Monday, 26 December 2011

How I became a muckle black wallowa


(This article was published in SPIN - Scottish Pagan Federation magazine - winter 2011)

My previously mentioned love / hate relationship with Orkney largely derives from an incident that arose when I first moved here just over two years ago, when I failed to gain employment in my area of expertise, despite having received emphatic reassurances that I would.  Since then, I have “only” managed to find work that is administrative in nature and I have at times felt rather under-utilised (in the midst of a recession, I am fully aware that this is an ungrateful attitude on my part!).  It is only very recently that I have realised that the only person still being hurt by my continuing to carry around my frustration, anger, bitterness and resentment at this, is me.

But back when I first moved to Orkney, this loss at no longer being able to describe myself as such-and-such a professional was a tremendous shock (to my ego) and I went into an extended period of bereavement and grief and general ego-stripping that my (!) plans were not happening as I (!) had planned.  I realised fairly quickly that this was one of those quaint spiritual lessons our Gods periodically enjoy bestowing upon us for our own good and growth, and I asked for a bit of guidance as I felt a bit lost on so many levels.  I was, after all, effectively an immigrant, albeit a legal one, a refugee, and I had yet to grow roots which would stabilise me in my new home.  I was disturbed, too, to find that the spirits of the land, which I had found so easy to connect with whilst on holiday here, were now, apparently, ignoring me and I felt truly abandoned on so many levels, entering into a spiritual depression akin to a mystical “dark night of the soul”.

I don’t think I was pleasant company at that time! 

But, in my despair, I returned to what had always comforted me and I started to research the witch tradition in Orkney.  In doing so, I discovered the Spae Wife characters.  Not only did I research but, by the usual synchronicities, the Spae Wives kept cropping up in conversations.

Spae Wives were diviners and dispensers of advice relating to the community's welfare, marriage and childbirth; they also sold wind to sailors and charmed away milk from cows.  In the Tankerness Museum, in Kirkwall, for example, in the Victorian exhibits, there is a little leather pouch, supposedly having once belonged to a Spae Wife, which wouldn’t look out of place in the pocket of a “modern” hedge witch: it contains some folded paper, a couple of thorns, and a pin.  Instant spell kit!


In the 1880s, folklorist Walter Traill Dennison recorded the following ritual by which a Spae Wife obtained their powers:  At full moon, at midnight, go to a beach alone and turn around three times against the sun, then lie down on the sand on the ebb – between the high and low tides – stretch out your arms and legs, place a stone between each limb, plus further stones at your head, chest and heart, so that you are enclosed by seven stones, then say aloud:

“Come tak me noo, an tak me a',
Tak lights an' liver, pluck an' ga,
Tak me, tak me, noo I say,
Fae de how o' da heed, tae da tip o' da tae.
Tak a' dats oot an' in o' me.
Tak hare an hide an a' tae thee.
Tak hert, an harns, flesh, bleud an banes,
Tak a' atween the seeven stanes,
I' de name o' da muckle black Wallowa!”

(Anyone having trouble with the Orcadian dialect?  Just read it aloud, and it makes more sense!)

The would be Spae Wife then lies quietly for a while, opens her eyes, turns onto her left side, and flings the stones one at a time into the sea, sending a curse with each one.  I couldn’t find the words of the curses to be used but apparently they are quite terrifying with overtones of demonic invocations.  One can only use one’s imagination, although some folklorists believe that these are more recent additions designed to purposely set an association with the devil that was never present in the original and underlying ritual.

So, having been so sure that I was “meant” to be in Orkney for a definite reason, and now feeling equally sure that I had deluded myself because all my (!) plans were falling apart, in desperation I turned to a rededication.  Thus, in early September 2009, on the evening of a full moon, at low tide, I set out for the Sands of Evie.

The Sands of Evie are not only the nearest sandy beach to where I live in the parish of Harray (Harray is the only parish in Orkney which does not contain any coastline), they are also another rather lovely and special place in Orkney.  They lie on the north-east coast of West Mainland, facing the island of Rousay, with Eynhallow Sound running between.  The mysterious island of Eynhallow can be seen to the north-west, and just along the coast to the north is the Iron Age Broch of Gurness.


 Rather than midnight, I purposely chose the liminal time of dusk, which I personally find much more conducive to magical Work.  The weather was fine but, being September in Orkney, chilly and windy (it is always windy in Orkney ...).  I wore plain black hooded robes and bare feet, parked the car, and immediately spotted the perfect location: a sand bar, only visible at lowest tide, jutting out into the bay.  Surrounded on three sides by water, joined only to the shore by a thin strip of sand, the sand bar was quite an exciting place to Work – I wondered if I would be finished before I would have to get my feet wet ... just how far would the Gods’ cosmic joke extend?  This added to the atmosphere of tension considerably.

I chose the stones from the beach carefully and lay down on the sand as the ritual instructed, placing the stones as directed.  It was dusk, just before sunset, and there was no-one else around, just me, the noise of the sea, and the plaintive call of gulls.  

In Orkney we don’t tend to have an autumn.  August is summer, September drops straight into winter, especially after the equinox when the nights close in extremely rapidly.  The winds are so strong here that the leaves on the trees don’t get a chance to turn red, but rather as soon as the leaves start to die, they are blown off and away.  So early evening in September, on a beach, in Orkney, in thin cotton robes, it was cold – too cold to hang around, too cold to hesitate about my rededication decision, just get on with it and get back into the warmth.  And besides, I really didn’t want wet feet, or wet anything, and that tide was certainly coming in ...

So I said the words and spend a few anxious and shivering moments awaiting the amazing insight, the flood of spirituality, the appearance of spirits and elementals, and the acknowledgement from the Gods of my new status.  Nothing!  I threw the stones into the sea, not making up curses (although I was tempted), but instead throwing away from myself those aspects of my character that I no longer needed; part of me was to die so that other parts of me could live.

Then I turned to go and realised that I had attracted an audience!  A group of about seven black seals were watching me.  They were very curious because one of them came right into the shallows, only about ten metres from where I stood on the sand bar.

I wondered if they thought I was a Selkie ... about to peel off my black-robed skin and slide back into the waters to play with my seal kin once again.  I watched them watching me for a while until the cold on my bare feet won.  I bowed to each quarter and to the site and its guardian spirits.  I said aloud: “Thank you, Lady, I am Yours”, because it felt right, and then I left, feeling that the audience of seals was very much an endorsement of what I had now become, that they had been sent as  emissaries to acknowledge and welcome me.


And what had I pledged to become?  What is a “wallowa”?  Orkney folklorists suggest that it is a word derived from Völva – a Norse shamanic seeress, a carrier of a magical wand.  In my experience, the Norse Gods are only a recent veneer in Orkney; far darker, primitive, archetypal and ancestral Gods are just about discernable underneath them, and the Spae Wife Works with those older powers.

I certainly didn’t feel different at the time but looking back now to then, and with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, I realise that the past two years have been a period of intense spiritual growth for me, albeit one through which I have at times been dragged kicking and screaming whilst I desperately sought to continue to hold on to my pessimism, cynicism, and pig-headed insistence that my (!) plans were best, resorting to immature sulking at the unfairness of life when I couldn’t get my own way!

And this, for me, is the nature of Pagan initiation – perhaps all initiations? – the ritual is only the original catalyst, the actual initiation comes after and tends to be associated with more general testing times but rooted in “this reality”.  And often it is only in looking back on what we were that we realise how much we have changed, how parts of us have died, how our skins have been shed.

And my love / hate relationship with Orkney?  Well, just perhaps the love comes from Orkney and the hate has come from me, the old me, who tried to force a new life into an old skin and was hurt when it did not fit ... the transition to wallowa, to Völva, is still very much a Work in progress.

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