[This issue, we sit down with spirit worker Beth Wodandis. A talented jewelry-maker and fiber artist, Wodandis is also the author of two books about Odin and a third about Anne Boleyn. She blogs semi-regularly at Wytch of the North. Here, she discusses her work as a Maker, an author, and a independent businesswoman.]
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one common misconception about polytheism — ancient or modern — what would it be?
Beth Wodandis: There are so many! But I think the one that bothers me most is the notion that there was (or is now) one single overarching “polytheist” religion, where the names of the gods may be different from place to place but everything else is agreed on. This is a misconception fostered by monotheism, where there may be many variants but the basic outlines are mostly held in common. In contrast, polytheism is a riot of different viewpoints; it’s more accurate (though maybe a little awkward) to speak of it in the plural — “polytheisms.” What people don’t realize is that in antiquity when you journeyed from one town to another (let alone to a different country) often the customs, gods, mores — everything — would be wildly different from those of the last place you had left. I think it would do many polytheists — let alone outsiders — a lot of good to accept this; there is no one right way.
EHS: Your blog is entitled “Wytch of the North: Artist and Spirit Worker Beth Wodandis.” Each of those three things — wytch, artist, and spirit worker — seem to be of equal importance to you. First, why wytch, and why that spelling?
BW: Hmm, it looks like I’ve since changed it to read simply “artist and spirit worker,” and I can remember having “seeress” and “godspouse” up there too at various points in the past. I tend to shift it around from time to time.
I really like Bri Saussy’s description of herself as a sacred artist, and I also played with using that for a little while, although I think I may have been applying a somewhat different meaning to it than the one she intended (i.e., an artist of the sacred, rather than a maker of sacred art — assuming there’s actually a difference and I’m not just trying to dissect this too much). In all honesty, what labels I apply to myself aren’t actually that important to me; what’s important is my work. The labels are descriptors to let people know how I define my work — but in the end it doesn’t matter as much what I think of myself as what people decide about me, and since I have very little control over that, I don’t worry about it a whole lot. (As a sidenote, I don’t remember ever using the spelling “wytch” except in the title itself, which I think happened because Witch of the North was — at the time, at least — taken.)
EHS: Is “artist” a spiritual vocation for you? If so, how do you work your spirituality into your art?
BW: At this point in my life, “artist” is more truly my spiritual vocation than anything else is (other than being Odin’s wife — but I see Him, too, as an artist, with language, magick, and power being the media He works in). Initially, I saw writing as my spiritual vocation — at least back before I began trying to fit myself into all of the boxes people wanted to present me with. “Artist” is for me more all-encompassing, and also more freeing. For me, it is the exercise of glimpsing a potential — a spiritual idea or ideal as it might look, feel, sound or smell if brought into manifestation and expressed as physical matter — and then trying to reproduce that to the best of my current ability. Of course, my ability is always vastly imperfect (that’s the frustration every artist faces), but it does get better and better with practice. An artist translates spirit into matter — and so, for me, I would probably say I work my art into my spirituality, or that there’s no real distinction between them. They’re both continual works in progress.
EHS: How did you come to create your portable shrines? Where can people find them, and how did you decide which Deities to honor?
BW: During all the years I still worked at a day job, where I was away from home and working on other people’s projects, rather than my own, for 8-10 hours per day, one of the only ways I was able to claim my own little corner of a corporate environment was by placing a small portable shrine of Odin on my desk. It was my touchstone, a way to remind myself in both a visual and tactile way that I had another life, and other concerns, that the person who worked for XCompany was not the real me. I found out during this time that having little reminders like this can really help; even for people who enjoy their jobs, you can get so pulled into putting out the fire of the moment that you forget to take a deep breath, a brief pause to focus on your deities and your practice. Visual reminders such as spiritual jewelry and portable shrines can be valuable tools to help people do this — I know they always have been for me (and I do love my tools).
A few years ago, when I first started having a shop on Etsy, I was making little cloth deity dolls for the same reason, but they were so time-consuming I had to eventually give that up. I had played around with using polymer clay a few times before (in addition to sculpting in other types of clay) and I thought it would be fun to try to work up some deity figures in that format. They’re still very time-consuming, and rather exhausting to make because a tiny bit of the manna of that particular deity goes into them — a gift from the deity to the person who will adopt the shrine. As far as selection of deities, I started out with the ones that were obvious choices for me, such as Odin, Loki, and Frigga, and then added Freyja (I’m not especially close to Her but I know many people who are) and Hermes (because He has enough similarities to Odin that I could get a feel for His energy). I added Bast to that first batch (I am working on a second batch now) because my partner Jo and I have a houseful of cats and used to do cat rescue, and when our cats (or other cats) need help, Bast is the Person we turn to. People can find my portable shrines, and all of my other spiritual crafts, at my Etsy shop.
EHS: How do you define “spirit worker”? How did you come to that work?
BW: The short answer is, Odin dragged me into it. My definition of it has varied over the years. I used to define it similarly to shaman, where part of the requirement is that you’re using spiritual skills to directly benefit a human community — either individually or collectively — in some kind of measurable way. Now, I see a “spirit worker” more as a person whose work is defined, shaped and informed by their interactions with spirits — whether gods, ancestors, other races, or what have you; someone for whom spirits are at the center of their life and work, whatever that work happens to be. Not all spirit workers are in direct service to living humans; some of us serve animals, or the dead, or inhabitants of the otherworlds. These days, my spirit work is intimately tied in with my Making, and with enabling spiritual entities — whether reflections of a deity, or very small “entities” that we might think of as thoughts or visions — to take on “flesh.” My goal is to make things that can act as conduits for people to connect with their own gods and spirits, or as tools for accelerating their own spiritual growth and enhancing their practice. Making tends to be undervalued as a spirit work practice in comparison with healing, ritual facilitation, or ordeal work (for example), but I think it’s just as vital a service.
EHS: You recently published Assuming the Mantle: The Lessons of Queen Anne Boleyn. First, congratulations! Second, why Anne Boleyn?
BW: Thank you! Anne Boleyn first entered my life almost eight years ago now, when I was having a very difficult time understanding what Odin wanted from me and what my path “should” look like. I had no clue as to how I was going to manifest the things He seemed to be asking from me. (I also had no real ancestral practice at the time — another problem she helped solve for me.) Reading Queen Anne’s story, studying her life, and later on, starting a cultus for her and beginning to interact with her, showed me that I was thinking too small, that my potential was a lot higher (and wider) than I could ever have imagined. Seeing the world through her eyes (her world as well as my own) helped me begin to see myself as a sovereign being, who did not simply exist in relation to this person or that person (or even to the gods), and whose feelings about myself were not at the mercy of every external event that came my way. She showed me that I had not only the right but also the duty to shape who and what I am, and that I could aim higher and truer than I would have dared.
EHS: You have also released two collections about Odin: Odhroerir and Water From the Well. Odin is such a complex God; how did you decide which stories about him to feature?
BW: Many of them were simply a given for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the tales of Odin’s three great quests for wisdom, which I also see as His three greatest sacrifices for power: His ordeal on the Tree (the sacrifice of His ego-self, so to speak, to His true Self); His sacrifice of an eye to Mimir’s Well (the voluntary loss of mundane vision in return for mystic vision — which is to some extent the same sacrifice every mystic makes); and His quest for the mead (which I came to define as His sacrifice of honor, personal love, and reputation to gain poetic expression and artistic vision — which is, again, a trade-off many artists make). The latter, the tale of the Mead, took on a deeply personal relevance to me, which is what led to all of the stories in which Gunnlod became a main character rather than the simple means-to-an-end I felt most people saw her as at that time. Beyond that, I also felt called towards stories that either seemed to represent a defining moment in His life (such as the death of Balder and how He deals with it, and His enchantment of the severed head of His uncle Mimir, who had been slain by the Vanir) or that were drawn from lesser-known lore sources (for example, Frigga’s infidelity in “A Drink for an Old Man”; I know that story made some people furious, but it was actually partly inspired by Saxo Grammaticus). I also wanted to explore facets of Odin I had come to know and love but wasn’t seeing portrayed or acknowledged a whole lot elsewhere — such as His tenderness, His deep respect for women, His keen interest in and fascination with human beings, His immense sense of responsibility as a monarch and the high standards He holds Himself to in that regard, and His devotion to His family.
EHS: Some of the tales are reinterpretations of the surviving lore. What was the origin of these reinterpretations, and which is your favorite, or the one which you find most profound?
BW: Some of the reinterpretations flowed from looking at the events from a different viewpoint (such as Gunnlod’s, for example), some of them were prompted by visions or “downloads” I got from Odin directly (such as the very personal way He relates to the runes), and some were inspired by asking myself the writer’s question “what if” — for example, what if Odin’s sacrifice of an eye was not literal, but was a metaphor for a deeper truth? (I arrived at that idea because I usually saw Him — in visions and in my mind’s eye — as still having both eyes.) In Hellenic paganism, there seems to be an understanding that the tales of the gods are not necessarily to be taken literally, that many of them represent moral lessons, spiritual teachings, or mysteries to be pondered. In heathenry and the northern tradition, we seem to have gone the opposite way, and many people consider it a sacrilege if you, for example, don’t believe in Ragnarok as an actual event that is going to take place, or don’t think Odin and His brothers actually created mankind out of pieces of wood. (I think that last story actually underlines the intimate relationship between people and trees — we can’t exist without them, and our existence parallels theirs in some ways; like trees, we have deep roots, a strong presence in the here and now, and a reach that extends to the heavens — and the fact that our ancestors recognized this.)
The story that was most profound for me (and also the most difficult to write, because of Odin’s feelings on the subject) was “They Speak to Me,” which is about the death of Balder. This story was in large part a download from Him, and I did not expect it to be about His son’s death at first (especially because I had heard many people claim that He never speaks of that event and doesn’t want to be asked about it). It started out with Him talking about His work with plant spirits, and then went in a very dark and tragic direction from there. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who may not have read it, but it deals with questions of personal responsibility, sacral kingship, abuse of power both unwitting and intentional, and how following a whim without considering the consequences can very quickly spin a situation out of control — and when there are gods involved, all of this can happen on a very large scale. It also examines the relationship between Loki and Odin, and how Loki frequently ends up taking on the unpleasant tasks that Odin either cannot or will not do Himself — but that still need to get done.
EHS: Any advice you can offer to those who are considering self-publishing? Things they should do? Mistakes to avoid?
BW: I haven’t really kept up enough with the self-publishing scene to offer anything very specific regarding that (I’m more a businesswoman than a writer these days), but the primary thing I would say is to educate yourself, as much as possible, on topics such as marketing and business management. Being a writer is a business; when you write and publish your own books you’re as much as solopreneur as someone who sells jewelry in an Etsy store (like me). Many writers make the mistake of wanting to just get the book written, get it published, and then move on to the next thing — but these days, with self-publishing being so accessible to absolutely everyone, that sort of approach isn’t enough if you want to succeed; there is simply too much other content out there competing for people’s attention. When I first started selling on Etsy, I knew nothing about running a business (my background is in English lit), so I dove into resources such as CreativeLive (where you can watch free classes on a number of small business topics in video format, taught by world class teachers) and made time for reading blogs and articles by people who were making their businesses work. I like to joke that I got my MBA from CreativeLive, but it isn’t much of a joke; if you want to get your work out there — whether it’s writing or something else, some other product or service — you have to devote a lot of time and energy to learning to hold your own in today’s market. It isn’t easy and it’s a continuing process of experimentation and exploration for me, but if you want people to see/read/buy your work, it’s really the only way.
EHS: Where can your books be found?
BW: They are all available in print from Amazon (here and here), and as pdfs in my Etsy shop. Assuming the Mantle is also available in Kindle format on Amazon and one of my goals for early 2016 is to finally get the other two books available in Kindle as well (in addition to updating my name on the two older ones; I think they are each under a slightly different version of “Laure Lynch,” and I am using Beth Wodandis now).
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
BW: Oh, so many things! As far as writing is concerned, I want to write a more personal book about Odin and my life with Him, but I keep getting derailed from that both by my business and because I’m never sure how much I want to share publicly. I don’t criticize other godspouses for sharing intimate details of their relationships (that’s entirely between them and their own Beloved), but for me personally a lot of that feels too private, and too sacred, to share. But I do want to write something for Him along these lines, so we’ll see how that goes.
I also want to write more about the Queens — my group of Disir, or adopted lineage ancestors — and personal sovereignty.
For the store, even though I did a rebranding in September I haven’t yet been able to define and coalesce my product line in a way that pleases me. I want to set up an online shop independently from Etsy sometime in 2016, and that’s going to require really honing in on the kind of work I want to be focusing on, a lot of which will involve metalsmithing and different ways of working with gemstones and beads.
I’ve also enrolled in a year-long intensive course in witchcraft (mostly drawn from the Cabot and Temple traditions), shamanism and energy work in 2016; a lot of it is stuff I already know and practice (I’ve practiced witchcraft since the age of 13), but I thought it was time to reboot and reinvigorate my magickal practice on a large scale — so I’m very excited about that. As an Odin’s woman, I never stop learning or striving to up my game. Partly to support this class in a way that’s separate from my store income, I will be offering distance oracular seidhr sessions on a very limited basis in 2016, starting in January; those will be offered on my blog, not on Etsy, so keep an eye out there if you’re interested!
EHS: Which book fairs, craft fairs, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
BW: Oh my. Right now Jo and I are unable to travel a whole lot because we have a heart patient dog; Corbie J. has congestive heart failure and needs to be medicated for that twice a day. So we can’t both go away together for any length of time, and neither of us would want to attend any kind of convention or big event on our own. But at some point in the future we would like to get to Many Gods West, and perhaps even to Pantheacon (I have dreams of vending there). In the meantime, I am hoping to be able to do one or two local craft fairs in 2016, and although we have no immediate book fair plans I would really love to be able to experience one someday.
“Oh you speak to me in riddles and
you speak to me in rhymes
My body aches to breathe your breath,
your words keep me alive….”
– “Possession,” Sarah McLachlan
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of EHS.]