Spirit Work

Old Frick, the Devil’s Grandmother: Goddesses in Folk Tales and Lore

Hansel-and-Gretel-witchOld Frick is a complex, mysterious figure in Brandenburgian lore, sometimes fearsome, other times helpful. Alternately referred to as Frau Fricke, she is one of a number of feminine spirits given the respectful title Frau (meaning “lady”) across Germany (Hammer 62). I first came upon Frick while researching the Norse goddess Frigg. Wikipedia cites “Fricke” as the Low German (i.e. the dialect of Germans living in northern Germany) cognate of Frigg, both ultimately originating from Proto-Germanic word *frijjo, meaning “dear, beloved.”*

The next time I ran across (a variation of) this name was in Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2, which contains a wealth of lore from northern Germany. She is listed as “Old Frick” under the section of lore from Mecklenburg, the Brandenburg Mark, and nearby regions. With this area being the region from which all my German ancestors immigrated (Brandenburg, Pomerania, and Berlin), I was especially interested in reading the lore that originated there. Frick in particular intrigued me — particularly her designation as “the devil’s grandmother.” The more I learned about her, the more my fascination deepened.  Unfortunately, information about her is scant and difficult to reconstruct (a common complaint regarding anything to do with continental Germanic polytheism). Who is she? What role(s) does she play in Low German lore? What can she mean to us now?

A Wild Huntress

Many spirits, including deities, have been attributed the role of leader of the Wild Hunt. In Germanic myth and lore, this includes Odin, cultural heroes, and a number of divine ladies (whom I think of as the Frauen). Frick is, of course, among them. Benjamin Thorpe states in the 2nd volume of Northern Mythology that

“Old Frick, or Fuik, is the devils’ grandmother, and has frequently been heard making a great noise in the night. Many have also seen, and at once recognized her by the large dogs, which she always has with her; for when they barked, pure fire has issued from their mouths and nostrils” (80).

A brief tale follows this description, relating how a peasant came upon Frick and her team on his way home from work. He is walking down a road at night, bearing sacks of corn flour on his back, when he hears the thundering of Frick’s wagon and the barking of her dogs. Frightened, the peasant empties the corn flour onto the road, which the dogs consume. The peasant hurries home and tosses the empty sacks in the corner of the room, yet when he wakes in the morning, the sacks have been refilled.

The Wild Hunt is a prolific myth present at some level in all or most European cultures. It most commonly occurs in the winter time, especially around the Twelve Nights, but it can pass at any time of the year when the wind howls and thunder rolls. It still haunts our secular culture today. It’s the ancestor, so to speak, of Santa Claus’s gift-bearing ride on Christmas night, as well as the inspiration for Stan Jones’ cowboy song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Grimm believed that, for ancient heathens, its passing during the Twelve Nights was auspicious, imparting welfare and blessings (like Santa Claus today). Since the medieval period, it has typically taken on a much more sinister aspect (as with the tale of Frick above). Overall, it seems to me to be fairly ambiguous — risky for anyone viewing it or caught in the middle of it, to be sure, but capable of both good and ill results, depending on one’s behavior during the encounter. In some circumstances, it may be viewed as a kind of test, and humble, considerate viewers (who provide aid to the hunter or huntress or their retinue) may be rewarded or at least spared.

For many of the Frauen (Frau Holle, Frau Perchta, Frau Gode, etc.), leading the Wild Hunt is arguably an element of their divine role as Mistress of the Animals — a title that places those deities who bear it in that ripe liminal space between wilderness and civilization, and signifies that they oversee the success of hunters in the acquisition of prey (such is the case with Diana, with whom Frau Holle/Holda is identified in old church documents) and therefore the health and success of communities. I believe this is true for Fricke as well, especially considering her connection to dragons and corn, which we’ll examine next.

Dragon Lady

The lore highlighted in the previous section has a couple of points of interest beyond Frick’s role as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The most important is the first statement: that Frick is the devil’s grandmother. Old Frick is a mysterious figure — information about her is not readily available, at least not compared to other Germanic divine women, such as a Frigg, Perchta or Holda. There is, however, a wealth of lore surrounding the devil’s grandmother, and this is a key designation for learning more about Frick.

Her company of dogs is related to this. Dogs are common partners in hunts even today, and many spirits who lead the Hunt are accompanied by dogs (such as Frau Gode, who was once a living woman with several daughters who were transformed into dogs due to their great — and, according to Christianity, sacrilegious — love of hunting) (Thorpe 74). What separates Frick’s dogs from the rest, however, are that they breathe fire and consume corn. Both of these suggest a connection to a certain type of European dragon.

Dracs, a kind of domesticated dragon spirit, are likewise often connected with grains. Claude Lecouteux states in The Tradition of Household Spirits  that “we can find the drac of wheat, semolina, barley, and, in Lusatia, that of grains…” (153). Keep in mind that corn is a grain. When dracs serve households as domestic spirits, they may bring grains, silver, or gold to their masters or mistresses — all related to success and therefore both wealth and survival. Dracs are also strongly associated with fire, reputed to live in or behind the stove and, when seen in the air above homes, to resemble poles of fire.

There is a certain Grimm tale, called “The Devil and His Grandmother,” that meaningfully brings all of these points together. The devil mentioned in the tale’s title is actually a “fiery dragon” who makes a deal with three soldiers defecting from a war (563). Far from total evil, he functions as an ambiguous trickster character. He meets the soldiers in a corn field — again, the connection to corn — and tells them that he will protect them from the war and make them rich if they promise to surrender themselves to him at the end of seven years. He offers them an opportunity to escape this fate: if they can guess the answers to a riddle he will pose to them at the end of the seven years, they will be free. One of the soldiers finds his way to the dragon’s home under a “fallen rock which looks like a little house” and meets the dragon’s grandmother (565). The grandmother takes pity on the soldier and agrees to help him. She tells him to hide in the cellar and, when the dragon returns home, tricks her grandson into revealing the answers to the riddle. So, while being intimately connected to a “devil” (which, Lecouteux makes the convincing case throughout his book Demons and Spirits of the Land, is really just a Christian term for a nature spirit), the grandmother is actually quite willing to help humans who appeal to her — using the same cunning on which the dragon prides himself.

Frick is never named in the story, but considering Thorpe’s (and others’) assertion that she is the devil’s grandmother, as well as certain details mentioned above (i.e. the connection to corn, dragons, and devils), it’s a reasonable assumption to make. This theory becomes even more probable when we look at other folk tales and lore from northern Germany.

The Witch in the Woods

There’s a tale from the Uckermark region of Brandenburg, Germany, called “The Old Frick,” which sheds a contrasting light on Frick’s nature. Echoing the more familiar “Hansel and Gretel,” two children wander in a forest and come to a door that leads to an underground cave. The children knock at the door and “Old Frick came out, a huge sorceress and man-eater. As she saw the children, she took them down into her cave and locked up the little brother into a cage… She kept the girl around to help her with the housekeeping” (59).

While her nature here is vastly different from the cunning but sympathetic grandmother in the Grimm tale, they both live in a cave (or, in the Grimm tale, a “house-like rock”) deep in a forest. Further details about Old Frick emerge in this story: she keeps a rod that can make wishes come true (i.e. a wand) in a bag, and she cannot cross a lake (although she is capable of drinking up all the water in it to get across). This aversion to water is interesting (and, so far, inexplicable to me), as many Germanic feminine spirits — including many of the Frauen — dwell in water and/or use it as a means of crossing into the world of the living. It may be an alteration by the clergy to separate Old Frick from her divine state. In addition, like Frau Harke, another Frau from northeastern Germany, Frick is described as “huge,” perhaps even a giantess (as she’s also described as a man-eater). As I mentioned, it’s unclear how much of this tale is impacted by Christian attitudes toward Frick, and how much was changed in the story to accommodate those attitudes, but I’m willing to accept that she has a dual nature, like the Alpine Frau Perchta and the Slavic Baba Yaga.

A Force of Chaos

There is a wealth of idioms in northern Germany regarding the devil and his grandmother. Folklorist Isobel Cushman Chamberlain has recorded quite a few of them and notes that the “devil’s…grandmother often has the popular sympathy, and does not always appear as an evil-doing or as an ugly individual” (280). One such idiom, “The devil is beating/bleaching his grandmother,” explains a sunshower, a weather phenomenon in which it rains while the sun is shining. One might be tempted, based on this idiom, to infer a connection between the grandmother Frick and the sun or weather, but when considered with other idioms, the overall sense is that she represents a portion of any paradoxical or disruptive event:

  • When a loud argument occurs: “The devil and his grandmother are the best guests in the house”
  • When things go awry: “As if the devil had ploughed with his grandmother”
  • When a whirlwind arises : “The devil is dancing with his grandmother”

It’s significant that all of these idioms have their source in the Mecklenburg region of northern Germany. These, of course, may be purely Christian in origin that have only the faintest roots connecting them to Frick. But the fact that, as Chamberlain mentions, she has retained the benefit of sympathy even as she is paired with the Christian embodiment of greatest evil is very telling — namely, that she once held a very important place in the hearts of northern Germans, and still does to this day (at least to some degree).

Who is the Old Frick?

With only these scraps to go on, it’s impossible to peel away the Christian lacquer from the pre-Christian understanding of Frick, but the medieval and modern vision of her is at least consistent: She is cunning and capricious, the progenitor of a trickster figure — whether a devil or dragon. She is associated with fire, hunting, and corn, as well as the chthonic realm. She can be antagonistic toward humans, even consuming them if not provided a suitable alternative offering, but she can also help those who appeal to her for sympathy. She is probably not someone you’d want to meet alone on a dark night, but if you need help out of a sticky situation, you might go to her home underground, deep in the wild dark forest, for some helpful sleight-of-hand.


*The linguistic connection to Frigg is interesting, although I hesitate to say that this means that they’re one and the same for a number of reasons. Of course, they certainly could have been at some point; but another possibility is that the term *frijjo was originally a title, not a personal name, that was used for a variety of goddesses revered in various Germanic cultures. Perhaps each tribe had their own Frijjo — their own divine lady, beloved for her guardianship and guidance of their people — and the Norse later applied it as a personal name for their own particular beloved lady. This is all conjecture, but it bears mentioning.

 

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Isabel Cushman. “The Devil’s Grandmother.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 13, no. 51, 1900, pp. 278–280.

GardenStone. “The Old Frick.” Goddess Holle. Translated by Michelle Lina Marie Hitchcock, Books on Demand, 2011.

Hammer, Jill. “Holle’s Cry: Unearthing a Birth Goddess in a German Jewish Naming Ceremony.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, No. 9, Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Spring, 5765/2005), pp. 62-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40326618

Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Inner Traditions, 2015.

      —The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

“The Devil and His Grandmother.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Translated by Josef Scharl, Pantheon Books, 1972.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851.

 

Witches Incognito: The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle

spindleshuttleandneedle

“Once upon a time there was a girl whose father and mother died when she was still a little child. Her godmother lived all alone at the end of the village in a little house, and earned her living with spinning, weaving, and sewing.”

So begins the Grimm Brothers’ tale “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle.” We learn later that this godmother has certain tools that enable her success as a spinner, weaver, and seamstress — gifts that she passes on to her goddaughter when the elder dies. When the girl picks up her godmother’s work, she finds that:

“It was as though the flax multiplied itself in her kitchen, and whenever she wove a piece of cloth or a carpet, or sewed a shirt, she always immediately found a buyer who paid so well that she was never in need and always had something to share with others.”

Not only that, but the magical objects also help the girl attract a prince as a husband. Impressed by her industriousness while riding through the countryside, the prince is lured back to her home by the spindle unraveling a golden thread of spun flax; the shuttle weaves a beautiful carpet of its own volition to welcome the prince once he reaches her home; and the needle cleans her house to receive him properly.

How does she accomplish this? By singing or chanting magical rhymes (much like Aschenputtel):

Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away,
And here to my house bring the wooer, I pray.

Shuttle, my shuttle, weave well this day,
And guide the wooer to me, I pray.

Needle, my needle, sharp-pointed and fine,
Prepare for the wooer this house of mine.

As I mentioned in the linked post on Aschenputtel (more familiarly known as Cinderella), these rhymed songs may be descendants of the Germanic magical technique of galdralag, or songs employed in the use of galdr, a significant pre-Christian magical tradition — the first clue that the unnamed girl and her godmother are practitioners of an ancient magical craft.

Trancework

What really interests me at the moment, however, is the eminence of cloth-making implements in magic. I’ve written before about the potential of these activities to induce trances in crafters, and it seems significant that in this story the magical songs — and the magic itself — only come about during the act of spinning, weaving, and sewing. In fact, the girl only remembers the songs when she is in the middle of her work:

“The girl sat back down in the kitchen and continued to work at her spinning. Then a saying came to her that the old woman had sometimes said while she was at work…”

This suggests that, if the implements are the keys to magic, and the songs are the fuel, then the act of transforming fibers into thread and cloth is the vehicle itself.

Tools or Helping Spirits?

One way to view the crafting implements is through the lens of household helping spirits. I’ve written before about the Old Norse gandr — essentially, a magical stick or staff that aids a magical practitioner in their craft — and its significance not only as a magical tool but as a helping spirit. It would be easy to view the spindle, shuttle, and needle in much the same light. After all, the girl addresses them through songs that are very much like prayers, and they respond to her wishes as though sentient. Rather than wielding them to do the magic herself, she requests that they help her, and they oblige of their own accord.

Germanic Goddesses of Spinning and Magic

There is a wealth of lore and myth connecting spinning and weaving to the divine and to magic in various Germanic cultures, and in many other cultures as well. The Low German figure of Frau Holle (Holda) is one, who rewards industrious spinners with gold and punishes the lazy, and who is credited with conveying the skill of transforming flax into linen to humankind. There are several stories of her bequeathing wealth to those who spin or help her in some other way, such as the less well known Grimm tale “Frau Holle.”  She is also called a goddess of witches, leading them with her distaff (another spinning implement) through the night sky in one variation of the Wild Hunt. Farther south in the alps of Germany and Austria, Frau Perchta fulfills a similar role.

Among the Scandinavians, we have Frigg, who has a strong connection to spinning and is reputed to know everyone’s fate but keeps it wisely to herself. The Norns, too, are spinners who, with their threads, shape fate itself. Even the Valkyries, those demi-goddesses of fallen war-heroes, are said to weave with a giant loom composed of the body parts of the slain.

Spinning and weaving, therefore, are connected to fate itself. Even in contemporary cultures, people refer casually to “the threads of fate.” This image of fate as a great loom, with all of us led by threads to various destinations and to each other, is still with us. With this view, it makes sense that magic — the manipulation of the world around us, of fate and hearts and minds — would be the natural domain of spinners, weavers, and seamstresses.

Can We Call Them Witches?

Nowadays, anyone who employs magic is considered by most people to be a witch. The term has been destigmatized for many, lumping in healers with curse-workers. I don’t really have a problem with this development, but historically, the term “witches” was reserved for those magic-workers who stole, cursed, tricked, and even murdered with their craft. In Scandinavia, they were believed to steal butter and milk from their neighbors with the help of a familiar spirit called a buttercat (smørkatt in Norwegian, bjära in Swedish, and snakkur in Icelandic) (Lecouteux 131). Interestingly, considering the subject of this post, scholar Eldar Heide writes, “In Northern Sweden and Norway it looked like a ball of yarn, in Finland it was partly made of a spindle or spindles with yarn on them, and in Iceland it looked like a certain kind of bobbin used as a shuttle in the traditional, warp-weighed loom (977–78). These shapes all are variations on the theme of “concentrated yarn” (165). This certainly ties in with the concept of textile crafts as magical vehicles, and the buttercat is a good starting point for examining the historically “grayscale” ethics of magical practice.

It’s my belief that most moral designations of magic are relative. That is, whether a certain magical act is “good” or “bad” is determined by the beholder’s perspective — whether or not they gain or lose anything in the process. For those whose milk (a key to survival, especially in the past) was being stolen by the buttercat, that particular magic was evil and its possessor a witch. But for the witch utilizing the buttercat, perhaps it was the only plausible way of receiving that milk; therefore, it wouldn’t be evil but a necessity.

Similarly, I doubt any readers see a problem with the heroine of “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle” drawing a prince to her house through magic, but it might be viewed as more sinister to the wealthier girl who was passed over by the prince in favor of the heroine, as well as to that girl’s relations. Who knows what they might have accused our heroine of? So yes, even in the older sense, our heroine and her godmother might have been considered witches (or would at least have been subject to the scrutinizing gaze of their neighbors, which may have been why they lived at the edge of town), and we can certainly consider them witches by our contemporary definition.

 

Unlinked Works Cited

“The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. Josef Scharl. Pantheon Books: New York, 1972.

Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2003.

Witches Incognito: Aschenputtel

Aschenputtel

One thing I’ve begun to notice as I look more closely at fairy tales is that there are many more “witches” in them than previously believed, and that many of the beloved characters that are portrayed as helpless damsels in distress actually employ quite a bit of agency.

Quick note: I put the word “witches” in quotations above due to the varied connotations the word has. Historically, not all magical practitioners were called witches; the term typically denoted a practitioner of baneful magic (blighting crops, sinking ships, causing illness in people and animals, stealing butter and milk, etc.) There were other words for magical practitioners who performed healing, protective magic — cunning folk, spae wives, wise men and women, fairy doctors, etc. However, after the witch hysteria swept across Europe and the U.S. and the passage of time wore away much of Western Europe’s memory of its magic, the word “witch” was applied to any and all magical practitioners — all magical work, regardless of nature or purpose, was viewed as inherently sinister, superstitious, and therefore forbidden. Since the turn of the 20th century, pop culture has steadily filed down the teeth of witchcraft (think “Bewitched,” “Bell, Book and Candle,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Craft,” “Practical Magic,” etc.), returning to magical practice some of its more mild, beneficial aspects in the popular mindset while still clinging to the words “witch” and “witchcraft” as umbrella terminology. In this post, I largely operate from this morally neutral connotation of “witchcraft” and “witches,” although I will point out a more sinister aspect of Aschenputtel that is as overlooked as her potent magical skills.

So let’s talk about Aschenputtel’s power. For centuries, Cinderella and her variations have been treated as helpess victims of domestic violence, as she is in the French version. While this is certainly part of Aschenputtel’s story — she experiences a lot of abuse, from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of her stepmother and stepsisters to the trauma of her father’s neglect — there is much, much more to her character. In the Grimms’ version of the story, Aschenputtel (roughly translating to “ash-rummager” or “picker of ashes”) employs magic not only to cope with the abuse but also to give herself agency for social advancement and even revenge.

Protection Magic

When Aschenputtel’s father goes to the fair, he asks his stepdaughters and daughter what they would like for him to bring back.

“Beautiful dresses,” said one, “Pearls and jewels,” said the second.

“And you, Cinderella,” said he, “what will you have?”

“Father break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.”

This scene is often interpreted as an illustration of Aschenputtel’s humility and simplicity — rather than material wealth, she only wants a simple token from nature — but I view it another way. Hazel is regarded throughout Europe as a tree of wisdom and protection. In another Grimm tale, titled “The Hazel Branch,” it’s said that the Virgin Mary blessed hazel bushes with the powers of protection:

as she set out on her way home [the Virgin Mary] said, “As the hazel-bush has been my protection this time, it shall in future protect others also.” Therefore, from the most remote times, a green hazel-branch has been the safest protection against adders, snakes, and everything else which creeps on the earth.

Considering Aschenputtel’s poor home life, it’s no wonder that she would want to employ some magic to protect herself from the horrible cunning of her stepmother.

How does Aschenputtel do this? She plants the branch on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears (arguably, a form of offering), and it grows into a tree. She prays to this tree every day, and whenever she expresses a wish, a white bird alights on the tree and grants her wish. I’ve written before about the connection between sticks and spirit familiars, and it’s clear that the two are connected in “Aschenputtel.” The hazel tree functions as a channel for Aschenputtel to communicate with her familiar spirit, the white bird, which may in fact be her fylgia, considering its proximity to her mother’s grave and the ancestral and fortune-oriented nature of fylgjur.

Magic Songs and Animal Familiars

When Aschenputtel bargains with her stepmother to go to the king’s festival and her stepmother levies the condition that she must first pick lentils from the ashes on the hearth in two hours’ time, Aschenputtel calls on birds to help her:

“You tame pigeons, you turtle-doves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick

                                                             the good into the pot,
                                                             the bad into the crop.”

Then two white pigeons came in by the kitchen window, and afterwards the turtle-doves, and at last all the birds beneath the sky, came whirring and crowding in, and alighted amongst the ashes. And the pigeons nodded with their heads and began pick, pick, pick, pick, and the rest began also pick, pick, pick, pick, and gathered all the good grains into the dish. Hardly had one hour passed before they had finished, and all flew out again.

Aschenputtel’s ability to command “all the birds beneath the sky,” led again by white birds, to do her bidding is undeniably magical. In addition, her call bears a striking resemblance to galdralag, the Norse magical poetic meter, with its alliteration (“tame…turtle,” “birds beneath”) and the echoing rhyme of the last two lines. Galdralag was employed in galdr, a type of magic that involved singing or chanting incantations. Galdr is attested in sagas and eddas as a method of preventing fires, hastening childbirth, raising the dead, and countless other boons. It could certainly be used to call on animals for aid in accomplishing tasks, such as the ones set before Aschenputtel.

When her stepmother and stepsisters go to the festival without her, she goes again to the hazel and appeals to the white bird for help:

“Shiver and quiver, my little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me.”

Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver. She put on the dress with all speed, and went to the wedding.

Once again, she uses magic to acquire what she cannot by other means, and she does so with metered and rhymed couplets and through the aid of a familiar — all traditional methods of witchcraft.

The two white pigeons that arrived to help her pick out the lentils remain in her service throughout the story, later perching on the hazel tree (like the first white bird, and perhaps being a variation of it) and acting as truth-tellers for the prince:

[The prince and the first stepsister] were obliged, however, to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried,

“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
there’s blood within the shoe,
the shoe it is too small for her,
the true bride waits for you.”

Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was trickling from it.

The same happens with the second stepsister. When Aschenputtel rides in the carriage with the prince, the pigeons alter their tune accordingly:

“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
no blood is in the shoe,
the shoe is not too small for her,
the true bride rides with you.”

And when they had cried that, the two came flying down and placed themselves on Cinderella’s shoulders, one on the right, the other on the left, and remained sitting there.

It should be clear by this point that these birds, like the first white bird, are not ordinary birds but familiar spirits. They sing in human language and are strongly associated with the hazel branch-turned-tree, which (as I’ve mentioned) acts as a kind of spiritual channel in much the same the way that witches’ staves, brooms, and wands traditionally do. The pigeons serve as spiritual emissaries to protect Aschenputtel and carry out her wishes.

Illusion and Revelation

Another of Aschenputtel’s powers that is often overlooked is her ability to disguise herself from her stepmother and sisters at the festival.

Her step-sisters and the step-mother however did not know her, and thought she must be a foreign princess, for she looked so beautiful in the golden dress. They never once thought of Cinderella, and believed that she was sitting at home in the dirt, picking lentils out of the ashes.

While this is usually attributed to their vanity and low opinion of Aschenputtel, this seems a weak explanation to me. Certainly, her stepmother and stepsisters had seen her clean and in fine clothes when their families first joined together; why wouldn’t they recognize her now? What’s even more astounding is that they assume her to be “a foreign princess,” which is quite a departure from her actual appearance — not only does she not look like herself, but she looks foreign.

Aschenputtel’s ability to delude her enemies is contrasted by the prince’s recognition of her when he visits her house and bids her to try on the slipper:

And when she rose up and the king’s son looked at her face he recognized the beautiful maiden who had danced with him and cried, “That is the true bride.”

The only believable explanation for this selective delusion is the use of magic to mask or reveal her identity at will. Seidr practitioners were renowned for their ability to confuse minds and deceive sight. As the Viking Answer Lady writes:

The use of seiðr to affect the mind, with forgetfulness, delusion, illusion, or fear, a sudden mental or even a physical fog is the hallmark of this type of magic. This is called sjónhverfing, the magical delusion or “deceiving of the sight” where the seið-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are (Jochens, Old Norse Magic and Gender, 313).

She goes on to explain that these powers are well-attested in various sagas, such as the Eyrbyggja saga:

As the men approached the house, Katla told Odd to sit beside her without moving, while she sat spinning yarn. Arnkell and his men searched the house, but saw nothing beside Katla but a distaff. They returned a second time, to find Katla in the porch; she was combing Odd’s hair, but it seemed to them that she was grooming her goat. The third time Odd was lying in a heap of ashes, and they thought it was Katla’s boar sleeping there.

Similarly, Aschenputtel makes herself appear as a foreign princess at the festival in the eyes of her stepmother and stepsisters, but the prince sees her as she truly is, and he recognizes her as soon as he places the lost slipper on her foot.

Aschenputtel the Witch

Finally, let’s return to the role of the pigeons as emissaries carrying out Aschenputtel’s wishes. After picking out lentils from the ashes and revealing the truth to the prince, the birds also perform another service on Aschenputtel’s behalf:

When the wedding with the king’s son was to be celebrated, the two false sisters came and wanted to get into favor with Cinderella and share her good fortune. When the betrothed couple went to church, the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards as they came back the elder was at the left, and the younger at the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness all their days.

Far from being the selfless, forgiving soul that other versions of the tale present her to be, Aschenputtel exacts revenge for her years of abuse. This is certainly an instance where the term “witchcraft” is 100% applicable — Aschenputtel reveals herself to be capable of doing harm as well as other, more beneficent forms of magic previously shown, placing her well within the historical context of powerful, ethically and morally ambiguous magical practitioners.

Far from the helpless victim rescued from poverty and mistreatment by a prince, Aschenputtel shows cunning, agency, magical knowledge, and even a desire to exact revenge on those who hurt her. She wins her prince through her own subversive magical efforts, rather than by luck and beauty alone. She casts illusions as well as reveals truths. Her helping spirits and the wild birds that come to her aid do so not because of her innocence but because she has the knowledge and power to call them. Aschenputtel, rather than a damsel in distress, is a powerful figure — a wise woman, a witch — and should be honored as one.

Mirror, Mirror: Glass as a Magical Tool in Fairy Tales

snowwhite

Thus, her mirror represents the ability to see through the ‘veil’ that mystics say separates the visible and spirit worlds. – Skye Alexander, Mermaids (200).

When I spirit journey, more times than not I enter the Otherworld through glass of some sort — a mirror or a window — a technique that has a long history in European folklore. Mirrors and glass objects have been viewed as passages for spirits by many, many peoples, and there is lore all over the world about spirits being trapped in mirrors or glass bottles or passing in and out of the physical world through mirrors. Claude Lecouteux in Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies explains this association through glass’s — like still water’s — ability to reflect images and the correlation of the image with the soul. This idea has merit, which I’ll go into with more depth later. But first, I’d like to take a look at the various glass objects, especially mirrors, in European fairy tales.

Scrying Mirrors

Scrying is a form of divination that involves gazing into an object to induce a light trance, through which one receives images (or other sensory information) that inform the scryer of remote events of the past, present, and future. Scrying has been done with many tools, the most popular today being crystal balls, flames, and still water.

Mirrors are slightly less popular clairvoyant tools, but the association remains strong. After all, what would “Snow White” be without the Queen’s magic mirror?

“[The queen] had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said:

                               ‘Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall,
                               Who in this land is the fairest of all?’

the looking-glass answered:

                              ‘Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!’

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth” (Stern 250).

In most versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” including a German one called “Summer Garden and Winter Garden,” Beauty uses a magic mirror to look after her family:

“One day she said to [the beast], ‘I am afraid, and don’t know why. It seems to me that my father or one of my sisters is sick. Couldn’t I see them just once?’

“So the beast led her to a mirror and said, ‘Look inside.’

“She looked into the mirror, and it was as though she were at home. She saw her living room and her father. He really was sick, from a broken heart, because he held himself guilty that his dearest child had been taken away by a wild beast and surely had been eaten up… She also saw her two sisters sitting on the bed and crying.”

In both instances, a mirror is used to gain information that would otherwise be unknowable. These episodes in fairy tales convey a pervasive belief in European lore of the power of mirrors to see not only the true reflection of the subject who looks into it, but all truth past, present, and future. Lecouteux cites mirror-based clairvoyant practices from various European cultures, including this from Oldenburg, Germany:

If, between eleven o’ clock and midnight — the hour of spirits (Geisterstunde) — an individual appeared in front of a mirror while holding a lighted candle in each hand, and if this person shouted his own name three times, he would be able to see into the future. (146)

Lecouteux asserts, quite convincingly, that the ability to see into the future in this way originates in the invocation of the Double (the individual’s “other” self, part of a multi-spirit soul conception) via the mirror. Within this framework, the Double is invoked by the shouting of one’s name at one’s own reflection. Therefore, it is not the mirror itself that provides insight but the spirit that is invoked through it. In essence, the mirror is a tool for accessing one’s own innate spiritual power. Perhaps, then, when the Queen in “Snow White” and Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast” look into a mirror to see the future, it is their Doubles who race from the other side to retrieve the information they seek.

Bindings and Barriers

The tale of “Snow White” shows not just one but two uses for glass. When the Queen becomes jealous that Snow White is fairer and kills her with a poisoned apple, Snow White’s dwarf friends build a glass coffin for her. This coffin preserves Snow White, keeping her beautiful and unchanged for “a long, long time,” as if she were only asleep (256). The glass, then, acts as a barrier against harsh elements as well as the decay that follows death, preserving her body until the prince comes and (inadvertently) restores her to life. 

“The Glass Coffin” has another maiden imprisoned by a malevolent magical worker, this time a spurned lover:

“I fell to the ground, and the stranger muttered some words which deprived me of consciousness. When I came to my senses again I found myself in this underground cave in a glass coffin. The magician appeared once again, and said he had changed my brother into a stag, my castle with all that belonged to it, diminished in size by his arts, he had shut up in the other glass chest, and my people, who were all turned into smoke, he had confined in glass bottles. He told me that if I would now comply with his wish [to marry], it would be an easy thing for him to put everything back in its former state, as he had nothing to do but open the vessels, and everything would return once more to its natural form. I answered him as little as I had done the first time. He vanished and left me in my prison, in which a deep sleep came on me.” (Stern 677)

In the end, the young tailor who comes upon the maiden hears her story and opens the glass cases to free the maiden, her castle, and her people who transform from smoke to their original forms.

In “The Seven Ravens,” a princess goes looking for her seven brothers who were turned into ravens, in the hopes of metamorphosing them back into humans and bringing them home.

“And now she went continually onwards, far, far, to the very end of the world. Then she came to the sun, but it was too hot and terrible, and devoured little children. Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold, and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child, it said: ‘I smell, I smell the flesh of men.’ At this she ran swiftly away, and came to the stars, which were kind and good to her, and each of them sat on its own particular little chair. But the morning star arose, and gave her the drumstick of a chicken, and said: ‘If you have not that drumstick you can not open the Glass Mountain, and in the Glass Mountain are your brothers.’

“The maiden took the drumstick, wrapped it carefully in a cloth, and went onwards again until she came to the Glass Mountain. The door was shut, and she thought she would take out the drumstick; but when she undid the cloth, it was empty, and she had lost the good star’s present. What was she to do now? She wished to rescue her brothers, and had no key to the Glass Mountain. The good sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, put it in the door, and succeeded in opening it.”

She then finds her brothers in raven form and appears before them; they are transformed by the sight of her; and they all return home together.

The Raven” is a similar tale but with the roles reversed: a maiden is imprisoned in a golden castle on a glass mountain. Her raven-formed Double appears to a man walking through the woods and tells him her story, and he promises to rescue her. After failing the initial trial set before him, he sets out to find the princess and rescue her another way. While on his journey, he meets a giant who tells him where the princess is located.

“The man journeyed on day and night till he reached the golden castle of Stromberg. He found it situated, however, on a glass mountain, and looking up from the foot he saw the enchanted maiden drive round her castle and then go inside. He was overjoyed to see her, and longed to get to the top of the mountain, but the sides were so slippery that every time he attempted to climb he fell back again.”

Fortunately, he meets three robbers who have stolen three magical items: a stick that will open any door that it strikes, a cloak of invisibility, and a horse that will carry its rider across any obstacle. The man tricks the robbers into giving him all of the items, and he rides up to the glass castle, opens the castle doors, and sneaks invisibly to the princess’s chambers to return a ring she’d given him as proof that he had come to rescue her. She goes outside, where she finds him waiting for her on the magical horse, and they ride off together to be married the next day.

While the above stories show good people held captive by glass, there are other stories involving bad spirits trapped in glass as well, such as “The Spirit in the Bottle”:

“The son [of a poor woodcutter]…went into the forest…until at last he came to a great dangerous-looking oak… Then all at once it seemed to him that he heard a voice. He listened and became aware that someone was crying in a very smothered voice: ‘Let me out, let me out! … I am down here amongst the roots of the oak tree…’ The schoolboy began to loosen the earth under the tree, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little hollow. He lifted it up and held it against the light, and then saw a creature shaped like a frog, springing up and down in it. ‘Let me out! Let me out!’ it cried anew, and the boy, thinking no evil, drew the cork out of the bottle. Immediately the spirit ascended from it, and began to grow, and grew so fast that in a very few moments he stood before the boy, a terrible fellow as big as half the tree.” (Stern 459-460)

Lecouteux mentions several similar mirror-related practices in European lore, including:

Not long ago people in Germany were persuaded that reading the Bible in front of a mirror would chase ghosts out of the house… the mirror has been seen as an open window to the other world, but also as a trap for the soul. In all of Europe, there was a very telling custom: that of covering the mirrors in a home where someone had just died. It was feared that the soul might remain stuck in them, or else that the spirit of the dead person would be reflected, resulting in dire consequences. (146)

Clearly, in European lore-based magic, glass — mirrors, bottles, cases, and coffins — can be used to protect and preserve, to bind and imprison. 

Reflection and the Spirit Double

Lecouteux notes a belief in many cultures that the “soul passes out of its possessor, totally or in part, into every representation, pictorial or otherwise, which explains the fear felt by many people when they are faced with their own image… There is a second reason for this fear, closely linked to the first: If the soul passes into the image of the body, anyone who has sufficient knowledge and science can act on the living through the channel of this Double” (143). So perhaps it is glass’s reflective nature — which reveals to us and gives us access to our spirit Doubles — that gives it the qualities listed above.

Referring to mirror images specifically, Lecouteux cites German author E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “A New Year’s Eve Adventure, a.k.a. The Lost Reflection”:

“How could you keep my reflection?” he continued. “It is inseparable from me. It accompanies me everywhere, is sent back to me by all calm and pure water, by all polished surfaces.”

“So,” says Giuletta, “even in this aspect, even in this dream of your being that stays in this mirror here, you refuse to give to me, you who just a moment ago were yet speaking  of belonging to me body and soul!”

“If I have to leave, may my reflection remain in your possession for ever and eternity!”

Giuletta held out her arms to the mirror. Erasme saw his image, independent of the movements of his body; he saw it slip into Giuletta’s arms and disappear with her into the middle of a strange vapor. (142)

At least in European folk belief, mirrors are passages and vehicles by which we can interact with our own and others’ spirits. As Lecouteux writes, “Connecting us to the other world — or rather, in accordance with the mind of our time, to the hidden side of the universe — the psychic Double has knowledge of the destinies of others through their potential alter egos” (129). With mirrors, Doubles can be both sent off and possessed, and they can be contacted and utilized for magical and prophetic purposes. Thus, the mirror functions as a medium through which we can come face-to-face with not only our reflections but our other Selves and the unseen world as a whole — and glass is a tool by which we can harness and direct those powers.

Bibliography

Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Trans. Clare Frock. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2003. Print.

Stern, James, ed. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.

To Ride Through the Air on a Very Fine Gandr: The Staff as a Magical Tool in Fairy Tales

esbenandthewitch

I’ve been reading Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages, which I was lucky enough to find at my local library. It’s a fantastic examination of the Double (also variously called the fylgja, familiar, fetch, etc., depending on where you’re looking) and the role it played in medieval and premedieval pagan magical practice in Germanic cultures (primarily Scandinavia, but also dipping down occasionally into Germany). Lecouteux mentions the role of the gandr, which is an Old Norse word alternately (or perhaps simultaneously) meaning “stick” or “spirit.” The term gandreið can be translated literally as “stick ride” but was used to indicate the witch’s ride or spirit journey. Scholars believe that this is the source of the belief  that witches ride on brooms (or staves or distaffs). It could also be the source of the familiar nursery rhyme:

Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander
Would ride through the air on a very fine gander.

With “gander” being understood as a transformation of the word gandr, it’s pretty clear that this little rhyme hearkens to old beliefs in the witches’ ride. The play on goose/gander works, too — if the gandr is more than a stick but a spirit familiar, or Double as Lecouteux calls it, it may very well take the shape of a gander, or male goose.

The Gandr in Folk Tales

Magic sticks have a long history in the folk tales of the Germanic people — from Scandinavia to Germany to Anglo-Saxon England — and their use and treatment in these stories provides insight into clinging pre-Christian beliefs native to northern and central Europe. 

The featured image at the top of this post comes from A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders, from the Danish fairy tale “Esben and the Witch.” Esben is the youngest of twelve brothers, and because he’s small and weaker than the rest, his father resents him. When the eleven older brothers are each given a horse, some food and drink, and money to set off in search of fortune better than their father’s farm can provide, Esben asks for his share, too. His father bitterly denies him, saying that if he could choose, he’d send Esben off but keep the other eleven to work the farm with him. As the poor and disenfranchised have historically done, Esben turns to magic — the subtle but powerful force that runs through these worlds — to supplant what he was denied:

Since he couldn’t get a horse, he went off into the woods and looked among the trees till he found a branch to his liking. And when he had found a branch to his liking, he cut it down, and chopped it and chipped it into the semblance of a horse, leaving four strong twigs for its four legs, a knobby end for its head, and a thin end for its tail. Next, he peeled off the bark and polished the wood till it shone more whitely than his brothers’ horses. And having done all that, he got astride it, and sang out:

‘Fly quick, my little stick,
Carry me into the world.’

And the stick kicked up the four strong twigs that were its four legs, and galloped away with him after his brothers. (46-47)

It’s with this animated stick — this gandr, in all senses of the word — that Esben eventually wins the favor of a king, saves his brothers’ lives, garners riches for his family, and finally wins the recognition of his father and brothers (his mother, of course, believed in him all along).

esbenandthewitch-detail

In the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella,” called “Aschenputtel,” there is no fairy godmother. It’s a hazel tree planted by her dead mother’s grave, watered with her tears, that provides all that Aschenputtel needs to win the prince’s hand in marriage. How does she come by the hazel tree?

It happened that [Aschenputtel’s] father was once going to the fair, and he asked his two step-daughters what he should bring back for them. ‘Beautiful dresses,’ said one, ‘pearls and jewels,’ said the second. ‘And you, Cinderella[sic],’ said he, ‘what will you have?’ ‘Father, break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.’ So he bought beautiful dresses, pearls and jewels for his two step-daughters, and on his way home, as he was riding through a green thicket, a hazel twig brushed against him and knocked off his hat. Then he broke off the branch and took it with him. When he reached home he gave his step-daughters the things which they had wished for, and to Cinderella he gave the branch from the hazel bush. Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother’s grave and planted the branch on it, and wept so much that the tears fell down on it and watered it. And it grew and became a handsome tree. (121-122)

Aschenputtel visits and cries before this tree whenever her step-mother and -sisters are cruel to her, and whenever she asks for something, a white bird descends on it and grants her wishes.

Tutelary Spirits, Protectors, and Guides

Lecouteux writes in his book: “The fylgja’s (the Norse tutelary spirit-double) primary mission is to protect the person to whom she has attached herself” (46). The fylgja often takes the form of an animal, depicted in “Aschenputtel” in the form of a white bird. It is significant that this bird is channeled through the hazel tree, which was grown from a branch cutting watered with Aschenputtel’s tears (which, of course, contain her DNA, coming from her own body). Thus, the gandr (stick) becomes a tree, which then serves as a channel for Aschenputtel to contact a corporeal Double. As in “Esben and the Witch,” it’s the Double that facilitates Aschenputtel in obtaining the material things she needs to achieve great ends — becoming a princess and, presumably in the future, queen. The fylgja, too, is associated with an individual’s luck or fate, preceding the individual’s body to its intended destination and sometimes appearing in others’ dreams before they meet the individual.

In the ninth century, the canon Episcopi declaimed against women who “with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company.” This, of course, refers to the classic ride to the Witches’ Sabbath, led (according to the canon Episcopi) by the continental Germanic goddess Holda. When the Christian veneer is peeled away, the witches’ ride is very clearly a spiritual journey — astral travel, in contemporary terms — to the Otherworld. The beasts being ridden, then, are the voyagers’ Doubles in animal form, which are known in Germanic folklore to leave the body and travel during dreams and ecstatic journeys to receive information, gain wisdom or power, fight enemies, transmit messages, etc.

The gandr, too, was believed capable of doing this. Lecouteux cites a chapter in the 12th century text Historia Norwegiae that discusses the magic of the indigenous Sami people, who according to the author worshipped a spirit called a

gandus…thanks to whom they make prophecies, see far-off things in space and time, and discover hidden treasures. A Christian doing business with them was sharing their meal when suddenly the hostess died. Not in the least disconcerted or affected, the ‘dead’ woman’s companions explained to him that she had been a victim of a hostile gandus and that they were going to bring her back to life. One of them was a magician… [He] started his incantations, ‘singing and leaping, then throwing himself on the ground…and with his stomach torn open and everything all red, he gave up his spirit.’ The other people then asked for the help of a second man, who proceeded as the first, but with success. The hostess then revived the dead magician, who explained that his gandus, having taken the form of a whale, collided with an enemy gandus that had metamorphosed into sharp stakes driven into the bottom of the sea, and these stakes opened up his stomach. (36)

This account illustrates that the gandr/gandus, or Double, can sometimes take multiple forms, depending on what is needed at the time. Thus, it’s not so far-fetched that a gandr could be, alternately, a stick or staff or broom on which to ride or an animal that (as with the fylgja) has a form that represents in physical form the character and fate/luck of the person to whom it is connected. This is subtly attested in the above-mentioned fairy tales as well — Esben rides his gandr over the river (bodies of water being portals to the Otherworld) to the witch’s house to steal her enchanted treasures for the king that holds his brothers hostage; Aschenputtel’s gandr helps her accomplish impossible challenges, manifests the objects she needs to gain access to her future husband, and in the end, pecks out the eyes of her enemies on her wedding day.

The Role of the Gandr in Magical Practice

Sticks in Germanic folk tales — whether they come as wands, staffs, riding sticks, cuttings to plant and grow into trees, or something else — do much more than transmit energy. By and large, they are shamanistic tools with which magical practitioners connect to their Doubles — the unseen companions that walk alongside us, or precede us, or follow us, goading us down our unique paths through life and aiding us when we struggle or lose our ways. It’s through this spiritual connection that magic is accessed and accomplished. The gandr is perhaps the most essential, and least remembered, magical tool — at least for those who draw from Germanic sources for their craft. Perhaps it’s time to reconnect with the gandr, to view it more as a comrade rather than a mere instrument, and to return it to its central place in magical practice.

 

Bibliography:
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2003.
Manning-Sanders, Ruth. A Book of Witches.  EP Dutton & Co.: Boston, 1967.
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. Josef Scharl. Pantheon Books: New York, 1972.

How It All Began

arthurrackham_fairies

When I leave my body, I call it traveling or hedge crossing. “Astral projection” is too New Agey; “out-of-body experience” is too vague and unwieldy. When it first started happening (completely at random), I’d just kind of float around the house for a little bit. Then, once, I went through a window and found myself in a leaf-strewn field in autumn with a giant tree on a hill with leaves in beautiful shades of orange and red, and a barn off in the distance. Later, I started traveling to other places and casually meeting and talking with spirits. One figure in particular kept showing up, but he always looked different. Even so, I could feel that it was the same masculine energy.

Then I had a very significant journey. I’d left my house through a window in the living room and took a walk down the street. At the end of the neighborhood, I met a blond boy around 7-10 years old. He told me that a group of people had stolen something from me and that we needed to go together to get it back. He offered me his hand, and I took it, but just as we were about to run off down the street, I hesitated. I sensed that familiar masculine energy, and I asked, “You’re L—, aren’t you?”

The boy smiled mischievously and said yes, he was.

“Show me to your true form.”

The boy began to change, but he kept changing and wouldn’t keep still. Sometimes he was a tall, broad young man with cropped brown hair and a square jaw; other times he was lean and red-haired; sometimes he was a middle-aged man with long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and round-framed eyeglasses; still other times he was just a boy. And on and on. He changed so quickly that, most times, he was nothing more than a blur and it was hard to see him at all.

When I found myself trying to see him in one particular form, he seemed to read my thoughts and settle a little, but then I’d realize that it was just another guise, so I’d let it go and he’d change again. Finally, I gave up and decided to see him however he would naturally appear, even if it was strange or difficult. It was then that he took on a single form: a ceaselessly shifting, featureless shape of a man that looked most like clear, rippling water – at once reflective and transparent and sometimes invisible.

He transformed back into a boy, and he took my hand as we ran down the sidewalk until we came to a house in another neighborhood with two small Japanese maples at the edge of the yard, their leaves bright red . There was a group of people standing on the lawn, many of them elderly, and the boy stole back the thing that was missing. We ran away, back to my house, and they didn’t pursue us for long.

When we got back to my bedroom where my body lay, he transformed into a tall, long-haired young man. He showed me the object, a beautiful pendulum. He dangled the pendulum between his thumb and forefinger and said, “This is your kwento.” He repeated the word several times so that I’d remember when I went back into my body. Then he kissed me and pressed the pendulum against me, and I laid back into my body and woke up.

He was my guide in the Otherworld for quite some time. Then he left me, for one reason or another, and my husband and I moved into a new house. I haven’t seen him since.

I did some research shortly after to figure out what kwento (spelled phonetically, as I heard it) meant, and for a long time, nothing showed up. Weeks later, though, I came upon q(w)ento during research about Proto-Indo-European religion and found that it means “holy.” So he gave me my holiness, or my holy power.

And that’s how my journey as a hedge witch began.

Down the Dark Path

opossum

Last year, my husband found the top half of an opossum skull in our backyard, along with a few other bones and teeth. The skull was laid, almost as if deliberately presented to us (thanks, neighborhood coalition of feral cats), on the ramp leading into the storage shed. We aren’t sure what exactly happened to it, but a big female with babies had been living off-and-on under our back porch for a while. Life spans for opossums are only two to four years, so it could have been plain old age that killed her.

Because the remains had been outside for so long (at least through the winter and spring), there wasn’t much flesh left on it. I gently pulled off the remaining skin and muscle matter (fairly bark-like at this point) and some fur, then placed the skull and other bones (two teeth, a rib bone, a vertebrae) in a disposable plastic bowl with some warm water and dish soap to degrease for a few days. Then I soaked it in a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water to whiten it and then let it dry. It now occupies a shelf in our curio cabinet.

Opossums are known for their robust immune systems, partial-to-complete immunity to snake venom, and fierce defense of their young, all of which make it a strong protective spirit to have around. Opossums are also nomads, and as I’ve never been one to settle into one home for too long, this is another connective point for me.

Cultures across the world believe that the connection of a spirit with its body remains for as long as the bones do, including the Malagasy people who practice famadihana. In a recent I Ching reading before I took the bones in, I was told that I would “gain a homeless servant” to help me in my work. It makes sense that this opossum is that servant, and shortly after the bones were dried, I connected with her spirit, learned her name (or at least the name that calls her to me), and made a contract. She mostly guards our home, helping to keep harmful spirits away.

It’s funny – people who know me offline tend to think of me as a lighthearted, sunshiney sort of person. Not someone who works with bones and the spirits of the dead. It throws people off when they catch glimpses of my darker side. But I’m very conscious of death. I’ve seen it in various forms, and the dead have sometimes come to me after parting. Even so, I’ve hesitated going down that path in the past out of fear. I’m getting braver, though, and trusting my instincts more. I’m reaching through the veil and finding that it’s not quite as frightening as I once thought it was.