tree will one day grow into, and I’m eager to do what I can to help.

What about you?

Prayer Ritual Basics

Since posting about my upcoming Prayer Ritual I’ve gotten several requests for a how-to guide. I figured the best place to start would be an explanation from the one who inspired me to do this, Stevie Miller over at Feathers in Amber. She graciously provided the below explanation and photos of her techniques. One of the things I most like about her practice is that she’s not afraid to experiment with different approaches, so you’ve quite a few examples to start with!

Starting an Open Prayer Ceremony
Stevie Miller

If you have spent any amount of time on social media–and really, who hasn’t?–you’ve probably seen a surprising amount of people asking for prayers. It might not occur to you, as it didn’t for me, until you start looking for it, but these requests are everywhere: sick and injured friends and family, job searches, hurting relationships, house fires, cars breaking down. In a circle of just a couple hundred people, things like this can be going wrong every day.

As a spirit worker, I seem to have something of an “on duty” sign that lights up when people specifically ask for prayer. Even if the people making the request are from different traditions than mine, or outside of polytheism altogether, I often feel moved to help. But since I didn’t want to impose my beliefs on others, I wanted to come up with a way to figure out who wanted that kind of help from me, and how I could offer it on a regular basis without it taking over my life.

A simple prayer ritual to Odin with an offering of mead and incense.

A simple altar layout for a prayer ritual, featuring an offering of mead and incense.

Enter the weekly open prayer ceremony. I let people know that I will be lighting candles and reading out petitions once a week and that I’m open to requests. Suddenly, those requests came flooding in from every direction–more than I even had candles for! People loved the idea, and I even got asked if others could pray for me in return, and if I wanted donations to be offered to any charities in return for this sacred work. I was also asked to write the article you’re reading now.

I also found that this practice has benefitted me. The routine is fantastic for ensuring that I’m offering to and talking to my Powers regularly. Social accountability–that is, other people expecting that you’re going to do something, and your posting evidence of it–is great for establishing and maintaining a good habit. It has also made me feel much more connected to others. Spirit work, especially when you serve a really niche tribe–and in my case, a discarnate, non-human tribe–can be an extremely lonely path. But with this, I’m using my skills to do good for others, and hearing back about how it has helped them. It has been starting to make me feel like I really do have a community, and they need me.

This picture shows the Odin candle, an offering of mead on top of a prayer list, and a piece of knot magick representing all the prayers made.

This picture shows the Odin candle, an offering of mead on top of a prayer list, and a piece of knot magick representing all the prayers made. She kept the cord on the altar for a week so that the Gods could watch over everyone’s intentions.

The Gods, Ancestors, and Spirits seem to enjoy being needed too. I’ve consistently gotten messages over the years, both intended for myself and intended for others, along the lines of “Ask Us! Come to Us when you are in need! We want to be a part of your lives and your works. You don’t need to do this all alone.” Calling on the Powers regularly for the people has strengthened my bond with Them too.

I wholeheartedly believe the world will be a better place when more of us are praying for each other and offering to the Powers. So if you’d like to start an open prayer ceremony of your own–which I would strongly encourage!–I’d like to offer some tips.

Define your community: Maybe you just want to open your ceremony to people close to you, or maybe you want to make it public. I post publicly on social media about it, and, odd exceptions aside, accept every prayer petition I receive. You may want to do it differently. Whatever you choose, figure out who you’re offering this service to and how you will let them know about it. An alternative is to simply gather up the prayer requests you see and hear in day to day life. You’ll be surprised how many you encounter once you start looking for them.

Set your boundaries: What Powers do you want to work with? Will you let people request prayers to a specific deity or spirit? What kinds of prayer requests will you accept? When will you accept prayer requests? What is your maximum capacity? These are all things you will need to define for yourself and your audience if you’re going to do open prayer ceremonies.

19787525_10155016198656939_8935482493483566081_o

A beautiful altar layout utilizing nine candles to represent the collective prayers said. Note the rune stones in front of the candles – she drew a general omen for everyone she prayed for and shared the results.

Create your ritual: I’ve found that it’s easiest for me to deal with open requests if I keep my ritual format simple. I do a simple invocation, I make offerings to the Powers I have invoked, I read the petitions of the people while lighting candles, and I thank the Powers for Their blessings. Sometimes I will add a component where I take an omen, such as a three rune pull or a card draw, or a component where I meditate and listen to see if the Powers have any messages for just me personally or for all the people being prayed for. That’s it.

Distance offerings: Since I’m praying for people who are scattered all over the country, I took up a practice that seems to be gaining popularity in polytheist circles: I promote offerings to charity in the name of the deity being honored that week. For example, the last couple times that I have worked with Odin, He has made it clear that He would like offerings in His name to be made to Alzheimer’s research. This allows people who are not present at your ceremony to take part if they feel so moved by giving something in exchange. Reciprocity is important in many traditions. It also helps you work on causes your Powers find important, which can only improve your devotional relationships, right?

Simplify: I keep the whole process simple because it’s easier for me to focus on the petitions, and to keep this process going without getting burnt out. For example, you don’t have to light an individual candle for every single petition. I sometimes use 9 which is a symbolically important number in my tradition; for many 3 is also a sacred number.

An image of nine tealights arranged in a pattern centered on an Odin jar candle.

Miller’s use of nine candles during a prayer ritual.

Offerings can be low key, like a nice beverage or some incense. I use Wednesday as my day of the week because that day is named after my Patron Odin (“Woden’s Day”). Keeping it on the same day each week makes it easier for me to remember (I’m lucky if I know what day it is!) and also makes it easy for people to know when their prayer requests need to get to me by.

After my prayer ceremony is over, I usually share a quick snapshot of the lit up altar just to let people know that their petitions have been spoken. I’ll share any commentary that I have from the rite itself, especially if I took an omen and want to share my reading of it.

In the future, I plan to work with different Powers and offer prayer ceremonies focused on particular intents, such as healing and abundance. I’m hoping to foster connections between people and deities or spirits they may not be as familiar with too.

I hope that this has been helpful and that you are inspired to start your own open prayer ceremony! Blessings to you and your communities.

Eclipse/New Moon Prayer Ritual

I’ve been inspired by Stevie Miller over at Grundsau Burrow. She’s been holding regular formal prayer rituals of late and I think that’s a damn fine idea. I’m hopping on the bandwagon and joining in. In these trying times we need all the help we can get!

That being so, when better than the coming solar eclipse? I’ll be continuing this practice on every new moon for the foreseeable future, but this seems like a great time to start!

solar-eclipse-clouds

This is an open call for prayers to be ritually made on your behalf on August 21st. If you would like to participate, please let me know your name and what you’re praying for so I can add you to the list and do the prep work. You can comment here, tag me on Facebook, PM me, email me, whatever makes you comfy. And feel free to share! I’m taking the whole day off to make this happen, so let’s get it rolling!

I will stop accepting prayer requests at 5:30a EST, August 21st.

*Note: I reserve the right to refuse prayers for anything I find ethically dodgy. Thank you for your understanding.

Ladies of the Fourth Branch: Goewin

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

CW: Rape. It’s fairly light in the “Goewin in the Fourth Branch” section, but much more graphic in the “Beyond the Text” section. Reader discretion is advised. 

The Mabinogi are a series of Welsh stories written in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their actual origin is much older than that, though, because the stories were based on the centuries of oral tradition that came before.

By the time the Welsh got around to writing these stories down they were firmly Christianized, and that Christian worldview was laid over the traditional stories to make them more palatable to the audience of the time. Luckily for us that Christian overlay is mighty thin in some places, and with some work we can pull it off the rest of the story too. When it’s gone we see that the entire thing is a sprawling saga rooted in Welsh polytheism.

My Lady is Welsh, so studying the Mabinogi is important to my personal practice. Her story appears in the book’s last section, the Fourth Branch, and combined with UPG gives me some important insights into Her motivations and character.

She’s not alone in that story, though. There are two other women in there too, each contributing Her own piece to the whole. Together Goewin, Arianrhod, and Blodeuwedd are the women of the Fourth Branch, and they’re connected by far more than a mere narrative.

But who are They? And how do They relate?

Let’s start at the beginning and find out.

Goewin in the Fourth Branch

The Fourth Branch opens at the court of Math son of Mathonwy. According to the story, Math could only live while his feet rested in the lap of a virgin. The only exception was when he marched to do battle, at which point he could go take care of business before putting his feet back up. In the first paragraph, we learn that the virgin serving Math was named Goewin (GOH-win), “the fairest of all the maidens that were known in her time”. Because of course she was.

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

The life of the king and the stability of the kingdom both rested, like the king’s feet, on Goewin and her chastity. A threat to her chastity was both an attempt on the king’s life and an act of treason. She was the most untouchable woman in the whole kingdom.

So of course, of course, that means some bastard had to take relieving Goewin of her virginity as a personal challenge. Enter the king’s nephew, Gilfaethwy. He went beyond infatuation with Goewin into full-on obsession. He couldn’t seduce her without bringing all kinds of hell down on himself, so he just heaved a lot of heavy sighs, refused to eat, and presumably wrote bad poetry in her honor while artistically crying into his wine.

Eventually, his brother Gwydion noticed Gilfaethwy’s distraction and called him on it. Once Gilfaethwy confessed his unquenchable thirst for Goewin to his brother, Gwydion decided to “fix” it.

I guess Gwydion’s solution was obvious once you remove all honor from the equation. King won’t leave the target – sorry, girl – unprotected unless there’s a war? Well, why not instigate a war then?

So they did.

Gwydion masterminded the whole thing, with Gilfaethwy riding his coattails (which honestly seems to be the usual way things went down with those two). The first step of the plan was picking a fight with a neighboring king. Once that was accomplished the two brothers sold their uncle Math on their version of events. Math, being a dutiful king who trusted his nephews, left his Court and went to win the war.

Leaving Goewin defenseless.

While the king was occupied, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion snuck back to the castle and together raped Goewin repeatedly in the king’s own bed. The next morning they went back to the battle like nothing had happened. The abused and defiled Goewin was left behind, a broken toy with which they were no longer interested in playing.

Many men on both sides died during the fight the brothers instigated (the Mabinogi calls it a “massacre”), including the other king to Math’s own blade, but Math’s forces were declared victorious.

Math son of Mathonwy fighting in the battle Gwydion orchestrated to rape Goewin. Art by Alan Lee.

Math son of Mathonwy fighting in the battle Gwydion orchestrated to rape Goewin. Art by Alan Lee.

Once it all wrapped up the king returned to his castle, eager to put his feet up again and get back to his regular routine. That’s when Goewin had to tell Math that she couldn’t be his foot bearer anymore because his nephews had raped her and shamed him in the doing.

She made it very clear that the whole thing was against her will, that she fought and screamed so that the whole Court heard it, but no one stepped in to save her. There was no one left in the castle who could. Anyone who could have prevented it was in battle with the king.

The king was shocked and, rare for both the time and a man of his rank, supportive. As her chastity had been stolen while under his protection he immediately married her, to both show that he still valued her and to reassure her that she should bear no shame for what had happened.

Then he magically punished her rapists, causing them to shift into three animal shapes over the course of three years and mate with each other like the animals they had proven themselves to be. They switched sexes during those three years too, so that each would know what it was like to be raped.

Once the sentence was served Math forgave them and welcomed them back into the Court, restoring them to their previous position and embracing them as kinsmen once more.

Math changing the brothers from wolves back into men.

Math changing the brothers from wolves back into men. Available here.

Beyond the Text

After the king says he’ll marry her Goewin is never mentioned again. We don’t know what became of her or what her life was like after that. Honestly, we don’t really know a lot about what it was like before! We can, however, infer quite a lot.

Goewin wasn’t born a foot bearer. Math had to find her. We learn later in the story that, when the king needed a foot bearer, he asked his courtiers for recommendations and then summoned potential candidates to the castle.

This tells us two things. One, to be recommended for the position Goewin had to have already been favorably known by a courtier in Math’s court. Two, replacing a foot bearer was common enough to have a system in place to do it.

The likeliest reason for Goewin to have already been known is that she was being dangled as marriage-bait by her parents. Aristocratic girls were married off pretty early in those days, as early as 12, so she would have been a very young woman when her name came to Math’s attention.

I can just picture a young Goewin preparing to leave her home to serve her king – who she may have never met – in a position of such importance. Was she excited? A little nervous? Terrified? Overwhelmed? And what did she do upon meeting the king to have him choose her from among the other candidates?

It states in the story that Goewin was “the fairest of all the maidens known in her time”, but I doubt that alone would have been enough to endear her to a king. After all, Math knew before he chose her that’s he’d wind up spending every waking moment with his foot bearer, and we all know a pretty face isn’t enough to make up for a slow wit or an irritating personality. Not for any significant length of time, anyway!

I can’t imagine anyone, especially a king, voluntarily saddling himself with a shadow who wasn’t at minimum intelligent, a good conversationalist, and kind. They spent too much time together for them to dislike each other.

Goewin was already in service by the time the story opens, so we’re not sure how their dynamic was at the beginning. Math would have been her official guardian, but how that manifested is up for grabs. Did Goewin see Math as a father figure? An uncle? An older brother? A friend or colleague? A star-crossed lover barred from her by chastity and magic? And how did he see her?

Regardless of how it started, by the time Math returned from the war Goewin trusted him enough to call out his kinsmen as her rapists, and Math valued her enough to marry her in apology. Neither of those is a trivial act.

Her time as a foot bearer would have been limited, though, and both of them would have known that going in. Foot bearers did eventually marry. That’s why they had to be periodically replaced.

I’m sure canny families with daughters who’d chastely served their king leveraged that into securing more favorable marriage contracts. It would likely be the only reason parents accepted their daughter’s serving at all. Additional exposure in the Court introduced maidens to many men of high rank. Being a close confidant of the king was definitely something a potential bride could bring to the bargaining table. And in addition to everything else, there would likely be a significant financial contribution from the king towards the maiden’s dowry when she “retired”. All of that together would allow her to marry (and her family to gain entry) into the highest levels of society.

That just adds to the horror of Goewin’s story, though, because those high social levels would have included Gilfaethwy.

It’s easy to overlook because they behaved with such depravity, but neither brother was an untried youth. Math physically couldn’t travel from place to place, for the same reasons he required a foot bearer to start with. Travel was customary for kings of the time, though, so he sent Gwydion and Gilfaethwy to represent him instead. They were trained and trusted diplomats, handling all the negotiations Math couldn’t physically attend and carrying news from their travels back to Math. They were trusted enough by the king to act in his name and held high in his esteem.

If Gilfaethwy had wanted Goewin for more than a night – or even wanted to honorably have her once – he could have asked for her hand in marriage. And he’d have likely gotten it! Nephew of the king, highest position it was possible to have in the government, a well-known diplomat … it’s unlikely Geowin would have found a better match short of the king himself. Sure he would have had to wait until Math found a replacement, but that’s a small price to pay to claim the object of your obsession. The story is very clear in stating that Gilfaethwy was pining away for want of Goewin – did honorable marriage never enter his mind?

Such a desire certainly never entered the story. Gilfaethwy instead helped his brother engineer a massacre and kill a neighboring king simply so he could rape the one woman he couldn’t immediately have. And somehow I doubt Goewin was the first woman either brother had raped, separately or together. She was simply the woman who had enough influence to have them called on it.

And not even having the ear of the king saved her from the pair of them.

Can you imagine what that night was like for her? I picture Goewin relaxing with the other women of Math’s court while the men were off at war. It was an extremely rare chance for her to spend time with other women without having a man’s feet in her lap. Maybe she danced, or walked the gardens, or simply sat around chattering the way young women do when there aren’t men around to listen in. The women would have been looking for ways to distract themselves from the battle they knew the men were off fighting, and what better way to do that than with the medieval version of a slumber party?

Into this serene female space came two men who weren’t supposed to be there. Goewin knew them, of course. They might even have been friendly. I’m sure the brothers had quite a bit of business with the king, and Goewin would have been there for all of it.

I have to wonder – did her inevitable closeness to Math color her feelings towards his nephews? Did she view them as extended family, or friends, or colleagues? Did they treat her like a little sister or an extension of Math or a piece of furniture? Did their attack on her feel like even more of a betrayal because she’d trusted them as Math did?

Whatever she felt for them, she couldn’t have known that Gilfaethwy had been lusting after her. He’d successfully hidden it from Math. Goewin wouldn’t have seen it coming either.

When the brothers banished all the other women except her from their presence she would have been confused, perhaps even concerned. It wouldn’t have been until Gilfaethwy grabbed her and started dragging her to the king’s bed that she would have known exactly what was happening. That’s when she would have started fighting, yelling and screaming and sobbing, but she had to have known it was futile from the start. There was no way an untrained teenager could have fought off one trained warrior, let alone two, and there was no one left in the castle with the authority or the strength of arm to stop them.

When they reached the king’s chambers it would have been Gilfaethwy stripping Goewin down, glorying in finally slaking his lust in her body despite her struggles. Maybe her struggles even spurred him on. Gwydion would have sprawled in a chair and smirked as he watched his brother rape a woman they’d literally created a war to get their hands on, a predatory cat waiting for his turn with the mouse.

The story doesn’t say when Gwydion decided to participate in Goewin’s rape. Maybe it was his plan all along. Maybe he saw raping her as his due, a prize he was owed for arranging things for his brother. Maybe raping women together was a regular brotherly bonding experience, their version of a beer and a game. Or maybe it wasn’t until his brother was finished taking her the first time, when she was naked and sobbing and bruised. She’d have been too exhausted and sore at that point to fight back much – maybe that’s what finally turned Gwydion’s crank.

The whys don’t really matter, I suppose. He did decide to participate, and by the time he was finished raping her Gilfaethwy would have been ready to go again. And so it went until the sky began to lighten beyond the windows. They could take their time and be as loud as they wanted. No one was there to stop them.

When they finished both men got dressed and went back to the battle they’d instigated. Mission accomplished.

The story doesn’t tell us what happened to Goewin in the immediate aftermath of her rape. Did anyone comfort her after her rapists had left, or tend her wounds? How many apologies did she hear from people who knew she was being attacked but didn’t try to stop it? Did she accept those apologies or find the words stuck in her throat? How many women commiserated with her pain? Were what men were left in the Court able to look her in the eyes when next she walked the halls? Was she able to meet their gazes? Did she feel vengeful and angry, or shamed and small? Was there anywhere in the castle she felt safe?

The next we hear of her is her telling Math why she could no longer be his foot bearer. To his credit Math is horrified by the news, immediately promising to make Goewin his queen. It was more than many rulers would have done in his place, no matter how much he valued Goewin and her service. Then he turned around and punished the two rapists in a rather elegant way, which is again more than Goewin might have expected.

When that punishment was served Math declared all forgiven and welcomed them into his home. Into Goewin’s home.

I have to wonder if Goewin was as forgiving as her husband. Somehow I don’t think so. No matter how well adjusted she was, it had to be difficult to be duty-bound to treat her rapists as beloved family and tend their needs.

Did she try to smile at them? I’m sure she had to. Were her smiles from her heart, or brittle? When she spoke words of welcome were they sincere or like acid on her tongue? Was she able to eat in their presence without feeling threatened, or sick, or fantasizing about killing them in their sleep? Did she pray for them to ignore her, or fend off their lustful looks or dismissive sneers when Math wasn’t looking? Did she see Math’s forgiveness of their crimes as a dismissal of her pain or did she eventually find her own peace with everything that had transpired?

Her rape forced her out of an honored position and shunted her into another vastly different role, with no notice and against any wishes she might have had to the contrary. Did she find it to be an equitable trade? How did it feel to see another woman sitting at her king’s feet, doing the job she was no longer allowed to do? Did she miss being a foot bearer and resent her replacement, or do what she could to take the next maiden under her wing? Did she long for the days of being included in all the king’s meetings and negotiations, or was she relieved by her exclusion and the freedom it brought?

Was her marriage night scary for her, or awkward? How did she and Math handle the abrupt adjustment to their relationship dynamic? Did it change at all, growing into a content marriage, or did it forever feel like something forced upon her? It’s likely that she slept with the king in the same room where she’d been raped, perhaps even on the same bed. Was she ever able to rewrite the bad memories with good ones? Did Math’s presence make her feel safe, or was even that safety taken from her?

Did she ever get a chance to flirt and tease, to be courted with music and sonnets, to blush over a man’s compliments and wonder if he meant them? Or did she obediently pass from young maiden to chaste foot bearer to devoted wife, continuously serving her king as her duty required without ever being allowed the freedom to grow into herself?

Above all, though, I wonder how she felt watching what happened to the next women to interact with Math and Gwydion, the women who came after her. Did their stories resonate with her own? Did she feel a kinship with them that went deeper than blood and duty? Did she envy their choices or scorn them?

What advice would she have given to Math, if he’d thought to ask?

Honoring Goewin

It both surprises and saddens me that there are three women in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, all with damn near equal page time, but only the latter two are commonly honored on Celtic altars. That’s even more upsetting when we realize that Goewin’s story set the stage for both Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd’s tales.

Thalia Took's image of Goewin.

Thalia Took’s image of Goewin. Available here.

In my practice, Goewin is the Lady of Duty and Honor. She represents sacrificing our wants and needs for the greater good, doing what’s necessary because it’s necessary and finding fulfillment in that.

She helps us understand the personal fulfillment that can come from fulfilling our duties and meeting our obligations. We pay bills because it’s a demonstration of our integrity. We call our parents even when we’re tired because it’s not always about us. We go to work and clean our homes and take the car in for maintenance and donate to charity and vote because it’s these actions that provide a foundation for everything else, just as Goewin’s lap was the foundation that allowed Math to rule.

It’s Goewin I turn to for steadfast resolve, for slogging through difficult times, for faithfulness in the face of despair, for trusting despite heartache. Sometimes the only way forward is through, and She understands that better than most.

Goewin shows us how to love others through service. She shows us that careful attention and devotion supports those around us, lifting them high without stealing their thunder. She shows us the value of grace and kindness and gentle wit when it comes to being a friend, the potentials of intimacy without and beyond sexuality, and how helping others creates support systems that in turn support us when we need them.

And She does all of these things while still sticking up for Herself when necessary and claiming Her due.

Goewin is ideal to call on for help with interpersonal relations and politics. She learned to negotiate and govern at the feet of a king and learned to influence the Powers That Be even when She officially didn’t have a voice. She understands etiquette and decorum, modesty and small talk, veiling our thoughts to keep the peace. She knows how to mingle, and persuade, and be the sounding board that provides clarity with the phrasing of a single question.

She also shows us that there is life after trauma. She shows us that things might be different, and might be hard, but better times do lie ahead even if they’re not what we originally imagined them to be.

Goewin is foot bearer and queen, maiden and wife, woman and Goddess. And She is the first of the triad within the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.