A path into the woods

©2021 Michael Raven

I was doing something dangerous yesterday:


The very undertaking of reading lead to questions which lead to research which lead to call-outs which lead to more answers and more questions and then —

Well, you get the idea.

While I haven’t read enough of Raven Kaldera’s Wightridden: Paths of Northern Tradition Shamanism to say I recommend reading it, my own foray so far has had lead to a few “a-ha” moments and a few times I was forced to think a little bit harder about what I understood about certain pathways towards evoking ecstatic experiences, as the approach by Raven and the other contributors they rely on is a little more earthy than the typical clinically dry and echo-chamber approach towards the study of meditation, rhythm, ordeal, etc. used to evoke ecstatic experiences. The authors all have more of a folksy-talksy way of approaching the material and they trend away from the more high-browed approach commonplace in such books.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair share of “talking down to” and egotism in how they write about the material, but is is nice to see someone making more blunt pronouncements about the pathways, assuring that not all pathways work for all people, nor will any necessarily work without practice and commitment — than the typical approach that tends to be filled with overly-kind hand-holding that does not always work for every reader. Contrast this with Paul Francis’ The Shamanic Journey, where I felt he was proclaiming his workshops came just short of guaranteeing an ecstatic experience, however low-level, because of his techniques. That’s not to say he didn’t have valuable information to convey, but he was pretty confident that his technique worked for everyone.

Those thoughts aside, because I didn’t start this post to compare/contrast techniques…

While I was reading this book, scratching my head at some things, staring wide-eyed at others and what-not, I came across a bit about how one of the contributors uses mugwort to cleanse their sacred space prior to rituals: “My own preference is to light a recaning stick of mugwort and purify the space, because I function in a small crowded house with a lot of people’s energy and very little privacy.” [emphasis is mine].

First of, I implicitly knew what the author was doing, although the term recaning is a new one for me: they were smudging the area. Firstly, I had a cool new new word from Old English for me to use (rēcan, see the variant on Old English Wordhord), and I had an alternative to “smudging”, which has some new-age connotations, amongst other potential issues with use) — but I also had something other than white sage that people were using to cleanse their sacred space to consider as an alternative.

Honestly, I had never heard of using mugwort as such and part of me suspected that I recalled that mugwort was relatively plentiful in my area (I know that white sage is ubiquitous where I spent my summers growing up in Montana, but I haven’t seen it very often in Minnesota). But I was suspicious about it’s use for such things because — believe it or not, I had never heard of anyone using mugwort for such things, although I’ve seen a plethora of other options over the years of being involved in the neopagan community.

So I did what I always do with these kinds of things — I used my alternate FB account to hit up my witchy friends to see if anyone had used mugwort in the past.

The first furtive responses were “Huh? Mugwort? I dunno,” thereby confirming that I wasn’t the only one who had never heard of such a thing. But then, an old smoke-buddy from high school (and class-skipping, coffee-drinking fiend, at the time) Rachel piped in. She’d used it and found it as pleasant as white sage, a near equivalent in her books. And then, she said, “It is plentiful in Minnesota, so it is a great thing to harvest if you’re looking for smudge sticks because it costs nothing and is easy to find.”

Rachel and her husband are two people I need to reconnect with — she’s the one who alerted me to the Heilung concert tickets going on sale (and we plan to meet up for that), but she also is interested in the non-traditional, more shamanic, approach towards the Old Ways in the Northern tradition and is a journeyman herbalist (perhaps even more than that, she’s never outright said what her title would be). Like me, she doesn’t seem to have much patience with the more reconstructed versions of the Northern traditions. I don’t know this for certain, but she seems to eschew talks about Heathenism, Asuratu, Druidism or Celtic Wicca, and yet appears intimately familiar with the themes and folklore. She once said that her interests were not were not the same as most people’s interests on the subjects, and I suspect we are more closely aligned than she realizes.

Whereas I have taken a long detour into Eastern thought, Rachel has delved into the more practical elements of the Northern traditions. And then, she has made it local. I’ve only relatively recently “returned to the fold” and that’s not entirely accurate either — I am more interested in direct experiences than I am in indirect experiences (I consider rote ritual and holidays to be indirect ecstatic experiences), and so I don’t much fit in with the other groups around the city. At least, not that I’ve been able to find.

The conversation turned towards Rachel (“Little” Rachel will forever be how I think of her, because she is short as hell, but I mean that in a very loveable way) and her subsequent offer to haul me around and show me where to gather herbal materials for sacred and ritual work — which is funny, because I was about to offer up being her grunt if she was willing to deal with an apprentice who wanted to pick up some of her knowledge about the local plant life. I’ve been meaning to get more familiar with the local plant life for at least a couple of years now, and now I have a comparative expert willing to share her knowledge. It would be stupid to turn my nose up at such an opportunity.

All this because I read about mugwort in a book last night… Funny how things happen.

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4 thoughts on “A path into the woods

  1. “Recanning” is people’s weird attempt to get around the appropriation of Smudging, but the reality is they just changed the word and never bothered to change the actions (which themselves are a misappropriation and misunderstanding of not only the concept but the ritual itself). So it’s really just empty activism on the part of the vast majority of people who “made the change”; it should have came with legitimate attempts to reconstruct other historical spiritual cleansing methods, instead of treating it all like a plug-and-play. But what else is new in Pagansim.

    Regarding Mugwort, though, it’s not actually all that uncommon. The problem is Pagans tend only to be overly-familiar with Eastern and Northern European practices, and Neopaganism has largely been overrun with bastardized American conceptions of Indigenous American rituals. Both of which tend to drown practically everything else out (unless it’s some equally bastardized Asiatic thing) …. By contrast, Mugwort plays a much more prominent role in Eastern European folk practices- which themselves are a holy minefield of Neo-nazism and pseudohistory just as difficult to navigate as the Nordic practices tend to be. There is also an issue of the fact that most sources have largely not been translated yet, so unless you speak a Slavic language or have a friend willing to do translations for you, it is much more difficult to actually access the folklore by comparison. It is unfortunate. But the material does exist, however uncommon it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments.

      I agree, most of what is out there tends to be “if it worked for [so-and-so], we’ll use it, regardless of context or appropriateness” as far as the neopagan community goes, and is a part of why I have largely left the organized variants myself, preferring to find my own path towards an understanding rather than one built more on appropriation, popular fiction, and strained suppositions. Too much feels like covering post-conversion common practices with a new coat of paint and claiming it is somehow different and authentic by virtue of insistence.

      I have at my disposal some Eastern European resources because I am a collector of such treasures (information rather than physical, mind you), and I agree with your assessment there as well that it is hard to navigate unless you speak one of the languages (which I don’t). However, I get some information by way of “professional scholars” (e.g., PhD folks with a liking for folklore) who present it in drips and drops. I see the value of including such things as part of understanding the larger patterns, but haven’t dug into it yet — as Northern European information has been a goldmine of interconnected information for me to ponder at this time while the Eastern European is less prone to giving up nuggets of valuable information. But — I intend to follow up on those resources as well once I exhaust the current wellspring to my satisfaction. I like how “earthy” the Eastern European folklore feels in comparison to the more “airy” feel of the rest of the continent, if that make any sense.

      Anyway — thanks for your thoughts, as they give me something else yet to ponder.

      Liked by 1 person

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