A Draught from the Well of Memory

For three weeks (in late December through early January) I went home to Florida, a welcome reprieve from the brutal punishments visited upon Illinois by the Frost Giants each winter. It had been two years since I last visited my family; I was overjoyed to return home and reconnect. Lodged at my mother’s house, I basked in the glory of Florida’s sun and consumed plate-fulls of Southern hospitality.

After Yule but before the New Year, my mother told me that she’d planned a three-day trip to Georgia. She has an aunt and several cousins there that she wanted to visit, and she wanted me to meet them, or rather to see them again for the first time since I was 12 years old. My mouth was full of yummy goodness when she informed me of the trip. Suddenly 16 again, I grumbled past the fork full of rice, gravy, and green beans in my mouth; I didn’t want to drag myself across another state line. However, as the date grew closer I became more excited to see our distant relatives. Reflecting back on our time in Georgia, I am tremendously glad that I went and the next time I have a chance to go I will do so with bells on. Sixteen year-old me can stuff it.

While we were there I met my mother’s aunt who is in her early 90s. In the halls of her home I was small again and the adults were chatting about a slew of things that weren’t my business. Then again, I was always the kid with her ear to the door or her nose pressed to the glass; I made everything my business. I expected this visit to be similar, but it wasn’t. I found myself having a conversation with my mother and the 90 year-old matriarch of my Georgia kin. Between reflections on her ill health she told stories of her days raising more children than she could keep track of. She whispered of the challenges of doing that work alone. She told tales of her sisters and brothers and her children who have since passed on. She spoke of many things, all against the backdrop of well-preserved furniture, antique figurines, and the eager ears of gathered family. In her presence, with so much history on her lips, I couldn’t help but reflect upon Memory.

In Norse cosmology – one of the symbol systems that I am best versed in – Memory is part of our individual and collective being, and a key agent in the formation of individual and collective Identity. Consequently, a great deal of importance was placed upon a community’s ability to remember and upon each individual’s worthiness to be remembered. Memory is what may be left of us in Midgard long after our bones are turned to dust. Memory is the story of us, the legend that allows those who come years later to know us and to remember those aspects of us that most need to survive the ravages of time. As my long-lived Georgia kinswoman spoke, I listened. I absorbed the stories she told so that I could remember them and so that I could remember her. I took in the stories told by my mother’s two cousins as well, neither as aged as my mother’s aunt but both full of Memory. I silently committed their stories to my memory, and those narratives I will pass on to the younger generations of my family.

If Wyrd is the complex and nuanced web of present actions, reactions, and inactions coalescing into a collective past and giving rise to a shared future then Memory is the Record and the Ledger of that Wyrd. By way of Memory we keep track of the story of each person’s life and the unique weaving together of it all. Memory is how we come to know and understand year upon year of successes and triumphs, loses and missteps. It is also how we come to know and understand what it possible and the ends to which we collectively may strive. It was in fact in my kinswoman’s living room with the air full of Memory that I came to fully understand Odin’s words from the Grímnismál: “For Hugin I fear lest he come not home, but for Munin my care is more.” Memory is the rhyme and reason of our lives and of our individual and collective Identity; without it we are lost.

The human life is rich and diverse, filled with a host of happenings – some grand and most commonplace. Memory is the unique, blessed, and magical alchemy that marks and then draws out the most significant aspects of that glorious nonsense and crafts meaning from it. The virtues and the vices, the good and the bad, the should and the should not, the could and could not are born in experience, and then synthesized and raised up by Memory. Memory shapes and elevates both the individual and the community.

Illustration of Saga pouring a draught for Odin by Jenny Nyström (1893)

Illustration of Saga pouring a draught for Odin by Jenny Nyström (1893)

Memory is mighty and its magic should not be ignored. The magic of Memory is the substance of a good symbel. That ritual draws much of its might from its potential to Tap the Well and Remember all that is toast and boast worthy, and to use the Memory Ale that bubbles forth to draw Might and Luck for the future. The magic of Memory can also be harnessed in other ritual forms. Personal rituals that focus on our own stories can be mighty. A great deal of our lives is tied up in the story we tell. If we tell a story of woe and suffering then that is what we remember. If we tell a story of challenge, resilience, and eventual triumph then that is what we remember. Personal rituals inspired by symbel or other ritual formats can be powerful sacred spaces in which to story or re-story key facets of our lives and reap both the spiritual and the psychological import of that (re)frame. Our lives are not as simple as the story we tell but they can certainly become as blessed and mighty as we choose to remember them. And we can draw in the precious stories of generations before, finding connections and shared meaning across time and place. Memory has many lessons, many gifts, and many blessings to bestow and so consider taking time to invoke Memory for yourself, for your family, and for your community. Remember the life stories that matter most to you. Remember the experiences that identify and shape you. In so doing, draw up your draught from the Well of Memory and share it with others in frith and grith.

My mother’s aunt and cousins offered a powerful brew and I feel blessed to have had a chance to partake. Hail the Well of Memory, Memory’s Potent Draught, and Wyrd’s Weaving!

An Ancestor Oil Blend

This evening I finally dressed four vigil candles for my altar. They had been waiting to be prepared for several weeks. I dressed two black candles for the dead of my blood and spirit whose names are unknown to me, and I dressed two white candles for my ancestors whose names and contributions I do know.

For my unknown dead I pierced three holes into each black vigil candle (using a metal kabob skewer) and filled each hole with Shades oil from the Witch of Forest Grove. For my known ancestors I formulated an oil based on both the Florida Water and Kananga Water recipes from Stephanie Rose Bird. I wanted a very fragrant oil so I can’t vouch for its use on skin for any extended period of time; it may contain too much essential oil for that use. When dressing the white vigil candles with the oil it wasn’t really necessary to come into skin contact with the oil; I used a pipette to fill the three channels I pierced into each candle.

So with that said, here’s the ancestor oil recipe:

25 milliliters of carrier oil (I had grape seed oil on hand)

4 drops of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil

2 drops of Clove (Syzguium aromaticum) Bud essential oil

4 drops of Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) essential oil

3 drops of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil

1 grain of Opoponax (Commiphora holtziana) resin

1 Snowflake Obsidian bead (helps to blend the oils together, and it aids spirit communication)

The essentials in the ancestor oil blend are common ingredients in lustral waters (Florida and Kananga) that have a long history as Hoodoo offerings to the dead. Opoponax has links to necromancy in some magical traditions. The snowflake obsidian bead I added in homage to Hekate, in her aspect as Anassa Eneroi (Queen of Those Below aka the dead). After loading them with the oil blend, to complete the white vigil candles I topped each one with finely powdered mullein herb because of its association with the dead and making contact with their realm. I used only a pinch on each candle because mullein will ignite fairly quickly when exposed to flame.

The candles will facilitate connection with my ancestors and make a nice offering for them as well. I have quite a bit of oil left over. I plan to get creative with it in the next few weeks. I have plenty of other ritual items to bless and anoint for my ancestors!

The Road to Helheim

“Hermod Before Hela” (1909) by John Charles Dollman

As a part of my work with The Catskin Sisters, a small group of seidhr women based in Central Illinois, we journey to some of the Nine Worlds within the Norse cosmos. Generally, we choose to visit worlds that are known to be (at least somewhat) hospitable to human travelers. One of our most recent journeys was to Helheim or Hel-Home, the realm of Hela, the half-living half-corpse ettin-maid with jurisdiction over the teaming hoards of the dead. Before journeying to Hela’s realm I held a blot to her. I offered good beer and incense. I also made prayers for safe travel. The runes delivered a favorable message from the Queen of Hel and so I set off on my journey.

I slathered myself in a goodly amount of The Witch of Forest Grove’s Aves Salve, sat down on my loveseat, drew my white silk veil over my head and shifted left out of my body. I departed on the back of my Barn Owl fylgja through the kitchen window after brief conversations with the housewight and the spirit of my staff. My fylgja and I headed north here in Midgard until we reached the Tree, then north again and down its trunk and down one of its roots we went. The journey was fast and sinking. We “exited” at the edge of Niflheim where Mist-Home meets a set of dark gates that lead into Hela’s realm.

I was shrouded in mist and cold, and more than a little flustered. I waited at the gate until I felt comfortable continuing. I spoke the runes given to me for entrance to the realm and the gate opened. I was greeted by a spirit clad in white. Birch imagery immediately came to mind. The spirit was stern in manner and speech, and clearly empowered to halt any antics I might perpetrate in her mistress’ realm. While she gave me directions to Hela’s hall, I noticed the dead as they moved. They appeared to be grey-washed or sepia, not the color of life. I tore my eyes from the dead and instead focused on the road to Hel’s hall. Barn Owl reiterated the White Lady’s advice on the walk to the hall, warning me not to veer from the path if I ever wanted to leave Hel-Home. Of course I complied though the “water” flowing under the bridge there was sorcerously entrancing.

After a short walk, I arrived at the entrance to Hela’s Hall. Once invited, I entered. I was more than a little nervous to meet her. Hela was not much for pleasantries. She could smell my fear just as surely as I could smell her rot. The Queen of Hel was not pleased to see me there if I was not ready to be there. She reached for me with her fleshless arm and drew me close. I wanted to freak out, then I thought better of it. She offered counsel on my work with the dead, showed me a landmark on her property that might aid in my work, passed along a message from another Mighty Northern Power, and then sent me on my way. I followed the White Lady’s instructions from earlier, but in reverse, and ended on the other side of the gate not much worse for the wear.

Barn Owl and I gathered ourselves and got back on the expressway to this world. After emerging from trance, I did another rune reading which helped to verify many of my experiences in Helheim. I also reviewed my notes from other trance encounters with Death deities. I was pleased to see that they have a united front on many points where it concerns me and my Work with the dead.

So much Work to do, so little time! Well, that just means I gotta keep movin’.