How tempted I am, dear readers, to start this article with a lie. I could say that I’ve been a Heathen for 10 or 15 or 20 years, and it is unlikely that anyone would gainsay me. I could establish sadly unearned “Heathen cred” and who would know?
But it would be bad karma to start an article about spiritual renewal with a lie, and so instead I’m going to veer in the other direction, and admit that not only have I followed the Norse traditions for less than three years, but that the History Channel show Vikings played a significant role in my decision. In terms of Heathen cred, that’s about up there with admitting you took up a full-on hip-hop lifestyle after listening to a Pit Bull album. Oh, well. The secret’s out now.
Nevertheless, this article is not about my relationship with Vikings and how much I wish that I looked like Rollo. This is an article about how a single weekend deepened and enriched my Heathen faith in more ways than I would have thought possible. I attended the Hail and Horn Gathering at the Raven’s Knoll campground over the Canada Day long weekend, and came away renewed.1
After having made the decision to follow the Heathen path, I threw myself into the experience, reading voraciously, reaching out to different organizations, watching YouTube videos and reading blogs, and then reading more books, and so on. A lot of it was sifting through foolishness and misinformation, some well-intentioned and some less so, but above and beyond everything else this was an essentially individual journey. For a religious path that placed great emphasis on kindred and community, this was, shall we say, sub-optimal.
The obvious next step was to become involved in some kind of communal Heathen event, but I had balked at this idea. I have a strong streak of irreverent skepticism that has gotten me into a great deal of trouble at times, and has sometimes put distance between myself and very sincere people. “Sure thing, Ulfgrim Deathstorm,” I’ll think to myself, “the path of the shadow warrior has always called you, except when you did your accounting degree at Western and during your work hours at Manulife Financial.” I used to think that this was a kind of street smarts or cynical objectivity that gave me an edge, but now I’m starting to suspect it’s kept me from a great deal of fun over the years.
So, when a special person in my life suggested that I look into the Hail and Horn Gathering at Raven’s Knoll, I hemmed and hawed like a kid at the edge of the pool on a hot summer’s day.2 Well, when you’re at that point you really only have two choices, so I took a deep breath and jumped in.
Arriving at Raven’s Knoll
Raven’s Knoll, a 100-acre campground near Eganville, Ontario, was established in 2009 by its stewards, wife and husband Maryanne Pearce and Austin Lawrence, as an inclusive Pagan campground and permanent location for the Kaleidoscope Gathering, Canada’s largest annual Pagan gathering.3 As Austin explained it to me, “Because we had permanent land, we could have permanent shrines. Festivals have their sacrality of community, while shrines have the sacrality of place. Raven’s Knoll offers both. It’s a service to the community, to the Gods, and a chance to build something beyond self-interest.”
All of this lay in store for me as I roll into the campground late Friday afternoon, already struck by the heat and humidity that would prove a tremendous challenge for everyone over the course of the weekend. Within an hour, I’m standing in the beautiful Bonnechere River, water up to my chest, watching the dragonflies skim lazily over the swift-running current. This area will prove to be a favourite for overheated campers over the next few days.
I’ve regularly been reminded by various smiling campers and staff to make sure to drink plenty of water. “It’s good sense, and a way of saying we care,” says a woman named Myst, with a throaty laugh. “So, if I throw a bottle of water at you, it’s because I care.” Myst is one of the first people I meet, sitting under the canopy that marks the registration area. She’s a wisecracking Earth Mother with whom I feel immediately at home. I’ve known people like her my whole life — the ones who are at the beating heart of any organization that’s run for love rather than money. There is a whole crew of people who share that with her: Tim and Christina, who run the food truck, the YAG (short for Ye Aulde Grubbe); Sue, who runs the volunteer program; and Brendan, the year-round land manager who is constantly ferrying people and supplies, or rushing to attend to a maintenance issue.
The crew under the canopy are a welcoming bunch; they’re proud of the family they’ve made here, and are glad to share it. Their names for different areas of the camp — Tortuga, Yellow Brick Road, the Wall, Diagon Alley, 42, Bogside — remind me of kids naming different parts of a sandcastle. There is a joy in it, and it also sends a welcome signal that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
There are, however, important things that are to be taken seriously here. Raven’s Knoll and the Hail and Horn Gathering (HHG) are signatories of Declaration 127 and the Canadian Pagan Declaration on Intolerance. To quote the HHG program:
At this gathering the Folk, through Redemoot, have made it clear that they will not condone discrimination based on race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, Heathen creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, family status, or disability.
Related: Canadian Pagans taking a stand against bigotry and intolerance by Jade Pichette
The community attached to Raven’s Knoll pays more than lip service to these ideas; it is the most inclusive and welcoming community that I have seen in a very long time. They are also very serious about rules of conduct in sacred spaces. Their rules are simple and respectful, and certainly in keeping with the overall tone of both the campground and the gathering.
The afternoon passes in a sweaty languor, as more and more campers arrive. It’s too hot for full Heathen garb, although there is a smattering of tunics with bare legs, and I finally have an answer to the question of, “who would buy a utilikilt?” I am struck, over and over again, by the openness and warmth of the people in this gathering. These are people who know each other well, with all the in-jokes and gossip this entails, but they consistently include newcomers, and make a conscious effort to bring us into the fold. They are proud of what they have created here, perhaps none more so than Austin Lawrence, known universally as “Auz.”
I’m not even going to try to capture Auz in words (that would truly be tilting at windmills), but I will attempt a brief sketch. Suffice to say that this long-legged, long-haired, long-bearded man is erudite, charming, and filled with a sense of play. He bears the distinguishing marks of a Discordian past and he absolutely knows his onions. (Literally. He loves cooking, and I strongly recommend his YouTube cooking channel, Heathen Hearth.)4
Auz is joined by fellow steward and partner Maryanne Pearce, known simply as “MA.” (M-A, not “Ma.”) She bears strong academic credentials (both she and Auz have graduate degrees, and she has a doctorate in law) and is deeply involved in the government’s response to the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.((National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, mmiwg-ffada.ca.)) This work causes her to be late to HHG, arriving on Saturday evening. When I introduce myself to her, I am met with the same welcoming and open spirit that pervades the gathering, multiplied by several factors of intensity. This is a woman who has “mother” written across her genetic code.
I spend the first evening meeting and talking with a number of people, as I try to determine what draws people to a place like this. A young woman named Alex tells me about how she lived in a commune in Scotland with no electricity and no running water, and that things “made sense” there. She says firmly, “Paganism is about kin and family, and that’s how I was raised.” This is her first time at HHG, but over the weekend she fits in quickly and easily. A young man named Harry courteously takes me for a tour of many of the shrines and enclosures. His manner is easy and confident – he is not a newcomer – as he tells me about his PhD work (on Raven’s Knoll as a contemporary Pagan community) and we avidly discuss the challenges of making a reconstructed religion into a living faith.
The first evening’s festivities take me out of myself far more than I was expecting. Around the enormous hearthfire is time for open skaldry (the Heathen equivalent of open mic night) led by a capering, strutting, kilt-clad, gold toothed young man rejoicing in the moniker of Beef Castle Basil aka Baz. Completely in his element as he strides around the fire, he cajoles and encourages performances and before I know it, I’m up in front of the gathering, bellowing out a hastily composed poem on the marriage of Skaði and Njord. I will also — Odin help me — actually sing before the night is done. Blame the mead. Open skaldry is a remarkably intimate experience, from tales of personal gnosis to songs of loss and renewed hope. It’s awkward, it’s sweet, it’s moving, it’s entertaining, and then it’s done, as people retreat to various tents and trailers. (Generally their own — it’s too hot for anything else.)
The night features a thunderstorm, and the next early morning sees two ravens soaring over the Bonnechere River. “Steady on, Odin,” I murmur to myself, “save something for the rest of the weekend.” Ha. Be careful what you wish for. Even though I am up very early, I’m not up as early as Jeff Helmes, who is leaving the river after a swim just as I’m staggering towards the Green Fairies Compost/Recycling/Comfort Station. Jeff, who is quiet and unassuming and in ludicrously good shape, is a bladesmith who is so staggeringly good that he can make a living doing custom work. Not that he would ever tell you this, but others do as the weekend goes on.
Saturday’s busy schedule begins with a tour of Raven’s Knoll, conducted by Auz. His sweeping knowledge of esoterica is infused by his obvious love of the place that he has helped create. There are shrines a-plenty, as the Knoll is home to a cornucopia of Paganism, in keeping with the spirit of inclusivity that pervades the campground. There are too many spaces to name, from Bardic to Bear-Cult to Huntress to Trickster and a dozen others, but I am particularly tickled to see the shrine to the Elvii, majestic busts of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll gazing down in a regal splendour of Discordianism.5
At the end of the Shrine Trail is the Vé, the sacred enclosure dedicated to the Aesir deities and their allies. Standing within the Vé is a moving experience – you are left in no doubt that this is a sacred space. The god-poles of Odin, Frigga, Freyr, Freya, Thor, Heimdall and Syn wait to be joined by Skaði, a complex and intriguing kin of the Aesir. Her selection, decided upon at the conclusion of last year’s gathering, was the subject of lively debate, although no division lingers. The carving of the god-pole was completed the previous evening by Luna, a talented young artist of the Vindisir Kindred, a Heathen group that is based in London, Ontario.
The choice of Skaði provides an overall theme to the Gathering, and much of what happens over the next two days is shaped by this choice. At the heart of HHG are the three events that are what I have most wanted to experience, two of which are really impossible for a practicing Heathen to do on their own. These are blót, húsel, and symbel. Additionally, Saturday night promises an esoteric rite, once again shaped by the choice of Skaði.6
In the simplest terms, a blót is a sacrifice, most often to a deity or deities. It is a form of acknowledgement, and also a building of a relationship; the notion of “a gift for a gift” is central to Heathenism. A Heathen makes an offering, either as a gift that acknowledges gifts that have been received, or in the hope of gifts to come, or both.
By Saturday afternoon, the bottom three feet of Skaði’s god-pole have been fired (so as to prevent rot), and the pole is ready for transportation to the sacred enclosure of the Vé. I volunteer to be one of the bearers, and soon discover that while many hands make for light work, even light work is a challenge in this heat. Fortunately, there is no shortage of people to slip in and out, giving well-needed breaks. Together, we carry, raise, and set the pole firmly in the ground. Some sacrifices are made on behalf of the whole gathering (food, drink, the livers of the goats to be consumed at Húsel the next day), and many people step forward to make individual sacrifices. Although some people murmur under their breath or are silent as they make their blót, most people speak out loud about their reasons; why they give thanks, or what they are hoping for. It is, once again, a kind of communal intimacy, that serves to strengthen the bonds of the whole gathering.
The Esoteric Rite
Given the nature of this experience, I’m going to tell you straight away: if you are looking for a blow by blow recounting of events, you are going to be disappointed. I’m not going to tell you about the esoteric rite, I’m going to talk around it. Sacred mysteries are just that.
I will tell you that the rite was led by a remarkable woman named Brynja. A gyðja (essentially priestess), she is a Heathen community leader who radiates a combination of fierceness and vulnerability that I have seen before around people I categorize as genuine mystics. I will also tell you that the rite gave me some very personal answers that I found deeply fulfilling. They fall into that category sometimes called Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG for short.((I tell you, it was a frickin poet who came up with that terminology.))
Afterwards, as people come down from the experience (carefully observed and aided by Myst), many return to the hearthfire and quietly chat. I have the pleasure of talking with both MA and Jeff, and the time flies by until it is time for all of us to go to sleep, hopefully a little bit wiser.
The next day sees me up early once again and heading for the river to cool off, only to be once again met by Jeff going the other way, having already finished his morning swim. Muttering something under my breath about Boy Scouts, I begin my day. There are a number of potential activities in which to engage – a workshop, archery, board games, preparations for the húsel feast — but I join the crew who had befriended me yesterday, sipping coffee and sheltering in the shade behind the food truck. There are a surprising number of veterans among the Heathen, rebuilding lives shattered by PTSD and other ailments, and without sharing confidences, I would observe that their willingness to go outside of themselves to contribute to a community is testimony to their courage and strength.
Sunday is also the day that I act in confirmation of my own gnosis from the night before. I walk through the heat, barefoot and carrying a healthy amount of mead, back to the Vé, and stand before Odin’s god-pole. When I started down the Heathen path a few years ago, I felt most strongly drawn towards Odin, but I had stepped back from that and put those feelings in check. I had chided myself for picking from the top shelf, like people who search for spirit totems and always find Wolves or Eagles, never Chipmunks or Naked Mole Rats; or people who discover in a past life they were Marie Antoinette, never Bobo the Shit-Piler. But sometimes a Wolf is a Wolf, and hell, I guess Odin has to pick somebody. My experience in the esoteric rite had brought me back here, acknowledging the call, pouring mead upon the ground before the god-pole7 and belting out a full-throated cry of “Ooooodiiiiiinnnn!” at a level that I hope made a few squirrels book it, although at the Knoll they are probably used to that sort of thing.
Preparations for the húsel, or communal feast, had been going on for the past two days, although the planning of the feast had been going on for months. I invite you to peruse the menu for the feast, and if that doesn’t make your mouth water, I must tell you that the reality was even better than what is described.8
Honestly, I would have paid the registration fee for the entire weekend just for that meal. It is joined by good company, entertainment, an enormous amount of laughter, and that overall feeling of good fellowship which I would imagine is the goal of any gathering. The meal is served by members of the gathering, all volunteers who, once again, are sacrificing their time for the good of the community. All in all, it is a fantastic experience which leaves everyone feeling well fed and in good humour, ready for the symbel, which takes place immediately afterwards. Although there were, of course many, people who made the húsel happen, I would be remiss if I did not mention the genius and hard work of Chantal Layoun. If she had a past life, it was as one of the most hotly sought-after chefs of the Middle Ages.
If you want to understand the significance of symbel, you need to understand the importance of frið. It is often mistranslated as “peace,” but really has a meaning closer to “right relationships.” If your life is like a web, with different strands going in all different directions, frið consists of those strands which bind you in healthy relationships to people who are good for you, and for whom you are good. The greater your frið, the more you are bound to and supported by positive, healthy, functioning relationships. Thus, building frið is also building community, and this is the purpose of symbel. It is no accident that the enormous drinking horn which is passed around the gathering is called Friðdrífa – loosely, “an accumulator of frið” in the same way that a “snowdrift” is an accumulation of snow.
There are a number of different ways of practicing symbel, but HHG follows a simple symbel presided over by Erik Lacharity, a member of the Witan, who keeps the event moving and makes sure that proper etiquette is followed. He is a giant of a man, and like many such men, actually rather quiet, although very direct! His knowledge of Heathenism is encyclopaedic and reflects a lifetime’s enthusiasm.
The great horn Friðdrífa is carried around the gathering by Shoshanna, a devotee of Skaði who carries the horn to the front and her baby (Brynn the Tiny) on her back. Many people come forward to speak over the horn and then drink. Some share accomplishments, some give thanks, some ask for remembrance. Their stories are astonishing, reflecting courage, tragedy, loss, renewal, and so on. They are the stories of a true community – many of these people might only see each other once or twice a year, but let there be no doubt, this is a community, and frið is being both strengthened and in some cases built anew.
There is a break, and then Friðdrífa is carried around again, as people offer gifts to each other. As I mentioned earlier, the notion of “a gift for a gift” is central to Heathenism, and many of the gifts reflect earlier gifts given the year before, or earlier actions worthy of gifts, and so on. It is simple, beautiful, and sweet, and once again, frið is being built.
Finally, after symbel is complete (and by this point it is after midnight), there is one last ritual: the giving of arm rings. Each year, a portion of everyone’s registration fee is given to cover the materials and cost of the forging of two silver arm rings made by Jeff. These rings are destined to be given to two members of the gathering to recognize the contributions they have made. The whole gathering votes to come up with three names. These names are given to the previous recipients – known as the Doughty – who then decide upon the final two. One of the two recipients this year is the previously-mentioned swaggering, kilted Baz, whose cry of delight surely startles the most hardened of Knoll squirrels.
Leaving the gathering
At long last, the gathering breaks up, although there are many who stay and talk and drink and laugh. I have to leave early the next morning, so I will miss the final meeting (where next year’s god-pole will be chosen) and final farewells.
That’s ok. I’m a little exhausted, and overwhelmed. My weekend has given me everything I could have hoped for and more. My faith has been deepened and renewed. My understanding of what it means to be a Heathen has been deepened, and expanded exponentially. I’ve made new friends, and feel the potential for friendships to grow strong. So much frið. (Cue Oprah Winfrey: “You get some frið! And you get some frið!) As clichéd as it might sound, I don’t care: I’ve found a new home, and it is beautiful.
As I reverse out of my campsite, very early the following morning, I see Jeff, heading back after his morning swim. Next year, Jeff. Next year.
- Hail and Horn Gathering, hhg.ravensknoll.ca. [↩]
- This choice of simile may have more than a little to do with the current heatwave that Ontario is experiencing. [↩]
- Kaleidoscope Gathering, ravensknoll.ca/event/kaleidoscope-gathering. [↩]
- Heathen Hearth on YouTube [↩]
- A tradition I’m not even going to try to explain. Look it up. Fnord. [↩]
- For more information about Skaði, the simplest place to start is Wikipedia. [↩]
- Not too close, Auz. [↩]
- Austin Lawrence, “Skaði Húsel Menu 2018,” Hail and Horn Gathering Blog. [↩]