In Search of Ancestral Wisdom by Max Dashu


Max 2011

 What is the preserving shrine? Níansa (not hard).
The preserving shrine is memory and what is preserved in it.
What is the preserving shrine? Níansa.

The preserving shrine is Nature and what is preserved in it.
Senchas Mór, Ireland

In a world in extremity, we are searching for the wellspring, the inexhaustible Source known to all our ancient kindreds. Many of us have been cut off from our deep roots, and especially from the ancient wisdom of women, and female spiritual leadership.

My long quest has been to discover the lost strands of my own roots, the old ethnic cultures of Europe, and to reweave those ripped webs. I have spent decades searching for authentic cultural testimony about women’s spiritual ways before Christianity, before the Roman empire, before men commandeered all positions of religious leadership. My book, Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, brings together these ripped strands of the cultural web.

In the beginning I thought: they’ve destroyed everything, we will have to rebuild from scratch. But I began to find treasures in archaeology, folk orature, and medieval Irish and Norse literature. In the Icelandic Edda, I found the Völuspá – “Prophecy of the Seeress,” where the völva says, “The fates I fathom, see far and wide the worlds around.” Her prophesy repeats the ritual phrase, “Know ye further, or how?”

Völven, by 19th century Danish artist Lorenz Frølich. Note her distaff-shaped seidstafr, dozens of which have been found in Scandinavian women’s burials around 800-1000.

Völven, by 19th century Danish artist Lorenz Frølich. Note her distaff-shaped seidstafr, dozens of which have been found in Scandinavian women’s burials around 800-1000.

I also found the Norse practice of utiseta, “sitting out at night for the sake of evoking spirits, or for the sake of gaining knowledge.” They would “sit out” on the land as dreamers: gazing, listening, gathering wisdom. In Old High German this was called hliodarsaza, “hearing-sitting.” You could call it heathen Zen.

I found Old English gnomic proverbs that philosophize about Fate as goddess. They say, “Wyrd is mightiest.” They speak of “What Wyrd wove for me,” and of “time woven on Wyrd’s loom (wyrdstæf). Lithuanians also described the goddess Laima as a spinner and weaver of destiny.

I discovered that the witch’s wand had a historical basis, in the northern German wickerode and the völr or seistafr, ceremonial staff of the Norse seeresses. Scattered mentions refer to dream-readers, sooth-sayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain. A thousand years ago, Anglo-Saxon women were described as going out in the night to hold dialogues with the spirit of a fountain, “asking questions and waiting for answers.”

The priesthood forbade all this, and used confessional manuals to interrogate people about heathen observances. Some would ask, “Is there any woman who… ?” Around 1015, a German bishop demanded to know, “Have you done as some women do, at certain times of the year, spread a table with meat and drink and three knives, so that if those Three Sisters come… they can regale themselves?” These women were making offerings to the Fates.

The same bishop asked, “Hast thou come to any other place to pray other than a church or other religious place which thy bishop or priest showed thee: to springs or stones or trees or crossroads, and there in reverence for the place lighted a candle or torch, or carried there bread or any offerings, or eaten there, or sought there any healing of body or mind?” This is the ancestral wisdom! What people does not share this heritage of going to the land for healing, to the waters for vision? Of lighting fires and making offerings? But an authoritarian mindset demanded that spiritual practices be policed by an all-male priesthood.

The priests fought a long battle—never entirely successful—to stamp out ancestor veneration. The Dutch came to consult their witte wieven, “wise women” spirits of the grave mounds. In late 8th century France, people went for healing to “old monuments, that is, the ancient Sarandas [probably megaliths] which they likewise call the Greater Ones.” So says the Sermon on Sacrileges, which is what priestcraft called our sacraments: sacrilege, blasphemy, devil-worship.

Witte Wieven in Gravemounds, by Gerrit van Goedesbergh, 1660. The ancestral woman emerges from the mound to prophesy and heal.

Witte Wieven in Gravemounds, by Gerrit van Goedesbergh, 1660. The ancestral woman emerges from the mound to prophesy and heal.

Germans observed wakes “surrounded by pagan rituals,” burning grain for the dead, clapping carding combs over them, and sprinkling water under the bier as it was carried out. Irish women preserved the caíone, keening praise-songs over the dead who were laid out at the wake—a custom priests were still fighting to stamp out a century ago.

Britons had tree weirding and well-weirding, when weorðung meant “reverence.” The Irish knew the spiritual arts of imbas forosnai, “the wisdom that illuminates,” and teinm laida, the “heat of song.” And we also had dichetal de chennaib, “chanting from the bones”—from the core of the being.

So we rediscover the crone’s wisdom of the Dísir, the Cailleach, and la Vieille qui court par le temps (“who travels through time / the seasons”). We learn of Berthe, who proverbially spun at the beginning of time, and is also called the Swanfoot Queen and Mother Goose. We savor stories of the Miracle of the Bones, as the Goddess brings back to life the cattle that the witches had feasted on with a touch of her wand.

This Goddess of the Witches is attested in the orature of many countries. The priests inveighed against Diana, “the goddess of the pagans,” also called “the witch Holda.” This single mention ties in with Holle and Perchta and a broad swath of goddesses that women honored in their spinning and weaving, in rites of birth and death, and in the natural sanctuaries of lakes and caves and peaks.

It was these folk goddesses who were demonized in priestly denunciations of “devil-worship.” This ideology wrought havoc in the European witch hunts and, later, in the European conquest of the world. The diabolist framework is responsible for an unprecedented record of culture-destruction, the suppression of ancient wisdom ways of many peoples. But diving under that ideology, we can still find traces of the old ways.

Once we access the deep reservoir of European heritages, even if it is just a few sips, their connections to cultures in other parts of the world are revealed. For example, we find sweat-houses in Ireland, Russia, Finland, and Portugal. Over and over, we find incantation and smudging with herbs and medicine bags. These connections are shared truths, and recovering them is part of reweaving the world.

 

Max Dashu is the author of Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, an ethnohistorical sourcebook just published by Veleda Press. She founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970, and is known for her visual talks on global women’s history. Her two videos are Woman Shaman: the Ancients (2013) and Women’s Power in Global Perspective (2008). 

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Categories: Ancestors, Archaeology, Art, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Folklore, General, Goddess feminism

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20 replies

  1. Your book is like opening a case filled with jewels from ancestors you never knew you had.

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  2. Oh Max!! I look into your gaze and I find my own Oma’s eyes. SO many tears this morning reading your post. Follow the tears..that’s been my deep, amazing soul’s journey uncovering more healing and connection. I was praying to her right before I read your essay. I am going to meditate now and see what Spirit has for me. May Mother/Father God continue to bless you + keep you!! Shine on xx

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  3. Max, I’ve been telling people as long as I’ve known you that you know more about goddesses than anyone else on the planet. You’ve certainly done more research than anyone else. Brava! Keep sharing what you’ve learned. We all need to hear and read about our hidden and stolen history.

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  4. Thanks, Max, for this fine post — beautiful insights!

    Love this quote: “The preserving shrine is Nature and what is preserved in it.”

    I’ve been doing much research on the work of Georgia O’Keeffe lately, and if anybody can understand nature itself as a form of spirituality it is she.

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  5. It feels like we are in that silent speaking, pregnant night time and a new dawn is starting to show on the horizon. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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  6. enjoying and nourished by your work – spreading the word about it in Canada

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  7. So good to see even a tiny portion of your life’s work here, Max! Thank you for posting. You mention Berthe as being the Swanfoot Queen and Mother Goose. Is that in your first volume? I’ve been editing and now proofreading my own book, so although I own yours, I still haven’t had time to crack it open.

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  8. So many jewels, our gift from generations past, all around us. Thank you so much for unearthing them, shining them, and showing them to us so that we can pass on the legacy to future generations. I’m thrilled that this book that has been so long coming is finally here! I can’t wait to read it!

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    • Thank you Carolyn. My intention for this book was for it to be a sourcebook for all the hard-to-find knowledge that has survived (so much has not) in various obscure academic specialities, and often not available in English. We need roots as well as wings!

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  9. I will have to buy this book. Have been working on another book of poems–this time from the viewpoint of the ancient goddesses, the Mother, a few Biblical women, some ancient Muslim women rulers, etc. Much of the more recent goddess information focuses on Ireland and Briton. Once I discovered from my DNA that I was mostly Swiss (I thought I would have a lot of Irish and English), I am been trying to find out more about ancient practices there but have not found much. Of course, back in 700-1100 current boundaries did not exist.

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  10. The boundaries have changed, but there is continuity in the ethnic record, such as it is. Here’s a Swiss reference from chapter III: Luppa also continued to be used in Central Europe, as shown by Swiss churchmen’s prohibitions in a Zurich MS dated 1393: “You shall not believe in magic nor in magic ointment [luppe] nor in witchcraft [hesse] nor in magic cure [lachene], nor in fire gazing [für sehen], nor in measuring for healing, nor in the night women [naht frowen] nor in the cry of the magpie, nor in the twitching of the eyebrows and cheeks [as omens], nor even in the magic herb betony. All this is un- belief.”115 All this was folk belief, remedies, omens and divination.”

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  11. interesting, where I live (Denmark) there are plenty of bronze age mounds just next to ancient megalithic tumbs. I wonder if there are some ancient tradition coming from that distant past. I know about the Jætte or Jotunn….ancient people who lived in these places. They had different rules, and they were connected to nature assuming a more female like nature (following the folklore) the famous norse thunder god Thor, had several Jotnar women as lovers and even Loki was half god half Jotunn.

    Anyways in my home country (Italy) there is still somehow a form of goddess worship. Im not talking about la Madonna (mother of god) but a ugly old lady flying in the sky riding a broomstick. Her name is la Befana, also known as the good witch. Flying in the sky and giving presents to the children at the epiphany. She is actually bigger than Santa Claus at Christmas time. Apparently she comes from the goddess strenia but I cannot confirm this at present time.

    Anyways I suggest you to give also a look to the Sami people in northern Europe. It seems they have been there since the Mesolithic (there are still some debates on this in academic circles) but if correct, they would be the closest to the people mention by Gimbutas. Fun fact, they have a sun goddess not a sun god.

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  12. There are Danish traditions about the mound people, the bergfolk and the huldufolk, or the huldres. From one of my later volumes: “To people who gave them loans or other favors, the bergfolk gave magic plowshares, or leaves that turned into gold, or ale-barrels that supplied endless quantities of ale—until someone looked inside them, discovering that they were contained only mold and cobwebs.” And then of course the Hyldemoer, “elder mother,” who lived in the elder tree and who could be seen, so people said, by those who sat under the tree on Midsummers Eve.

    Befana yes, and her traditions are older than Santa Claus. Her name comes from Epiphania, but she shares qualities with other European folk goddesses, including the gift-giving in the dark of the year, also said of Bertha in some parts of Germany.

    I think the Sámi are probably the oldest people of northern Europe, and archaeology suggests that they once lived further south, but were gradually driven northward by later (Indo-European) settlers. Their sun goddess Beiwe also takes reindeer form, and it is she who is depicted at the center of the drums.

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  13. Reblogged this on Broomsticks & Cauldrons and commented:
    Credit given to author of blog- great story!!! What we need to hear

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