Mead & Ravens

I was nine years old when I saw the Wild Hunt for the first time; a small boy on the porch of the family home that lay half way up the side of the Vale of Lanherne on the north coast of Cornwall. I heard the rooks cawing first, their nests hanging blackly in the thick trees reaching up from the valley floor.

Something had disturbed them that evening. The sun had sunk below the horizon and the purple twilight deepened into a darker blue, just before the stars began to appear. The birds were up in the air, myriad shapes swirling around the church tower; a mass of flapping wings and raucous voices that seemed to flow as one singular creature. There must have been over a hundred streaming into the sky as they flocked and wheeled.

I remember shivering at the thought of so many beady eyes, sharp beaks and sharper claws moving at once, my book forgotten beside me, on the bench with its peeling green paint. Then they dived so very low, to clamp those same feet into nest and branch, abruptly silent. The air was still warm, and seconds ticked by, as if everything was trying not to breathe.

I saw them come like smoke, those dancing figures. Some on foot, others on horseback – all as black as night. They flexed and twisted, flowed and curved – like shadows playing across the wall of the sky. Flickering cave-paintings from ancient times; my breath caught as they streamed over the treetops and tower in deathly silence. And in that silence, I heard within my heart, my very soul, their voices lifted in skirling song.

A song of thunderous joy, of howling gale and roaring storm; of fierce vitality beyond even death itself. Something woke within me then, something wild and watchful, and it is with me still, years later.

I hear them sometimes, in the night, calling on the edge of hearing…

Creation is never tame, and neither is its twin Destruction. Yet poetry is often seen as something tame, something learned in schoolrooms or used in pithy demonstrations of one\’s learning. But in truth, it is often a private thing, a solitary thing. The poet composes their work, taking down and providing a gateway into an experience – a sense of \’being-there\’.

Drawn into such spaces, the audience enters a reality which, far from being a simple representation, is imbued with a living vitality. Such potency is often hidden from us, the everyday maintenance of life a curtain patterned with comfortable familiarity. But the poet pulls back the curtain, and with his art shows us once again that we are not divorced from the world but inherently, inextricably enmeshed within the flow and play of that numinous quality.

It is this numinous quality that inspired this essay.

We begin with inspiration, as all art does. The breath which quickens and enlivens, drawn inward to the self, to stimulate and enflame the faculties, to stir the mind and feed the soul. It is an intoxication that sets pulse to beat and skin to tingle. Make no mistake, this is not a draught which sets one to slumber, save only when the dreams are deep and full of meaning.

The author makes no bones about his qualifications – no peer review to gain validation is required. As the reader has already seen, his initial contact with the Wild Hunt and one of its leaders was unlooked for, and yet in retrospect, has influenced his whole life to date.

Throughout this essay are scattered touchstones of experience whose sole purpose is to allow the reader awareness that this is by no means a dry dissection, but a living, and dare we say, breathing quest.

It is a quest for the mastery of that which is called wōd. It is the madness, the fury of the poet. So it is perhaps unsurprising to the reader to learn that the author is often guided by a figure whose primary name means just that.

Master of the wōd. Wōdhanaz Wuotan. Wodan. Woden. Oðinn.

It is a matter of some debate whether these names refer to the same entity, at least within Germanic neo-paganism. Ultimately, the author\’s view is to shrug and trust to his own relationship with the Old Man and it is in this spirit that we continue, noting that one of his heiti, or titles in Old Norse is Grimnir -meaning \’Masked\’ or \’Hooded One\’.

A shape changer and sorcerer, his mantic powers and shamanic knowledge, along with the winning of the runes, render him a potent force within mythology. But an essay such as this, as with its author, is not content to let such things lie within the comfortable definition of \’mythology\’.

As a sorcerer, one\’s status is a living ambiguity. Even today, admitting to such practices puts one at risk of derision at the most mild, and hatred at the most extreme – outside of a relatively small group of like minded folk with which it is hoped the reader is on at least nodding acquaintance.

In times past, this ambiguity was heightened, and it is the wise sorcerer who seeks to keep it so – it does no good to remain in one shape, one seeming; adaptability is the key, for by definition the true sorcerer must be as impossible as the things he does.

Yet as with poets, regardless of subject, there is uniqueness, a voice, a quality that permeates all shapes and works. This is the mastery spoken of, wherein there is no distinction between poetry and poet, or sorcerer and sorcery.

I am lying on the dark hardwood floor, carefully etching shapes, speaking them aloud, telling a tale between the lines of printed text. I am three years old and have not yet begun to learn my letters with any skill, but I understand that these shapes are responsible for the story that the pictures and the cassette tape tell me again and again. I am bored with the story, and we are on holiday away from my other stacks of books.

I have seen the grownups make their strange spider-marks that only dimly resemble the clearly printed text, so I decide to make my own, and listen to my own voice. I slip away, somewhere else, taking myself into the land of talking trains and mishaps and lives on a small island.

I am aware that I am telling the tale but it is as real as real, the pictures assuming new meanings, diverging and twisting into something else. My hand moves, each new line sandwiched in the spaces between, organic and scrawled, a filling of raw creativity.

When it is done, I turn the page and start again, yet more stories, And when my hand begins to ache from the unfamiliar effort, I put down the pen and turn back to the beginning, drawing yet more from my own glyphs.

Over a decade later, I found that book, buried in a box, just as I began to wonder about the existence of sorcery as something real again. The scrawl was unreadable, lacking in sense, and even in spite of that, I was propelled backward through time, into that same creative space.

The faculty for creation, for inspiring where no breath was before, is a primary component of the Old Man. According to the Eddas, Oðinn and his two brothers gave life to the first humans, found as trees on the beach – imbuing them with the unique characteristics of mankind.

It is this comfort with walking the world; with stirring up the furious processes of being – even in the depths of the darkest places – that is an inexorable fundamental of the sorcerer\’s crooked path. Across all the worlds and dreams of men he must stalk, from the deepest hells to the highest heavens, experiencing and communing with the quintessential force of the wōd within himself, and his environment.

A truism of magical lore is the notion of like calling to like, and the wōd is certainly no exception. Both sorcerer and poet are drawn to those things which incite beauty, sadness, awe and terror. These are the extremes, states and places of being full of potency that sets the blood to sing, the mind to reel and the soul to soar like an eagle – shrieking in the joy of the flight.

But to the true master, the wōd may be recalled within the humdrum – that store of strength within the belly and bones , blood and other fluids – may be concentrated until the surging energies are turned inward, magnetizing the sorcerer-poet and setting the very world itself to call out and reveal itself.

Once again, from that primal cauldron, that seething, roiling well at the deepest roots of things, is drawn forth the ever shifting prima materia with which new things may be made.

\’Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallows

For nine long nights,

Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odhinn,

Offered, myself to myself

The wisest know not from whence spring

The roots of that ancient rood

They gave me no bread,

They gave me no mead,

I looked down;

with a loud cry

I took up runes;

from that tree I fell.\’

(Havamal, Auden & Taylor translation, stanzas 138-9)

Here we see the words of the High One, speaking of the shamanic ordeal undertaken in order to gain the runes. Sacrificed to himself, he is now set apart from all others, acknowledging none higher except the larger pull of his true nature. The personality is infused with the wōd in totality, and the World Ash, that fundamental axis, is now named as Yggdrasil, or \’ steed of the Terrible One\’.

Truly, it is said that the union of horse and rider causes them to flow as one thing – there is no division, only mastery. Thus the body of that wily old shaman has become inseparable with the World Tree, hearkening backward to the tale of mankind as trees. The breath of the gods once again suffuses the flesh, enabling an ancient atavistic resurgence, a method of recalling into flesh the atavisms long since buried under the back patio of humanity.

The English sorcerer-artist Austin Osman Spare was one of the first to set down in writing the notion of such atavistic behaviours, something known since ancient times by the earliest sorcerers. His charmingly named \’Death Posture\’ echoes the sacrifice made upon Yggdrasil.

It is this ability to draw forth from memory, to hold whole worlds inside oneself that made poets so prized in ancient times. The ravens that perch on the shoulders of the Old Man are named Thought and Memory, and it is said that he fears more for the loss of Muninn, or Memory, than Huginn, or Thought.

Without the ability to \’look down\’, as the Havamal puts it, there is no material for Thought to work upon. Only in union betwixt the two is the wisdom revealed; the runes as glyphs, sounds and shapes that open up the primal Mysteries which enable the sorcerer to work his will.

It is midnight, and I have been in Hanging Town for five years, four of those at university, studying philosophy by day and blowing my mind with magic and utmost strangeness by night. I pass through the Priory graveyard, the brooding presence of the Castle on my right. Tonight, I am not going to sit and meditate in the Gallows Corner.

Tonight I have good whisky in my hand and I am nervous. It has been two years since the Old Man smiled at me and told me to learn every trick I could, and the lwa of Vodun gently told me my own ancestors were waiting.

I sit and look down on the town, sulphur streetlight and cobbled roads. The impetus to cast a circle dies, and suddenly I am aware I am trembling slightly. My breath is uneven, the words halting at first, and then bursting free like a roaring icy torrent. I see the shadows out of the corners of my eyes, thickening, becoming more present.

I dare not turn. I dare not stop, despite the terror that suddenly seizes me, freezing my muscles solid and heralding a wave of agony.

Rigid, sopping with cold sweat and speaking to something that was never ever human, I somehow resist the urge to bow my head, as I yank the stopper out the bottle with my teeth and neck a long pull. The burn nearly makes me pass out, my eyes stinging, lips drawn back in a half-snarl.

I gasp out the words, croaking like my throat has been cut, and suddenly a dim memory of the cord binding me to my mother surfaces. It is wrapped around my neck, and I am dying before I am even born. Then later, amidst the artifice of man, death reaches out again to slow my heart and stop my breath, and I am almost gone.

Then once again I am upon the hill with streaming eyes, sacrificing myself to my Self.

The second pull sets my tongue to twitch, and I spew out whisky to the four directions, uncaring of the massive presence which always seems to be standing behind me whichever way I turn. Slowly, returning to myself, I find my left hand is dripping with whisky, though the bottle is gripped in my right. As I feel myself falling backward again into an even deeper trance, I do not recall how it occurred…

The poet becomes the warrior. The battle fury rises up and the wolf and the bear uncurl from their lairs and fill the world with their cunning and strength as men fall like wheat under a scythe. And all the while, the ravens circle, plucking up the choicest morsels.

Amidst it all, he stands, grim smile upon his lips, spear at the ready, as men scream in their death-throes, blades shattering. He is old, and weary, and they are young and full of fire, yet it is they who fall, the powerful ended by the old one-eyed man.

For it is not about power, or weakness – but who is to be master.

He is called Chooser of the Slain, this god of poetry, war, sorcery, madness, sex and death. His wisdom can sway armies; his charms turn aside blades and ensnare lovers. His words turn brother against brother, and unite broken lands under the raven banner. His is the voice that calls the Wild Hunt to ride and the Einherjar to battle and rise again. His are the feet that cross the icy wastes of the underworld.

All these things and more are his, and yet, they are not him. He moves through the worlds, only ever as himself – known by the living and the dead. And it is to these last we turn now, for the wōd stirs even in the most ghostly of hearts and reveals ways of communing with those long since gone from the pathways of the living, and drawing upon their wisdom.

For even in the most terrible of battles, the inspiration may be found. Even in the dustiest mausoleum, most rotten ruin, most horrific tragedy, comes that thrum, that heady drumbeat pulse which is beyond and within all things.

Along the coffin paths the sorcerer walks, all unafraid, for it is neither living nor dead but a thing of the in-between, the liminal spaces. It is that liminality which enables it to cast a blazing eye over the ranks of evil spirits and have them quail as he smiles and bids those awful things welcome without fear.

From the paraphernalia of death comes the wisdom of corruption, the knowledge of the monstrous held as equal to the paramount beauties of the age. From these untouchables, the sorcerer makes himself untouchable, an equal worker of both hands – not a practitioner of the so called middle way, but rather a creature of flight and burrowing both – the Old Man became both wyrm and eagle as he stole the mead of inspiration from its keeper and her jealous father.

In the same tale, he murders men casually, blatantly titling himself Bolverk, or \’ Worker of Evil\’. Such admittance of the ambiguous nature of the working of sorcery exemplifies its nature as an alternate mode of existence.

The Wanderer, the Outlander, the Dangler on the Gallows – all these speak of someone outside the apparent mutuality of society; the poet as social critic is a milder manifestation of the same current, a social appropriation.

Such a man as the sorcerer is an out-law. This may be tempting to romanticize, until one considers that an outlaw is literally bereft of rights, and all the benefits that they ensure. Unless he bands together with other outlaws, he is literally on his own within a world that is unyielding, and where survival is not a right.

Therefore, his sense of self must be just that – there is only ever himself to sacrifice to.

I am 23 and soon to be homeless. My time at university is nearly over and all but the last half of my Masters thesis is complete. Academia has become suffocating, and I have nowhere else to go.

Driving home from a friend\’s house one night, the traffic lights are green and my mind is only half on the road. Something makes me reduce my speed, and then my eyes catch up. Sat on the pavement, tongue lolling out pinkly in the summer darkness, is a large shaggy black dog that appears to be waiting to cross the road.

The road is clear, it’s 1 am. So I slow to a stop, engine idling, waiting. After a moment it trots across the road and disappears down a side-street. Amused, I continue the drive home to campus.

Two nights later, a friend of mine is stranded by a cancelled train in the next town over. Its twenty minutes up the motorway. I and two others volunteer to drive there and get her. It\’s 1 am again, and I indicate to come off of the motorway onto the slip-road, slowing down from 70 mph. As we peel off, something crunches in my shoulder and there is a flash of agony down my arm.

I lose control, only for a moment, but it is enough. The car swerves, fishtails and I vainly slam on the brakes, steering into the skid. Everything slows down and I swear once, deadpan. We hit the offside barrier at sixty, then bounce across the dual carriage-way to plough into its brother, then back again to crunch to rest some distance further on.

The airbags have exploded. The smell of cordite and plastic and dust hangs thick in the air. There is a heavy metallic thud as the engine drops. The car is utterly destroyed, and we are all unharmed.

Three hours later, shaky and sleepless, I remember the black dog\’s lazy amble, and wonder if I was due to die tonight.

There is no rabies in the UK, no risk of dying at the hands of a frothing creature with madness in its eyes – animal quarantine has seen to that. But somewhere, that madness still lurks as a fear – the beast that knows no rules, and is immune to chastisement, wounds and pain.

Somewhere, deep down under the thin veneer of the civilized world lays a memory of monsters. Of giants hungry for human flesh. And as the knife twists and the scarlet droplets kiss the earth in the night, from somewhere rumbles the grating voice of something with teeth the size of tombstones.

Fee-fie, fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I\’ll grind his bones to make my bread!”

Under a cold moon, shapes run in ancient forests, big and bad and hungry. Four legs or two, the shadows flowing over dog-heads, wolf -heads, boar tusks and ululating howls. From the sea comes fire and axe and death and horn\’s winding song.

Yet, I say to you, the poet is always ever there – the wild man of Myrddin, of Taliesin the twice-born thieving bastard, of Bolverk dripping stolen mead upon the tongues of men. The sorcerer reaching out and fusing the chain of days together, making Once and Future bleed into each other like the most glorious of dreams.

Flesh and fur ripple and flex, and the beast and man conjoin in a coupling of the most obscene beauty – the wheel turned back, groaning in ecstasy. Squatting by the graveside, whispering urgently to the corpse that leaps upward like a knife, cold and dead and filled with something alien.

A worm-eaten kiss of ice, met with the fire of lust.

The innocence of a primordial murder, blood drowning countless kin, as the gaping void plays host to a furious dismemberment. And from those cracked bones and shattered skull, a world is made.

Such is the way of the old tales. In blood and death and graves of kings, in dark nights and darker deeds. Such things remain, long after the \’Happily Ever After\’s have turned to moth-eaten dust. This is not to extol them above the brightness, but to illustrate the fact that, long after the fire gutters out, there still remains an incontrovertible nature.

Long after the fuel runs out, and the ash is cold; after the metal corrodes and the blade crumbles something remains. It raises its hoary head and smiles with sharp teeth, and gathers the night about it like a cloak. It moves from house to house and kisses the brows of sleepers, sending them strange and feverish dreams.

That way, there will always be poets.