New Norse Site in Newfoundland

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak in Newfoundland. (National Geographic).

The discovery of Norse ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in 1960 proved once and for all that the sagas were right: settlers from Iceland and/or Greenland came to North America.

Now a new discovery on the other side of the island suggests even more of a Norse presence.

After studying the area and researching prior land surveys, the archaeologists have identified other characteristics that would have made Point Rosee an optimum site for Norse settlers: The southern coastline of the peninsula has relatively few submerged rocks, allowing for anchoring or even beaching ships; the climate and soil in the region is especially well-suited for growing crops; there’s ample fishing on the coast and game animals inland; and there are lots of useful natural resources, such as chert for making stone tools and turf for building housing.

But the clincher is evidence of iron-working, something no indigenous people did.

The Spanish Piper at the Ghost Town

Carlos Núñez in Galicia.

Carlos Núñez in Galicia.

I had long admired the music of the Galician piper Carlos Núñez. I bought a couple of his CDs—one of the collaborations with The Chieftains plus Os Amores Libres.

But to hear him live, that would be a big-city proposition. Maybe I would need to attend some festival in Europe.

Not true. It took just a drive through the mountains and then 25 miles of gravel road, ending at a Colorado ghost town that I never had visited (and me a native).

Up at 9,000 feet, it is summer-home territory, and the audience tilted toward hearty retirees in cargo pants and fleece vests. The later summer rains are upon us — as we crossed the Huerfano Valley, even that country looked as green as Gal-i-thia.

The former S-Curved Bar Tavern

The former S-Curved Bar Tavern

The venue is a ramshackle 1920s (?) dancehall and tavern — a little different from Kennedy Center, where the band will be playing later this month.

“We are so happy to be in thees . . . ghost . . . town,” Carlos said, drawing out the vowels.

And they — him, his brother Xurxo, the drummer; guitarist Pancho Álvarez; and Ontario fiddler Stephanie Cadman — launched into a hard-driving 90-minute set during which dancing in the aisles was not only encouraged, it was pretty near compulsory. (“E-stand-e up!“)

At times Xurxo’s miked bodhran was competing with a bigger drummer — thunder bouncing off the ridges of the Cumbres Range. And the wooden planks of the old dance hall bounced and thrummed.

huefano valley copy

Driving into the Huerfano Valley on the way home.

Behind the group’s appearance were the organizers of the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival, who for ten years have been bringing big names in Celtic music to southern Colorado to play in old movie theatres, ghost towns, and tiny schools.

The Mind of the Native and the Mind of the Witch

Typical Colorado foothills weather — from snow on the ground mid-May to temperatures in the 80s F. by the first of June. What is this “spring” people speak of? If you have hummingbirds and snow at the same time, that is our spring.

Some links:

• Rod Dreher posts on “How to see a ghost,” which is a little tangential for the blogger usually defined as “crunchy con,” but there is a connection to the idea of being embedded in place.

A lot of the post is excerpts from Rupert Ross’s book Dancing With A Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality, Much of it is animistic, as you would expect:

If, for instance, it is possible for a man to “walk” through the spiritual (that is, the imaged) plane, then he could not deny the possibility that others would be able to do the same. The dimension of each person which did this visiting thus ought to be able to encounter the corresponding dimension of others; suddenly the possibility of interaction with others on that plane becomes real.

Dreher is a capital-O Orthodox Christian (by conversion, hence enthusiastic), writing that he does not “subscribe to the pagan, animistic metaphysic Ross describes, but that it’s interesting to me to observe how much this overall outlook tracks with Orthodox Christianity and its belief in panentheism, which teaches that God is immanent in all creation.” But read his post for the excerpts and to watch him wrestle with what Ross has to say.

• Meanwhile, at his Paganistan blog, Steven Posch links to what he considers an accurate description of the “mind of a witch,” although it was not written from that perspective.

I liked this part:

Like all predators, a witch is a territorial animal, and to know your territory you have to patrol it regularly and you have to notice what’s going on there: what has changed, what’s changing, and what hasn’t changed.

It’s all in how you define “territory.

Investigating a “Grandmother Story”

Robert Mathiesen and Theitic, The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Providence, R.I.: Olympic Press, 2005), 167 pp., $17.95 (paper).Book cover of Rede of the Wiccae

• • •

Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.

Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.

According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”

This study of her claims has two authors. One, Robert Mathiesen, never met her. Now retired from the Dept. of Slavic Languages at Brown University, he has “a life-long interest in the history of magical practices and doctrines and alternative religions” Theitic, on the other hand, was Thompson’s student from 1974–78 and is now considered to be the historian of the NECTW tradition.

Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”)  that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”

Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated  Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.

But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.

It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.

Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.

My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:

  • A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
  • A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.

Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.

* Yes, I include Philip Heselton’s work here, as detailed in this book review.

Some Items of Interest

Some Pagan, occult, and academic news items of interest:

• I did not know that any of the “Group of Seven” were Theosophists — plus other influential Canadian Pagans and occultists in one list.

• “Unintended Consequences of the Affordable Health Care Act” for part-time college and university faculty. In other words, schools are reacting to Obamacare by cutting the hours of adjunct professors.

• I have been saying for ten years (!) that we need more Pagan biography and autobiography. So I was glad to read in The Wild Hunt that Deborah Lipp has written one.

• The Hopi tribal government is upset over an upcoming French auction selling some of their sacred masks. NAGPRA is no help internationally.

Historians say many Hopi artifacts were taken long ago by people who found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest

Because if a shrine does not have a full-time caretaker, it must be “abandoned.” The “vanishing Indian” and all that.

This is interesting too; the American government will help foreign countries recover their artifacts here, but does not protect ours over there:

When a nation like Italy or Cambodia claims ownership of an object in the United States, it typically invokes international accords that require American officials to take up the cases. The Justice Department, for example, recently sent two lawyers to Cambodia as part of an effort to help that country seize an ancient statue that Sotheby’s planned to auction in New York.

The United States does not have similar accords that it could cite in support of the Hopi claim on the Paris auction items. Several experts and activists said the United States had never viewed its own cultural patrimony as a priority because the country is relatively young, has long embraced the concept of free trade and has not historically focused on the cultural heritage issues of American Indians.

Read the rest. Continue reading

The Norse on Baffin Island

Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist discusses evidence of a Norse presence on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic and whether the people who were there were seasonal trappers or trying to establish a year-round settlement. 

Remains of Old World rats are indicative.

So what we have here is High Medieval Christian Norse-speakers gone native in Arctic north-east Canada. Interesting stuff! But as so often – don’t believe the headlines.

And he reminds us,

Note that while NatGeo’s writer calls the Tanfield settlers “Vikings”, Dr. Sutherland wisely calls them “Norse”. The sites are post-Viking Period, and even during the Viking Period, most people were never Vikings. That was a part-time men-only occupation, not an ethnicity.

The past is always more complex than we imagine.

Pentagram Pizza for April 21st

Week-old pizza from the back of the refrigerator …

• Here’s an idea for a novel: “two down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs who stumble upon the idea of reviving for-profit idolatry. Selling statues of household gods to the masses, and building a neo-pagan religion around it.” Um, I think that people have been doing this for some time.

Circus Breivik. Norwegian scholar of esotericism Egil Asprem analyzes the trial of Anders Behring Breivik. (He wrote about the shootings for the current Pomegranate.)

This trial will be about two things: psychiatry and ideology. Two drastically conflicting reports on Breivik’s mental health have already ensured this. Added to this, of course, is Breivik’s own clearly stated wish to be judged as sane, and have his actions confirmed as ideologically motivated.

Teaching classical philosophy to Brazilian schoolchildren:

I assured the students that until the nineteenth century hardly any philosopher was an atheist. Plato’s Euthyphro—with its argument about the relationship between ethics and the will of the gods—gets us into a lively discussion.

* This is called “edgy, irreverent outreach” by some of today’s Christians Jesus Followers. I think the pastor needs to look up “pathos” in the rhetorical dictionary, because he is doing it wrong. But to be fair, some long-ago saints would have agreed with him.

• Alcohol  “sharpens the mind.”  But “beer goggles” are real too.

Canada braces for more Danish aggression.

Your Aries Horoscope: Go Directly to Jail

Police in southwestern Ontario crunch some arrest numbers and note that they arrest more suspects with Sun in Aries than any other sign.

Const. Pearce, who produced the data, concedes, “Next year the list could be completely different unless we arrest the same people.”

Doing What the Spirits Request

An interesting post from Walking the Hedge on daily practice, medicine bags, and the demands of tutelary spirits:

That’s a whole other bother … fellow witches and pagans who don’t get it. Who think that it all must be done elegantly, flowing and … and not weird. Do something odd or awkward like blowing on your divination set or baby talking to a crow skull and all your validity goes right out the window in their mind. Nevermind that fact that the elegant shit is just for show and the spitting, swearing, shaking, whispering, sweating, bloodletting, pissing and such is the real deal! It’s supposed to look like the white witch on TV with her perfectly rhyming poetry and not the crazy voodoo chick with her eyes rolling back into her head on that documentary we watched once … right? Bullshit.

Read the rest.