I’ve never told you this story.
Mid-day in a St. Louis summer: not just hot, but humid, sticky – “muggy,” as we, the low-born of the south side, called it. On an August day like that one, the world seemed to glow orange under the proud gaze of Father Sun. His death didn’t seem so tragic to me in that kind of heat. Asshole had it coming.
It was about 11 o’clock in the morning, and I stood in the English Woodlands of the Missouri Botanical Garden – “Shaw’s Garden,” one of the great gifts of our local saint, Henry Shaw. The year was 2007; I was twenty-one years old. I was alone.
The English Woodland Garden is built for solitude; the traffic there was less than anywhere else in Shaw’s Garden, or so it seemed to me. It is a quiet, mazelike place, made of red cedar chip pathways that wind and twist around plots of black earth and green leaves. Black metal signs stick out of the ground, naming the plants: a swamp white oak here; a dogwood there; a collection of bishop’s hats at the foot of a tree. The Three Graces, Zeus and Eurynome’s bronze daughters, dance together atop a stone on one side of the garden. Squirrels rustle past in every direction.
At the edge of that garden, there once sat a wooden bower. I remember it being made of rough timbers lashed together with rope, the bark having been barely stripped from the still-round logs. Branches decorated the peak of its sloped roof, spread out like the limbs of the World Tree. It looked like a tiny Viking hall set in the middle of the city. I have been back to the English Woodland Garden in the years since, and that building does not exist anymore; it has been replaced by a weather-treated gazebo made of sturdy four-by-fours and riveted metal brackets.
Perhaps I remember it wrong, or perhaps they tore the old building down, or perhaps the winter crept into the logs and rotted them out. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing into being. It might have existed only because I needed it to be there.
Perhaps the garden knew I had no other temple. Perhaps it knew I needed a place to pray.
I stopped at the threshold, placed my hands on the rough frame of the doorway. Inside were two wooden benches, one to each side. A railing closed off the far end. Beyond the bower’s edge, the last few English trees melted away into the first hints of Japan.
I had come to the garden the year before with Sarah and Megan, members of my family coven. The three of us had been Pagans since we were children; we had been brought up to revere places like this. We were smitten. I remember Sarah running her hand across the tall beams of the frame –her face seemed to radiate light. “I need you to build me one of these,” she said, looking back at me.
At that moment, I wanted nothing more than that, this building that was more than a building, this edifice of tangible magic.
But a year had passed since then.
I emerged from my memories and entered the bower. I sat down on one of the benches and looked at my hands. I still hadn’t cried. I felt like I should have. That would have been the human thing to do.
You were gone. I had kissed you goodbye for the last time two hours before. I doubted I would ever see you again. You boarded a plane for Washington, DC, en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You had always said you were going into the Peace Corps–it was one of the first things you ever said about yourself. You never changed your mind, not even after we started to spend our Friday nights at restaurants talking until the waitstaff made us leave, not even after I took you to a dance while dressed as a giant mouse, not even after you realized I would never dare to kiss you and so you kissed me yourself.
You said you would be there for two years at least, but probably three.
We had only been together for nine months.
I had kissed you goodbye and watched you wheel your suitcase away into the bowels of Lambert International Airport. I had ridden in your parents’ SUV back to their house in North County. I had hugged them both goodbye–something else I would never do again–and driven back into the city, to Shaw’s Garden.
I shut my eyes. Sweat pooled on my forehead. I sat in the muggy heat and tried to focus. I began to chant the names of the gods; I pulled their names from my diaphragm like ohms, warping and shaping their names until they were pure notes that stretched as far as my lungs would take them.
I prayed to Odin, wanderer. Frigg, mother. Thor, protector. Tyr, oathkeeper.
I prayed to Freyr, sower. Idunna, youth-bringer. Balder, martyr. Loki, changer.
And I prayed to Freyja.
Freyja’s name rose from my belly. My eyes were clenched and my hands were clasped and I was not crying but I wished I were.
I prayed to Freyja, and I thought about you, and I wondered about what would happen to me next.
There was a feeling, like a gentle brush of fingers against my hands. I heard a woman’s voice in my ear. Trust me, she said.
If you say so, I said back.
There is a symbol I have been drawing, scribbled in the margins of notebooks and shakily drawn with a mouse in unsaved MS Paint files. The symbol looks like something like a Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon with a vertical line struck through the center. I have been drawing it again and again, trying to master the stroke of each line, trying to make it effortless and perfect, like calligraphy. This drawing is a kind of ritual, a quiet kind I can do whenever I think no one will notice.
I am drawing a bindrune.
The runes are an old Germanic alphabet – the Futhark, named for the first few letters, fehu, uruz, thurisaz, raidho, kenaz. The rune-carvers were not book-makers, at least not until very late in the medieval period, after they had been exposed to the kinds of writing that the Christians had brought north from the wreckage of the Roman Empire. Instead, the rune-writers carved the letters in wood and stone, and on metal amulets and bracelets. It’s hard to tell now what the Northlanders thought of their letters; they seem to have held some magical significance, because some runic artifacts have messages that can be plausibly read as magical formulae, and because there’s some evidence in literary sources of runic magic. But many of the runic messages are simply markers of property or identity, and most of the runic monuments were erected by Christians: the Jelling Stone, one of the most famous rune-stones, was dedicated by King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, and reads, “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” A stone cross has lines from the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, which describes the Crucifixion from the point of view of the Cross, carved in Anglo-Frisian. Some scholars, such as R. I. Page, have argued that the runes had little magical value attributed to them.
But modern Pagans, especially the Heathens who worship the Norse gods, have attached themselves to the runes. We argue over which Futhark to use—the 24-character Elder, the 16-character Younger, or the massive 29-character Anglo-Frisian Futhorc. We have taken them as a form of divination magic, a tool to view the future: we read the runes by drawing them from a box or a bag, each rune drawn lending its meaning to the situation at hand. That is the most popular form of rune magic, but there are others: runic meditation and visualization, runic talismans, even runic yoga. At this point, it’s hard to tell historical fact from occult innovation, a fact that makes academic runologists very cross.
One form of runic magic is the bindrune. A bindrune simply combines two or more runes into a single new form. We see them every day: the logo on Bluetooth devices is a bindrune of the characters hagall, or “hail,” and bjarkan, or “birch.” (H and B: Harald Bluetooth.) Magically speaking, a bindrune takes the component runes and combines them into one greater coherent whole.
The problem with bindrunes is that there are always more runes in a design than the rune-writer, or vitki, intended. The strokes of a runic character are so simple and so often repeated throughout the futhark that any design will include more runes than the vitki suspects. In the Bluetooth design, for example, there are runes for is (ice), nauthr (need), and raeith (riding) hidden in the design. That’s not a problem for a corporate logo; I doubt their graphic designers think of themselves as vitki. But for someone who does think of the runes as magical, something to be used only with consideration and care, it is a problem.
I am drawing this bindrune again and again, trying to tease out every nuance of these five little strokes of the pen. I am drawing this bindrune because it is the most important spell I will ever cast.
I never told you about Olivia. I don’t know why; I only dated her for a couple of weeks. It barely counts as a fling. I suppose I felt ashamed, somehow, because even though you and I had been broken up for months, it never felt like it took. You had been in Kazakhstan for years at that point; I hadn’t seen you in almost two years, not since Prague, where we spent a week together sleeping in a converted monastery and visiting the Gothic cathedral and the Museum of Medieval Torture Implements. I broke it off with you after it seemed like you might sign up for another year in the Peace Corps—another year away from home, another sign that you cared more about Kazakhstan than me.
Olivia was living with my friends Chris and Debbie. She was older than me, had crinkled butterscotch hair, narrow eyes, freckles. She had lost her job as a secretary for a railroad and divorced her husband, and was trying to restart her life. Chris and Debbie took her in, as they have taken in at least four other people over the years. They have shared their home, their food, and their time with these acquaintances, some of whom they only knew through video games, in exchange for almost nothing. I suppose that, once they decided not to have children, they figured they might as well take in strays.
I was living in Kansas City, not far from Chris and Debbie’s house, and we went together to buy pumpkins for Halloween. The pumpkin farm we visited had built itself up as a tourist attraction, with a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, a corn maze, an apple mill that spouted out gallons of fresh cider. There were six or seven of us on the trip, and we all acted like big kids; we chased each other through the corn maze, screaming and laughing. Eventually everyone else fell away and wandered off except for Olivia and me. We were holding hands by the time we got back to the car. Debbie and Chris noticed, but they said nothing, not until one day when Debbie came home early from work and found us making out on their couch. (They didn’t disapprove, except in an oh-you-kids way.)
You were due to come home about a month after I started seeing Olivia. Although you and I had been separated for a long time, I still planned to meet you at the airport; we were still friends, after all. I didn’t know how I would feel when I saw you again. I worried that I was still in love with you; I worried that I wasn’t. I worried how I would tell you that I had met someone else.
Two weeks before your plane landed, Olivia sent me an email. As much fun as I have had with you, getting to know you, spending time with you. I think my feelings are more platonic in nature in your direction. I thought about it for a moment. Agreed.
This bindrune I am drawing has, by my count, 12 or 13 possible component runes. Some of them are not auspicious: isa, the ice rune, implies stasis, hardship, “bark of rivers, roof of the wave, destruction of the doomed,” as the Icelandic rune poem says. It’s also a straight vertical line: it’s unavoidable. But there are ways to work around this. The vitki can choose which individual runes to “load,” or charge with energy; I can pick the runes I want to keep.
I have decided to load nine runes. Nine is a magical number in Norse numerology –three threes. Odin hung himself for nine days; Thor will take nine steps before he dies at the end of the world; from the branches of the World Tree hang nine worlds. Nine is a locus, a point of resonance.
So I draw the bindrune, and as I draw, I sing the names of the runes. I sing their magic into being.
Raidho, the rune of journeys.
Naudhiz, the rune of necessity.
Tiwaz, the rune of law.
Ingwaz, the seed-rune.
Gebo, the gift-rune.
Sowilho, the sun-rune.
Ansuz, the rune of ecstasy.
Wunjo, the rune of joy.
Othala, the rune of home.
I sing the names of the runes like I sang the names of the gods that day in the bower, notes, long and low, rumbling from somewhere in the pit of my body. I sing them and draw them and bring them to life.
It takes me almost a year before I can do this well enough to trust it. Magic should not be rushed.
We are going down, down, down into the grass and the roots and the dirt. We are staring up at the branches and the bark of a tree that stretches into infinity above us. A squirrel is perched on the trunk, staring down at us with his fierce rodent eyes. I know the squirrel’s name. I have seen him before; in some strange way, I feel that we are friends. I chatter his name at him. Ratatosk. But I am sucked below the earth before he can reply.
Down below the earth, down, down, down: we find ourselves on a path leading to the edge of the underworld, a road that leads to a stone well. This is the Well of Wyrd, where Odin gave his eye for one drink of the waters of wisdom.
It was Valentine’s Day Weekend of 2013. I was at Pantheacon, a Pagan convention in San Jose, California. I and sixty other Pagans had gathered in a dark hotel conference room for a ritual called a seidhr, a mixture of meditation and divination, an attempt to reconstruct a kind of magic described in the Icelandic Sagas. The people running this seidhr were Diana Paxton and her Heathen group, Hrafnar Kindred. Paxton is one of the most famous Heathen writers in America, and we were there in part because of her star power.
In a seidhr–at least the way Paxton and people who follow her example perform the ritual–the group visualizes the World Tree, Yggdrassil, and settles into a trance. A guide leads the meditation down into the roots of the World Tree to where the Well of Mimir rests. Meanwhile, one or two experienced practitioners go deeper—the metaphor used in the ritual is that we, the laity, stay on one side of the well, and the seithkonna, the oracle, goes to the other side. The seithkonna invokes a deity, or an ancestor, or a nature spirit—it varies, depending on what questions are asked and what the seithkonna specializes in. (Paxton, for example, is famous for channeling Odin.) While channeling, the seithkonna speaks with the entity’s voice and dispenses wisdom, insults, advice, and lies, just as if the entity were truly in the room. When it is done well—and Paxton is very good at it—the illusion can be startling.
To some degree, of course, it was all vaudeville, and we were only sitting in a hotel conference room, and the oracles were just saying whatever came into their heads. But that’s all any religion is: a versatile, useful, occasionally painful form of vaudeville.
Odin is the god of many things, but among them, he is the god of the runes, inspiration, poetry, magic, wandering: all things which call to me. He is the god I honor most frequently at my own altar. But the seithkonna that night specialized in invoking Freyja, and she was who I needed to address. The guide called on me, and I knelt before the oracle.
I thought about you as I knelt there. I thought of how we met in college: you needed a case study for your discourse analysis class and decided to study my Dungeons and Dragons game. I thought about the mixtape you gave me when you left for the Peace Corps, about Prague, about our break-up phone call. I thought about the rush I felt when you walked into the baggage claim after you returned from Kazakhstan, how we stood on your parents’ front stoop that night and kissed goodbye for the first time in years. I thought about your dark hair and your green eyes. I thought about how you had gone to graduate school in a different state and how you had spent the last summer learning Kazakh for your dissertation research. I thought about your Irish Catholic parents and how you had refused confirmation. I thought of the night we made love and together chanted the names of my gods.
I thought about how I had loved you for seven years and how we had never lived in the same city, not once, except for those first nine months before you joined the Peace Corps. I thought about the email Dr. Samuel Cohen of the University of Missouri had sent me the day before, asking me to move further away from you so I could spend five years completing a doctorate of my own.
I thought of the day I spent in the bower at Shaw’s Garden, the day I felt Freyja holding my hand.
“Oracle,” I said, “I found out in just the past few hours that I have an opportunity ahead of me. Something wonderful. But to do it means I will have to be separated from my love for many years to come.” I was aware that I sounded unnatural, like a poorly written fairy-tale prince; but then, I was also in a trance and addressing a goddess. There was very little ‘natural’ about that setting. “I love her. But we won’t live together, and I don’t know if we ever will.” I paused. “Does that matter?”
The woman on the wooden throne before me, the woman who was at once a California Heathen and the Goddess of Love, War, and Magic, started to laugh. “If you want to get married, have a handfasting,” said Freyja. “If you want to file your taxes together, get an accountant.”
I thanked her and I sat down and waited for the guides to end the ritual, to bring us slowly back above the earth. Back to the sunlit realm of Midgard. Back to the base of the World Tree.
I thought about Freyja’s words as I walked back to my hotel; they struck me as brusque and strangely modern. Every seidhr warns that the words of the gods are filtered through the knowledge and experience of the seithkonna, but still, I was troubled by this.
And then I fell to the sidewalk, laughing like a madman or a saint.
We are walking, you and I, through St. Louis’s Tower Grove Park, perhaps my favorite place on earth. It is the other great gift of Henry Shaw to his city, a gorgeous city park filled with Victorian pavilions. Just a few moments ago, at one of those pavilions, we held my family coven’s 2013 Beltane ritual. It is the fourth of May, and a cold rain has fallen most of the day. It is just now starting to clear, but still, we have to wear our coats–mine workman’s black, yours Carmen Sandiego red.
We come to a stone bridge across a dry creek. Next to us is a tree that splits at the base of the trunk, rising upwards into three distinct poles. I call this tree the Maiden, Mother, and Crone; I found it while I was scouting out a place for this moment.
I stop you. “Do you have the letter?”
You pull a sheet of legal paper out of your purse.
I sent you three letters, each sealed in their own envelopes, a few months before you came home from Kazakhstan. Each had its own instructions. The first said to open immediately—it was just a letter between two friends. We hadn’t talked in a while, and I wanted to tell you what my life had been like since we had broken up. The second had a note attached: don’t open this until the day before you get on the plane. That letter said I thought I might still be in love with you, that maybe we could try again when you got home. That letter smoldered in the back of my mind the whole month before you came back; it was already in the mail before I met Olivia. I would have asked you to burn it, but Olivia dumped me first, and thereby did me an incredible favor.
The third letter said: Don’t open this unless I ask you to open it, which I may never do. And you didn’t. I have told this story to a dozen friends, and each of them has said they would have ripped it open within ten minutes of getting the package.
Now, today, I am asking you to read this letter.
You don’t start to cry until I produce a black box from my pocket. Inside sits a white gold ring with a star sapphire–you said diamonds were overrated–and a band inlaid with the bindrune I have been drawing over and over for months.
Raidho, because we will make our journeys together.
Naudhiz, because we will live in mutual need.
Tiwaz, because we will consecrate our union under the law.
Ingwaz, because this is the seed of our future.
Gebo, because this is the greatest of gifts.
Sowilho, because this is the only light in darkness.
Ansuz, because we share in the same ecstatic breath.
Wunjo, because we share in the same all-encompassing joy.
Othala, because we exist in separate houses, but we live in a single home.
“You should know,” you say through kisses, “that you are the least subtle person in the world.”
Perhaps. But I have spent seven years casting this spell. I never meant for it to be subtle.
Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.