My just-published book, Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 , reconstructs some of the ripped webs of women’s spiritual culture, destroyed by priestcraft and the witch hunts. It is intended as a sourcebook for hard-to-find knowledge about oracular women, divinatory ceremonies, and herb-chanters; and goddesses, fateful spirits and female ancestors. Here I want to share the visionary aspect of my journeys through these heathen heritages, through art.
Over the last four decades, as I pored over medieval texts, women’s histories and studies of folk tradition, I was trying to envision what these cultures would have looked like and to bring it out from behind the heavy curtains of christianizing culture. The first painting draws on early medieval manuscript style, with the large staring eyes seen in the Book of Kells and Germanic art, but integrates iconic figures of Goddesses and Tree with a more modern naturalistic background.
Norns of the Rune Tree
The Völuspá (“Sibyl’s Prophecy”) is the oldest poem in the Icelandic Edda. It is sung by a seeress, who tells of the all-knowing Fates who dwell under a great Tree beside an ever-living Well: “Urd is one called, Ver∂andi the next, and Skuld, the third. They mark on the wood, they ordain laws, they allot lives for human children, speaking their fates.”
These primordial Three Maidens lay down the laws of Nature and shape the destiny of all beings, carving runes into the Tree. These are the deepest Mysteries. In the painting, the sacred Well of Life flows out of the Earth beneath a Mystery Tree, whose roots reach into the underworld, its branches into the heavens. From this great ash tree fall vitalizing dews that moisten the soil underneath and nurture swarms of bees.
Here the eldest Norn, Ur∂r, is shown as a Spinner of Fate, sitting beside the Ur∂rbrunnr, the primal Well of Being that is named after her. In the center, under the Tree, sits Verthandi, nourishing a serpent at her breast. She is modeled after numerous Frankish depictions of Mother Earth that survived in the margins of Christian texts. The third figure standing next to the tree is Skuld, shown as a maiden holding a staff topped by a raven. She is touching the runes that the fateful Maidens have inscribed on the Tree. Around the borders is a passage from the Völuspá, rendered in characters of runic style, that describes the Tree and Norns.
Ur∂ means “became,” Verthandi “becoming,” and Skuld, “shall be,” a name that connotes “fore-ordained” or “what will happen.” The names of the Norns are derived from a very ancient Indo-European verb meaning “to turn, to revolve, to spin.” Eventually, this verb drifted into the meaning “to become” in Germanic languages. Thus the Norns are named from the Norse verb verða, “to turn, to become.” In Old English, the name for Fate was Wyrd, a direct correlate of Norse Ur∂r and German Wert. In Shakespeare’s time, weird still meant “destiny.”
This complex of meanings gave rise in turn to Germanic names for a Fate goddess who personified causation, change, and movement through time. The Norse knew her as Urðr, the Germans as Wurt, and the Old Saxons called her Wurð. In Old English her name was Wyrd or Werd, giving rise to the medieval word for destiny: weird. All these fate-names derive from the ancient verb of turning, in its completed form. The shaper of destiny is herself the sum of fates fulfilled, and in turn brings new things into being.
The Norns “shape” destiny, or “lay” fate, lay down natural law. Poems and sagas speak of their fate-shaping (sköpum norna). The three Norns “shape every human term of life,” skapa mönnum aldr, or skôp î ârdaga, “shaped the yeardays.” This shaping (skop) is named from a root that means “to create.”
Anglo-Saxons had the same concept: wyrðigiscapu, “shaped by Wyrd.” She is the etymological equivalent of Norse Urðr. The “shaped” metaphor refers to destiny in Germanic tongues: Old Norse scop, Old Saxon giscapu, Anglo-Saxon gesceapu. In Old Saxon proverb, fate was literally “shaped by Wyrd,” wurðigiscapu, or “shaped by the Powers,” reganogiscapu. [Excerpted from Witches and Pagans, p. 2]
The Three Weird Sisters
Originally, Weird meant “destiny.” It was the name of the eldest Fate—English Wyrd, Norse Ur∂r, German Wurt. Medieval sources describe her as weaving fate, knotting, causing, arousing, ordaining, dissolving, and transforming. Around 900 CE, an Anglo-Saxon proverb declares, “Wyrd is mightiest.” (Wyrd by∂ swi∂ost.)
Wyrd appears often in Old English gnomic verse, which encoded folk wisdom in mnemonic rhymes. …
In gnomic verse, the Old Goddess brings into being, moves and changes. Seo Wyrd geweard: So Wyrd became, or happened. She arrives at moments of destiny: “The Wurth drew near,” and “Thiu Wurðh is at handun.” She also dissolves and transforms what already exists: “Wyrd swept all away.”
Some Old English gnomic sayings conceive of Wyrd as a weaver: “what Wyrd wove for me” (me thæt Wyrd gewaf). Another phrase is “woven by the decrees of fate.” Anglo-Saxon gewif, “fortune,” is closely related to gewæf, “wove.” The connection of these concepts is spread out over several northern European languages. Old English ēad, “fortune,” is related to the Lithuanian verb audmi, “I weave,” and to Norse authna “fate, fortune, luck,” and authenn “fated, destined.” [Excerpted from Witches and Pagans, pp 18-19]
This etching follows the pervasive Indo-European symbolism of the Fates as spinners of human lives and destinies.
The Cailleach Bhéara
An Irish form of the Old Goddess was the Cailleach Bhéara (pronounced Kalyakh Vayra), the “Old Woman of Béare,” in the magical province of Munster, on Ireland’s farthest western peninsula. Her name was Buí (“Cow”), but she was also known as Sentainne, “Old Woman,” because she “existed from the long eternity of the world.”
Folk memory connects the Cailleach to megalithic sanctuaries, and names many of them after her. She was said to have built some of these neolithic monuments in “one night’s work.” She hurled boulders from hilltop to hilltop, or carried the stones in her apron which came undone, scattering them across the land. Certain landscape features were her creation, as when she turned her bull into a sea rock by striking him with her magic staff.
Tradition recognizes the Cailleach Bhéara as an extremely old—though not necessarily aged—woman. Her great age was a sign of power, venerable and proverbial: “as old as the Cailleach Bhéara.” She is an ancestral mother to many peoples. The Prologue to the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare relates that “she passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband used to pass to death from her of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were tribes and races.”
Thus the Cailleach Bhéara is the “epitome of longevity.” A proverb of Connaught places her in a triad of ancient beings: “Three great ages: the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, the age of the Cailleach Bhéarra.” Folk stories from Munster add the even longer-lived Otter of the Rock and the One-Eyed Salmon of Eas Rua. The Welsh also told stories about the longest-lived animals who remember the history of the world.
A woman of Tiree once asked the Cailleach how old she was. She replied that she remembered when the Skerryvore rocks were fields where barley was farmed and when the lakes were little wells. The same is said of the Loughcrew monuments atop Sliabh-na-Caillíghe:
I am poor Cailleach Bhéara,
Many a wonder have I ever seen;
I have seen Carn-Bane a lake,
Though it is now a mountain. [Excerpted from Witches and Pagans, p. 176]
I envisioned the Cailleach Bhéara as a woman so aged that her face has the texture of old wood, but filled with vital power and the wisdom of the faery kindreds. Not a submissive kind of woman, she is a wild, indomitable being who roams across the landscape and, as the Scots used to say, yearly renews herself in a sacred well before dawn.
Freyja Fjadrhamr: the Feather-Robed
The Great Goddess of Scandinavia flies across vast distances when she puts on her shamanic falcon-robe. Or she takes the form of a sow or mare, or rides a goat, or in a chariot drawn by cats, or travels across the world in a ship. Freyja means “Lady, Sovereign.” She is the Vanadís, ancestral Mother of the indigenous Vanir. She blesses the living and the dead, and escorts the spirits of the dead in the form of a mare to her hall, Sessrumnir, “rich in seats.” Another of her attributes is the Brisingamen, a brilliant necklace made of the sun’s tears.
I wanted to show her differently than the Freyja seen in Victorian art. She is a woman of substance, powerfully embodied, and surrounded by spirits. The runic writing on the banner reads Freyja Fja∂rhamr: the one who goes in the feather-form. The word Hamr meant “skin, shape, form,” and was one of many Norse names for spirit, soul, and energetic states.
The Oseberg tapestries depict two women with animal heads, one with a boar mask-cloak and the other with the head of a vulture or falcon, wearing a wing-like cape. She evokes the fjadrhamr (“feather-robe”) of Freyja, as Anne Stine Ingstad Ingstad recognized. She interpreted the burial as belonging to a priestess of Freyja, an intermediary between the human and divine. She noted that the name of the site itself means “Hill of the Aesir,” and pointed to symbolism of Freyja and Oðinn in ritual scenes depicted on the two tapestries. They include sacrificed men hung from trees, a signature of Oðinn. Freyja’s boar connection is attested in Hyndluljøð 5, where she rides on one. Other texts describe her as driving a cart drawn by cats—a theme evoked by the cats carved on the wagon. [Excerpted from Witches and Pagans, p. 110]
The Irish word banshee (beansithe) means “woman-fairy.” The second part of the word refers to the megalithic mound (síd) and to the siddhe, ancestral spirits of the elder kindreds, the pre-Indo-European peoples. Beansithe often signifies a fateful woman, especially the guardian spirit of a clan, who appears as an omen of a coming death or other momentous events. But I wanted to recover the old, broad meaning of beansithe: “faery woman.”
In this painted ink drawing, sky-clad faeries relax in the living waters of a spring, amidst the greenery of Erin. The viewer gazes into the faerie realm through a frame of vegetation filled with the swirling La Tène patterns of ancient Celtic art. These patterns were inscribed on mirrors before the Roman conquest (primarily in Britain), and one of those mirrors appears in the background. Mirrors and combs figure in folk tales about faery women in the Gaeltacht (the Celtic-speaking rim of Europe) as well as among the Basques, Spanish, French, Germans, Slavs and Scandinavians. They are strongly association with water and growth, because the faeries are spirits immanent in the land herself.
The name fata spread with Latin to western Europe during the Roman empire. In the fifth century, Martianus Capella wrote that the wilderness is populated by fauns and nymphs (spirits of the woods and fountains) as well as Fatuae or Fanae “and from this name is drawn that of Fana which is given to their prophecies.” (Fane, “shrine,” came from the same root.) Early medieval clerics recorded that people paid honor to fatales deae, “fate goddesses”, or simply fatae, “fates.” The common people understood them “as prophetesses, endowed with a divinatory power in fits of sacred delirium.” …
The core concept was “fatedness,” as Noel Williams describes. Over time, “fata became attached to the Celtic goddesses in vulgar Latin and, as that language became Old French, the /t/ was dropped to give *fa’a, thence fae.” Williams points to “the frequency with which Celtic females appear in multiples of three, their gifts of prophecy, their association with spinning or their association with the world of the dead.” [Excerpted from Witches and Pagans, pp. 12, 14]
This association of the faeries with fates and ancestors loomed increasingly larger as I delved deeper into the ethnic sources while researching and writing Witches and Pagans. This is an aspect of European folk religion that many people are not familiar with; but it connects those pagan traditions with Indigenous culture in other parts of the world. Connections like this surfaced in many areas: ritual staffs (the witch’s wand!), ecstatic ceremonies, and vision quests on the land.
For over 40 years, Max Dashu has presented hundreds of slide talks at universities, community centers, bookstores, schools, libraries, prisons, galleries, festivals and conferences around North America and in Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Australia, Belgium, and Austria. Dashu is known for her expertise on ancient female iconography in world archaeology, women shamans, witches and the witch hunts, mother-right cultures, patriarchies and the origins of domination. She founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970 to research and document women’s history from an international perspective. Dashu’s work bridges the gap between academia and grassroots education. It foregrounds indigenous women passed over by standard histories and highlights female spheres of power retained even in some patriarchal societies. Dashu published Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (Veleda Press, 2016). As a visual artist, Dashu has created hundreds of images of the Goddess from the pantheons of many cultures and times.