Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Helið, An Almost-Forgotten Anglo-Saxon goddess

Since my last post was on my thoughts of what role UPG can reasonably play in modern Heathenry, I suppose it's fitting that this post is based heavily on UPG. 

Over the past year, I've been gravitating towards Anglo-Saxon Heathenry, along with the syncretic Celtic-Norse overlap created by invasion, trade, and marriage in both Ireland and Scotland with the Norse. One difference between Anglo-Saxon and Norse-centered Heathenry that may not be a major issue to other Heathens is that the Anglo-Saxons didn't seem to have a particular god or goddess associated specifically with healing practices. Being a Massage Therapist, an Herbalist, and midwifery student, this took a little of the wind out of my sails.
The Norse had Eir, even if there was only a passing mention of her in the lore. Since my initial introduction to Heathenry was from a Norse perspective, it was natural for me to gravitate towards gifting to Eir, and calling upon her assistance in my work in various healing arts. I feel I have a good working relationship with Eir, but that doesn't translate to Anglo-Saxon Heathenry in the same way that the major gods and goddesses do, like Thor to Thunor, Odin to Woden, Tyr to Tiw, and so on. (And that doesn't even deal with the possibility that those correlations are not as identical as the names might imply.)

One potential option for an Anglo-Saxon god to call upon during healing is Woden. While healing isn't exactly what Woden is most known for, he is called upon in both the Nine Herbs Charm and the Second Merseberg Charm. My friend, Morgan Daimler, wrote a nice article about Woden as a potential ally in healing on her blog found here.


A couple of months ago, I learned about an almost entirely forgotten Anglo-Saxon goddess and her potential association with healing. Her name is Helið. There is a short entry online about her on the Wednesbury Shire website here. Helið would be pronounced something like "Hay-leeth", I believe. The only references regarding Helið are that Augustine destroyed her idol, and that John Leland called her the "Saxon Esculapius, or preserver of health." That's really not a lot to go on, but it was a starting point.

I said a bede to her, asking her to help me get to know her. And this is where the UPG alert should be going off with huge, flashing red lights and very loud sirens. (Please see click here for my thoughts on UPGs.) The imagery that came to me was of of a woman about ten feet tall, much larger than a human. Probably a fitting way to "see" a goddess. I saw her with long, blonde hair, a white underdress, and a blue overdress. She was holding something in her right hand that looked like a wand. I "heard" that it was an "applewood wand" used in healing work. She was banging her fists against the wall of a stone building and shrieking. I heard the words, "They desecrated my well!" It was a rather upsetting scene, and it shook me at a core level to bear witness to this. It felt like she had been locked away from her people by this stone wall, which I took to represent a church. I'm not sure if it represented a specific building, or just "the church" as an institution. 

When my prayer/meditation was over, I remained shaken by the experience. Not shaken with fear, but shaken with something more akin to grief. I felt the need to make some effort to make amends in some small way. The first step was making an idol to replace the one that was destroyed. I really don't know anything about working with clay. I made my idol with some Sculpey, which is probably a good thing since it's pretty forgiving and won't dry out before you're done. Here are a few photos of the idol. The proportions of the head to the body are off, but for my first time making anything with clay, I'm pretty proud of it. And no, that's not her flipping the bird, that's my rather rudimentary representation of a wand.

I have baked the clay and it's ready to paint. Now, to just get over my fear of messing it up, since I also know nothing about painting!

An internet search for St. Augustine's Abby near Cerne Abbas turned up something interesting. There is indeed a sacred well at the site, also known as the Silver Well, reputed to have healing powers, as well as a wishing well for girls asking St. Catherine for husbands. A photo of the well is below.

So the second step I took was to find a representation of a sacred well that would work in my apartment. I opted for a tabletop indoor fountain as an appropriate substitute and symbolic gesture. However, the fountain I chose ended up not being well-made, leaked everywhere, and now I'm on the hunt for another one. I have collected an apple branch to make a wand as an additional representation of Helið to place on my vé, but I haven't done anything with the wand-to-be yet.

Something else that I "heard" was that Helið was also a "Bringer of Prosperity". That might seem out of place for a goddess potentially connected to healing, until you consider that the Anglo-Saxon term haelu encompassed health, wholeness, holiness, prosperity, and safety. Rather than reinvent the wheel, a well-written article on haelu was crafted by the lovely Cat Heath, which can be read here.

There is a distinction that I would like to make here. Helið and Eir feel like two very different entities to me. Eir always feels like a purposeful healer, both a skilled herbalist and physician with a calm, reassuring bedside manner. I see Helið, however, as more multi-dimensional, a creative and support force that includes healing, but isn't solely a "healer" in the sense Eir is. To me, Helið feels like the embodiment of haelu.

I will share one last personal story about Helið in the role of healer. On the first day that I said a bede to her, I had been suffering with horrible back pain for a couple of months. It was to the point that I couldn't even stand up straight to for simple tasks, like doing the dishes. I was seeing a chiropractor and doing very gentle yoga to help alleviate the pressure in my spine. After saying the bede and witnessing this scene of Helið screaming and banging on the stone wall of a church with her fists, I sneezed (how lofty and spiritually moving, right?), which resulted in a major "pop" in my back. The majority of the pain was gone with that pop. Literally, it was gone just that fast. Is this really who Helið was? Maybe, maybe not. But, the idea of bringing back recognition of a goddess who may have otherwise been lost to our memory, and focusing on cultivating haelu through her worship is very attractive to me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Role of UPG in Heathenry

The issue of UPG and what role should it play in Heathenry has been getting under my craw for the past few months, so here's my rant/take on it.

For anyone who doesn't know, UPG = Unverifiable Personal Gnosis, which means some kind of "knowing" or intuited information. It didn't come from reading the lore or any kind of actual evidence.

Every so often, ok- way too often, the issue of UPG comes up in some Heathen discussion, and it quickly turns into an argument between two camps: 

  1. If it's not in the lore, then it didn't happen, isn't true, has no place in Heathenry, etc.
  2. One's intuition is more important than anything else, no matter how wacky or out of sync with what is known it may be.

Both extremes irk me, because both (in my opinion) miss the mark. On one hand, the first approach can become a bit sterile. However, I do appreciate the need for evidence, and not everyone easily connects with his or her intuitive self. So I tend to be more tolerant of that extreme end of the spectrum. 

It is the second approach that bugs me far more. Most of the time, the excuse is some variation of, "We can never know what they believed because too much information was lost, so let's just believe whatever we want."  

Frankly, that's a lot of nonsense. There is a lot of information about the customs, values, and practices of pre-Christian Northern Europe available. Why place one's sole focus on speculation of what might have been lost, when there is ample existing evidence?

One excuse I heard recently is a real doozie. Apparently, it doesn't even matter what elder Heathens believed because every generation does things differently than their parents. Thaaat's right. A religion that holds ancestor veneration to be one of its more important aspects apparently doesn't need to concern itself with investigating what those ancestors might have believed- because it would have just been scrapped anyway. Gotcha. 

One way or another, it all boils down to some excuse to ignore what is known in favor of one's own pet theories, inner voice, etc. I suppose it's easier to believe the voices in one's head, as opposed to picking up a book. I also suppose there is some vanity in believing that you have this or that god on speed dial, or that you're so gosh darn special that a particular god or goddess is sitting on the edge of their seat just waiting to give you the inside scoop. 

So, what role should UPG play in modern Heathenry? This is just my opinion, but I think it can play an important role, within certain parameters: 

  • If UPG is in agreement with what is known, or at least doesn't conflict with something easily provable, then it might be something worth considering. 
  • If UPG doesn't require imposing the beliefs of another religion onto Heathenry in order to make the UPG work, it might be something worth considering. (Beliefs/practices from one faith to another are not automatically interchangeable.)
  • If UPG is in clear opposition to what is known, perhaps it is time to consider that it's not a direct communication from a god, ancestor, wight, etc., and perhaps it is merely one's own ego "talking." 
  • If UPG isn't in agreement with what is known, how far off is it? Is it just a little, or is it way off? Maybe there is room for some of the UPG that isn't too far off, perhaps it is more representative of our modern culture, where we live in the world today, and so on... just be honest about how far away one is actually stepping and why.
  • The possibility exists that the UPG may be something appropriate to only that individual, or perhaps for an individual kindred, and not across all of Heathendom.
  • If one is considering UPG to be a viable "source" of information, then it should be just as open to scrutiny as any other "source" would be. 

I'm not anti-UPG at all, and I have plenty of my own UPG moments. I am, however, anti-make-it-up-as-one-goes-along because that lacks a Heathen foundation. If that's what a person wants to do, that's their choice. But, just admit that what you're doing is making up your own new faith, and stop using the "we can't ever know what was believed because too much information was lost" excuse to get out of doing some reading, or to avoid the possibility that maybe it's not the gods talking to you.