Tag Archives: Norse

Spirits of Michigan

A bioregion is a landmass that has continuously similar geography, flora, fauna, and human culture, usually centered around a shared watershed. Bioregions are unique in that their boundaries are not marked by national, provincial, or state borders, but instead by the land itself, the native plants and animals, and the people who live there. A bioregion is where geography, wildlife biology, ethnobotany, and anthropology meet — where science, nature, and folklore are one. “ Sarah Anne Lawless

Hello again folks!

I hope the above quote gives you an idea of what I want to talk about today. The fact that this post is titled “The Spirits of Michigan” is no accident. I want to take some of the previous posts I’ve made and tie them together in a more expansive way. In other words, I want to write a little more about things I have already touched upon.

In no small way, being a Michiganian is complicated, because Michigan is the land, but it is also more than just the land. It is the ecology, the biology, and the history. As the above quote points out, it is the unique complex whole that is my home. It’s cultural and geographical, as much as it is spiritual. My love of Michigan runs deep, as deep as the rivers that define the Great Lakes Basin.

(The green Mitten is me!)

Michigan is as much the land as it is the people, and the spirits that dwell here. It covers countless generations in time and space, from the glaciers that first carved the lakes, down to my own time. I am the youngest in a long, long line of bioregional animism. I was born to this land, the minerals and waters my very being. But, my ancestors are not from here. I’m a colonist, a settler. I don’t know this land the way the Anishanaabe did. It’s not part of my culture, nor is the culture of my ancestors. An orphan of two lands, but not entirely separate.

That’s a big can of worms to open, and as such I’m going to set it aside for now. That’s because, it’s a bit of side track. It’s not what I want to focus on right now. What I want to focus on are the overlaps, between what my ancestors once knew, what the Anishanaabe still know, and what I hope to relearn. I want to talk about the Mishiväki *, a word I just entirely made up. A hybrid of Ojibwe misha, meaning large, (mishigamaa, the name of Michigan meaning ‘large water’) and väki, a term from Finnish meaning basically ‘spiritual people/energies’. Large spirit people. Big spirit energy. Ha! It’s kind of fitting. The Spirits of Michigan.

(First People, The Anishanaabe)

(All these Germans and Finnish folks… )

Michigan’s prehistory and history is long and dense, and I’m not going to be able to cover it all here. Yet, I understand deeply why the Anishanaabe dwelt here, and why my ancestors moved in. It’s curious too, that the major demographics of Michigan also reflect in no small way the cultures I draw a lot of inspiration from, mainly Germanic (Nordic), and Finnish. Yes, there are other cultures in the mix too, and again I don’t have the space to go into all that.

At the same time, it’s not that surprising. Michigan in climate, flora, and fauna, has a lot in common with Finland, Germany, and the Nordic countries. Similar temperature ranges, and of course the Great Lakes themselves. Scandinavia and Finland are notable as peninsulas, surrounded on three sides by ocean and seas. Michigan has the Great Lakes, and the same connection to water. By the lakes, the bioregion of Michigan is defined. We have natural boundaries in almost every direction, and as the graphic above illustrates, that defines our watershed too.

Those are the veden väki, the spirits of water.

(Great Lakes, from a Ojibwe perspective from here.)

In addition to this, I’ve noted before how as much as the waters, Michigan is defined by the forests. Our history is full of old growth hardwoods and rich mixed boreal forests as you moved farther to the north. So too, is our history full of exploitative logging and lumber industries. Forests are our greatest treasure, and also our greatest loss. Those old forests are not around anymore, but thankfully they are not all lost. Planting trees and regrowing forests is a vital step to tackling the climate crisis. Those are the metsän väki.

Michigan is more than the ecology and the waters too. It is the people, and here I specifically mean the humans.** Civilization, the creations of human hands, are part of Michigan too. Our cities, our villages, the roads and bridges, all of it. These are part of the Mishiväki. The indigenous people, as well are myself, we are part of that as much as the forests and rivers.

I think that is why I like the more Celtic flavored concept of the three realms; Land, Sea, and Sky. Or in Michigan, more accurately, the Land, Lakes, and Sky. I also find the concept of the World Tree useful, and the rough correspondences to the three worlds; Middle, Lower, and Upper. This is an old shamanic conception, and shamanism in many was is the compliment to animism. It works great for relating to the bioregion of Michigan. As a way of framing spiritual relationships, as well as drawing on a deep cultural memory of trees and forests. As things should be.

Yet, in addition to all of this, we also have the spirits of our own industrial heritage and contemporary cities. The tulen väki are the spirits of fire, which has been essential for human society for a looong time. Fire, is also essential for smelting and metallurgy, and as the home of the US auto industry, also valuable to internal combustion engines. Fire is intimately tied to the raudan väki, the spirits of iron, and the gruvrået*** spirits of the mine.

(Big John Iron Mine, Iron Mountain, Michigan.)

There will be a lot more about those in future posts, but I want to say that civilization is more than heavy industry and automobiles. It is also farms, cities, and especially houses. In Finnish, the spirit of the house is usually referred to as the tonttu, which is closely related to the nisse and tomte of Norse folklore. These spirits dwelt upon the farm, in the house and in the barn, and often acted as protectors of the land. They are said to possess immense strength. There is also a strong ancestral connection, because some of the tonttu, were the original inhabitants of the land, often the first farmer to clear the field or light a fire on the property.

As the Great Lakes is home to a large shipping industry, it is also notable that tonttu spirits could also take ships as their home, these spirits are known as skeppstomte or skibsnisse. In Norwegian, the yard spirit could be called the gårdsrå. In modern times, I think it is safe to presume planes, trains, and automobiles would have their own kinds of spirits too. Car-väki. (whomp whomp) Okay, maybe not that last one…

(SS Arthur M. Anderson, a Great Lakes freighter.)

As I am coming up on the end of this piece, it might be fair to ask what the point of all this is? Well, that is a much bigger project than a simply blog post. Long story short, this kind of work provides the basis for me to do further field work. It is also me working my way through a kind of contemporary animism. Animism isn’t just about what was, but where we are standing right now. My home in Michigan is well removed from my ancestral lands, and in the same way I am far removed from those cultures. I’m not Finnish, or Nordic, and only look to them for inspiration. Still, that inspiration (means ‘in-spirited’, ha!) gives me a foundation in which to shape my own practice in current times. It gives me the means to shape for myself a very Michigan based kind of animism. A new way of rooting myself to the land, forests, lakes, and people I call home. It gives me the ability to shape new stories and bits of folklore that are rooted in our modern scientific and technology world and the ecology around me.

That is the whole point of bioregional animism after all!

Thanks for reading!

Notes/Sources;

*I like the symmetry of it too, that grammatically, the Anishanaabe root-word comes first (as the indigenious people did), and the ancestral root-word comes second. That’s weird grammar chronology.

** ‘People’ is a pretty wide concept in animism.

*** The Rå are Scandianvian/Swedish folklore spirits, with a lot of overlap with the Finnish concepts of väki and haltijas (spirits), as well as vaettir in Norse.

http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/paleo-indian.html

https://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/2019/08/01/spirits-of-the-waters/

https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/the-great-lakes-in-ojibwe-v2/

http://ironmountainironmine.wixsite.com/ironmine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A5

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nisse_(folklore)


“If you narrow it, you miss it.” A response.

This post is in response to a post by Helio, which can be found here.

I want to clarify some things from my point of view, because I feel some things have been lost in translation.

“So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview”

First off, I stated very clearly that I am only a polytheist by proxy. I am first and foremost an animist, though my worldview and practice acknowledges and allows room for beings I would call gods. The “monotheism critique” will be dealt with later.

Helio has this to say;

“What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person.”

My criticism of Helio’s piece is such; that conflating all spiritual beings as “gods” misses the fundamental diversity of such beings.

Spirits are diverse beings, and some come in kinds we can recognize, and some are so alien, so beyond our experience it is difficult to even think about them, to give words to the experience of them.

Helio and I would be on the same general page, if “gods” were substituted for “spirits” in his post. So on this level, the difference is merely semantic. However, some more depth is required.

“What is a god?” I think this is a great question, and one that is not easily answered. As I conceive it, a god is any being that makes me feel insignificant. Any being, that is so beyond me in age, experience, power, influence, or what have you, that I utterly feel small. Also, I generally consider gods to have an interest in human affairs, for various reasons.

I agree with the author when he says that this is not a clear black/white issue. It is not so simple as “x is a god” and “y is not a god”. There is a wide amount of overlap between categories of spiritual beings, and because many of these categories are humans creations, we can argue that each is arbitrary as well, because it is true. We put beings into categories to help make sense of them, but often these categories do little justice to the diversity of such beings. Categories are generalities, and the specifics often go beyond or overlap with other categories.

I think Helio gave some good examples of this; “consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir.”

However, I think it is dangerous to go from “there is some overlap between x and y” to “there is always overlap between x and y.” This logical extension just does not hold water when considered against the diversity of spiritual beings, and the relations between beings as well. Some are gods, to be sure, some are not, and some are inbetween, or neither. There is some overlap in some cases to be sure, but this is not always true.

While I cannot speak to the Roman sources, I am fairly familiar with the Nordic sources, so here I offer a couple of counter examples. Yes, I agree that there is a great deal of overlap, especially between the Aesir, Vanir and the elves, and other classes as well. Sometimes these are treated as separate classes, and sometimes spoken of as if the same thing. Also, there is no small amount of overlap between the dead and these classes. Warrior dead go to Valhalla, Freyja picks up some, and Hel picks up others, and so on. Hel is notably thought to be in the underworld. So no, there is no set “higher” strata which is exclusive for the gods. Beings of all types move around, and can be found on many levels. However, even if Christian-glossed, the old Norse sources do generally put their god-beings, in Asgard, in the branches of the world tree. Such an arrangement is not strictly a monotheistic idea, and I will say more about that in a moment.

At the same time, the Norse sources also make a clear cut distinction between gods and other beings in some cases. The Alvíssmál is notable in this case because it details several diverse class of beings, Aesir, Vanir, Jotunns, elves and dwarves. The Jotunns are the most notable example of beings that are not considered to be gods. Jotunns, speaking generally, are similar to the Aesir gods in many ways, going so far as to share a common descent in ancestry. However, they are not (again generally) considered to be gods, and in many cases enemies of the gods and what they stand for.

At the same time, there are notable exceptions to all this. Skadi is a case in point. A giant that was considered as an  Aesir and a Vanir. As I said, there are cases when spirits go to join the gods, but the reverse is also true. Perhaps not in the Norse sources, but there are sure to be forgotten gods and spirits. Beings which no longer had the status and worship they once did, whose memories and names are lost to time. Other beings can be ascended to godhood, and there are some cases as well where beings are “cast-out” and stripped of divine status. And this is not exclusive to modern monotheisms, either.

As for the “monotheism” of my thoughts, it is a fair point. It is something I will have to think about in more detail. However, at the same time, I feel such a critique does more to shut down the conversation then it does to enhance it. The reason for this is that many other systems of belief conceive of their world in similar methods, and some of which are far older than modern monotheisms. As examples, I have written about shamanic/animistic worldviews herehere and certainly in other places as well. It is important to remember that ancient as well as modern beliefs systems are not entirely divorced from the socialcultural realities that create them. It is no coincidence that the Norse cosmology resembles the society and culture it came out of. Also, even the Norse system drew from other inspirations, and people they encountered. They were also interpreted through a Christian lens when written down. The same is true of modern monotheisms. They drew inspirations from the people they conquered and converted. Christianity especially assimilated pagan ideas and holidays, and certainly some of the ideas as well. Can we say honestly where some of these ideas originated?

The point I am trying to make, and that was central to my original post on this topic, is that there is a fundamental diversity to the world of spirits and belief that we can barely grasp. We are forced, through our limited abilities, to create categories that makes sense of a whole other set of realities that do no always make sense to us humans. The complexity is too great, and eventually, our thoughts and languages categories fail.


Skaði and the Saami Part 2

Scandinavia has been populated since the glaciers retreated some 12,000 years ago. Some argue that these earliest people may have been ancestors to the Saami, while others argue that these people were later replaced by the ancestors of the Saami. There is not enough information to say for sure, only that there have been people in Scandinavia well before we have historical records of them. We can say for sure, however, that the Saami were in Scandinavia well before the first arrival of the Indo-Europeans around 2300 BCE, and the Germanic/Nordic bronze Age that followed.  I don’t have the space here to discuss all the nuances of the archaeological record, so I will leave that be for now.

Going back to the quote from Davidson, the question can be asked, how far do the basic concepts, the basic essence of Skadi go back? How far back can we trace the ideas that may have influenced her as we know her today? Here we turn to Mundal again; ” The consciousness among the Nordic people of this “other people” (Saami) who were so different from themselves, gives reason to ask whether the relation between the two people may have been interpreted and understood in the light of mythic patterns, and perhaps is reflected in the myths themselves.

When Saami people and their world and the relation between the Saami and the Nordic people is described in Old Norse texts, the parallels to patterns in the mythic world are sometimes striking. A detail in the text – or in the literary motif – which shows that the parallel is not accidental is the choice of certain words when Saamis are described. In some texts – or in some motifs – the Saamis are called jotnar, ‘giants’, or a few times dvergar, ‘dwarfs’. In the text the Saami man – or woman – may be called Saami and jotunn alternatively, or in some texts Saamis and jotnar are presented as members of the same family.” (Mundal, pg 348)

Some interesting implications here, and I have commented before on how jotunn are of Utgard, outsiders in a sense. It should come as little surprise that such “outsiders” or “otherness” is translated into mythical forms. Especially from the Aesir, which take the place as conquerors and champions against the jotunns. So then, we see mythical retellings of a conquering people fighting with indigenous people.

Once again, Mundal brings the point home; ” The otherness of the Saamis and their culture and the fact that they mostly lived outside the areas where the Nordic people lived, especially in the North, but farther south also in the border areas between Norway and Sweden and in the inland of Eastern Norway, conformed to the pattern of Midgardr–Útgardr. According to the mythological map the Saamis became the Útgardr people.” (Mundal, 349)

Part 3 will be coming soon!

References/Sources;

Davidson, Hilda Ellis. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe.

Mundal, Else. Coexistence of Saami and Norse Culture – reflected in and interpreted by Old Norse myths

Bjerk, Hein. Norwegian Mesolithic Trends


Ancestors

Let’s start with updates. Yup, not really a whole lot to say. I’ve been ramping up the writing again, and will have about half a book done in the next week or so. I started learning how to knap arrowheads out of bottle glass. My hands are showing the abuse from this endeavor. Hunting season starts with small game in just over a month, with deer season being just under two months away. So the preparations for that are already in motion. Practice shooting, scouting, making sure my gear is all in order, fletching and so on and so forth. I’ve already got a bit of the hunting fever. I have also been working on a few knives for my own use, and want to try again with the bow making soon. So much work, and so little time.

Some days, I wish I could just leave the civilized world behind and go live in the woods like my ancestors did, but sadly the world is a different place now.

Which brings me to the topic for today, the topic of my ancestors. Really, the whole point of this post is a chance to organize my thoughts for my upcoming submission to the Walking the Worlds project. The upcoming topic is Ancestors and Hero Cultus, and I’ve decided to focus more on the ancestors side, since I don’t do a lot of “hero” work.

The ancestors have been a core element to my practice since I first started ancestor work. To be fair, I have been interested in things like genealogy and history for a long time, and my ancestor work almost is an extension of that. It is a lot of work, a fair amount of time and money, but I only think it has strengthened my practice.

I mean, because what is ancestor work, if not honoring the heritage, the ideas, stories, beliefs and rituals left to us by our fore bearers? I think genealogy is almost implied when it comes to honoring the ancestors. It goes beyond that as well too, I think. After all, family, and therefore ancestors, aren’t always blood related.

As I was saying, so much of my spiritual work has come from my ancestor work. It has shaped my practice into what it is today, and will continue to shape it into the future. As my understanding of my ancestors has evolved, so has the core of my practice. I know I have touched on these things before, but I would like to expound on them a little more here.

As my understanding of my ancestors has evolved, so has the narrative that connects me to that heritage. The stories that shape my practice have changed, and so, has the practice. I want to expand that narrative now, perhaps for myself as much as for others.

My ancestor journey began with the paperwork, the genealogy. My mother’s line has been in Michigan for several generations, but my father’s line, admittedly were most of my work has been focused, had a knack for moving around a lot. My father was born in West Virginia, and going back, I have male ancestors from Kentucky, a brief stint in Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Right back to the early 1700’s. One of my earliest ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. William Haney, son of Michael/Mikkel Haney.

After that, the historical work dried up. I have no real idea why, a name change, illiteracy, the very act of crossing the Atlantic, I have no idea. However, I only had the slightest of leads. In those early days, Virginia was an English colony, so there is a good change that my ancestors came from England. Still, not much to go on. General guesswork, but not anything specific.

I had to turn to genetic testing once the paperwork failed. As it turned out, I was on the right track. Here is an excerpt from Ancestry, concerning my last name.

“English and Scottish: probably a variant of Hanney. Scottish or Irish: reduced form of McHaney. Americanized spelling of Norwegian Hanøy, a habitational name from any of four farmsteads so named, from Old Norse haðna ‘young nanny-goat’ or hani ‘cock’ (probably indicating a crag or mountain resembling a cock’s comb in shape) + øy ‘island’. ”

The genetic testing revealed me to be Y haplogroup I1, which by current research, probably originated in the area of Denmark somewhere between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, with pre-I1 people going back to the last glacial period in the area. My genetic testing, also revealed a high number of matches in Norway, and England, as well as surrounding areas. Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and so on. Really, anywhere you could get to by boat from Norway.

Thus, the ancestors of my ancestors probably have been in Scandinavia since the ice retreated, though of course this is only guesswork. It also has the potential of things like Sami ancestry, though once again only speculation at this point. Somewhere along the line, they migrated to England/Scotland from Norway, perhaps with a change from the Norwegian version of my name to the more English version. Vikings could be a possible connection, as they had a knack of going to England from Norway. Though to be fair, it didn’t nessacarily have to be the Vikings that brought my ancestors to England. It’s just make a good story, at the least. From England, my ancestors came to America during the 16th century. That’s the rough outline, at least for my mortal ancestors, and I am still working to fill in the details. I am hoping to find a way to contact some of those matches overseas. A lot of work still to be done.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve been learning, albeit kind of the hard way, that spiritual ancestry is more complicated than mortal ancestry. They simply don’t play by the same rules as the flesh. As such, among spiritual ancestors, can be counted thing likes dwarves, giants, elves, fairies, gods, animals, plants and such ad nauseum. It adds a whole new layer, and quickly bridges the gap into things like shape-shifting and divine ancestry. I’m am going to leave those topics lie for the moment.

I touched upon how this information has influenced my path, and I wanted to talk a little more about that. With what I have outlined already, my path draws a lot from my hunter-fisher-gathering ancestors, the northern Mesolithic from about 12,000 years ago up until farming took hold. This is where my shamanic interests come in, and my general animistic tendencies. I also find I get to apply my archaeological and anthropological training as well. But it doesn’t stop there, because there is a wealth of historical material as well. Obviously, I bring the Eddas and Sagas into the fold, because I count them among my heritage as well. Vikings and all that comes into the fold as well. Also, folklore bridges the gap from Pre-Christian times down to nearly modern times. I draw a lot from that as well. In addition, there is the Celtic element of my ancestry, because I have a decent cross section of ancestors from Scotland and Ireland as well. I explored Celtic related things in the past, and I have been looking at those things again, with the understanding I carry now.

As such, my current path (subject to change) embraces Celtic, Norse, Forn Sed (old custom in Norwegian, draws a lot from folklore), shamanism, animism, and a lot of other things such as hunting and survivalism as well. That is the gift of the ancestors to me, down through the generations.

It is true that there is a strong disconnect from the ways of my ancestors, as the old ways have not been practiced for some time, millenia in some cases. I am literally disconnected from the land of my ancestors by nothing less than the Atlantic Ocean and countless years of time. I wasn’t born into these traditions, and the burden that comes along with that is immense. I work with ancestors that have not been heard for eons, and it is difficult to know even where to begin with a backlog of a few thousand years worth of work.

I mean, being an Norse-Celtic-Anglo-American isn’t much right?

References/Sources;

http://www.forn-sed.no/main/english/information.htm
http://walkingtheworlds.com/
http://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=haney