Chapter 1: Owl three times widdershins
On sitting under the moon at the winter solstice.
On being still, listening and learning.
On counsel from nature, Owl’s test and Fox’s message.
It was the night before the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Also it was full moon, so the moon was high, high in the sky on the clear, frosty night. It was such a unique opportunity that I felt I must make use of it.
Nature is full of extraordinary power when the festivals of the sun and moon fall at the same time – and I had a topic I wanted to ask the spirits of nature about. Apart from going to them for advice I also wanted to celebrate the winter solstice with them. To say thank you for the year that had passed and cross the threshold into the new year – which, for me, begins at the winter solstice.
Nearby to where I was staying was a lovely valley. In that valley was a stone circle, which would be a good place to sit. So I dressed in warm clothes and set out. It was a stunningly beautiful evening, completely still and clear and everything was covered in snow.
I walked down the narrow path to the valley with the stone circle at its centre, and as I crossed the threshold into the valley a big pale bird took off from one of the trees. Everything was so quiet and I felt that my boots were incredibly noisy in the snow. The moonlight was pouring down over everything; it was almost as bright as on a summer’s day.
As I went into the valley I saw tracks of fox and hare in the dazzling snow. There were no others tracks. The stone circle is made up of eight stones the right size to sit on with an even larger oval stone in the middle. I sat down on the southernmost stone facing the stone in the centre.
It is part of my custom to tell everything and everyone living in the place why I have come. So I told earth, trees, moon and all birds and animals that I had come to celebrate the winter solstice with them and greet them all, and that I would like to ask their advice on my new work project. I usually sing out my greeting and it tends to be good to do. Usually, it opens up for the exchange between the spirits of the place and me. But that evening was special - so quiet - I felt my voice was too loud and overbearing amid all that silence. So I too turned silent and let my eyes carry my greeting to all things instead.
There was a windswept pine thicket on one slope. In the strange moonlight it turned into a great horned troll; it gave me a very clear message which I heard inside myself: “Be silent now! Be still! Be like us.”
I was told: “Silence is the essence of this night, everything is resting and waiting,” and I looked out over the valley where all life lay in its winter sleep at this turning point of the year. Being still was good advice, that I would follow. I sat stock still and gazing out over the valley sensing all the life lying under the snow just waiting for the sun and springtime to arrive. Suddenly I nearly jumped as a sharp shadow swept across the snow in front of me.
You have to imagine the snow shining bright blue and white, nothing moving, no sound – and then this soundless shadow moving over the snow. It was an owl, flying in a circle round me. I did not move but raised my eyes to follow the bird as it flew three times widdershins – counter clockwise – around me. It flew so low that I could clearly make out the markings on the underside of the broad pale wings.
When the owl flew behind me all the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. But according to the way I had learned doing council with Nature I knew that I must not turn round – even if there was something behind me that scared me. So I did not. I didn’t make a sound or reach out or anything.
Then the owl flew over and landed in the tree closest to the west stone of the circle. That was the only sound I heard from Nature that night: the owl landing on the branch with the merest hint of a sound. Then it turned round and looked straight at me. Our eyes met.
It took off again and now it flew round me twice in the other direction, sunwise, before flying right over me towards the moon and disappearing.
There I was, overwhelmed and both moved and honoured by the visit. I turned so quiet inside that the silence of the valley moved into me for a few precious moments, where I felt I was one with everything…
…then suddenly there was a shift in my vision. In front of me the great oval stone glistened with hoar frost in the moonlight. Up till this moment I had only seen its motionless surface. But suddenly the strange luminous darkness and my own inner silence allowed me to see that the stone was alive. I saw its face; an age-old very expressive face. It was muttering to itself, its eyes closed. I could see its lips moving and I tried my hardest to hear what it was saying. But even though I could not hear anything, I knew it was telling ancient stories.
What I saw in that stone was its infinite age. When I looked into it it was like looking deep into the earth and at the same time out into the star filled darkness of space. I got a feeling of infinity, of great wisdom and of the ancient tales it enjoyed telling itself. Tales it repeated in order to remember them.
Now I tried to make sense of my experiences in the light of what I had come for. I had after all come both to celebrate the solstice and to ask for help about my work project.
Before I got it straight I got a strong feeling that I should be doing just as the stone was doing. It was leaning back and enjoying the moonlight. So I turned my face upwards and let the light of the winter solstice full moon shower down on me. And then I was overcome with a feeling of great peace and gratitude. I was no longer busy getting messages. Everything I had come for, was right here. I was content.
While I sat basking in the moon’s blessing I realized that the spirits had had a slightly different agenda from my own. I had been tested. Owl had come to appraise me, that was obvious. I had passed the test by not crying out or turning round. And because I had passed its test Owl gave me its advice by flying round me, three times widdershins and twice sunwise. If I interpret that according to Nordic magical tradition it is a clear message: there is more to be undone than to be done. Or to put it another way: I would need to make a lot of changes in my work project. And I should tell the oldest tales, both to enjoy them and to make sure they are remembered. That was my understanding of what had happened. Can you guess which work project I was asking about? Can you guess if it came true?
I sat for a while longer in the frosty night. When I felt full and nourished it was time to make the offering I had brought because of the solstice. It consisted of beer and rice pudding. I poured the beer out in the stone circle, which I considered the centre of the energies in the valley, its power place. The rice pudding I placed next to one of the stones, saying: “Happy solstice, Everybody. Peace and a happy New Year.” Then I said thank you and went home.
The next day there were still no human footprints other than my own. But when I came to the stone circle the rice pudding had been eaten and the fox had left me two messages. Where the rice pudding had been there was now a scrap of bloodied hare skin with a bit of flesh still on it. A little present in return for me. Later I found the other remnants from the fox’s hare meal further on up the valley. But the funniest thing was that right on top of the big stone in the middle of the circle the fox had left its visiting card. A fox turd. The stone was chest-high on me, and Fox had jumped all the way up there!
With those two messages, Fox was telling me: “Thank you for the rice pudding. You are welcome here as long as you remember who this place really belongs to.”
By marking the place as its own, it reminded me that the valley belongs to all the spirits, trees, the snow, stones and animals. But I am also welcome.
Chapter 2, part 1: Wisdom in the wilderness
On sitting out to seek power and insight.
On lip-reading Nature, sensing and gathering
and following the silent counsel of the night.
When I sat out in the stone circle that solstice evening I understood the silent message from the horned troll, the owl’s circling, the fox’s droppings, the ancient face of the stone – indeed everything I perceived and sensed – as meaningful communications from an entirely conscious nature.
My counsel with Nature worked because I perceived my conversation-partners as living and intelligent. If I did not think that Owl and Fox have soul and consciousness I would have explained away my interactions with them as mere coincidence. I would not be able to seek advice in that way. But I credit them with wisdom, a different sort of wisdom than human wisdom. Therefore we can speak together, often as equal partners, but just as often I come as the student; and the moon, the trees, the animals and the stone are my teachers and advisors.
A different kind of wisdom
You might say that it is just the habit of owls to be curious. And I have earlier had the experience of owls coming to check me out, especially on full moon nights. But the whole point is that I had announced why I had come. I had told that I was there to seek advice. From the moment my ritual began Owl’s three circles widdershins wasn’t just something owls do. They were a message from Owl to me, which had meaning in relation to my intention. And I was very moved and honoured that Owl came so close to me and expressed itself so clearly.
The same goes for my exchange of things with Fox: gift, gift in return, calling card. Some of my friends have had similar gift and message exchanges with Fox in their power places in nature. They are sign language conversations with meaning.
Beings, forces and spirits can communicate with us on many levels. The special power of that night was that everything was silent. Other times it may be sound and songs that transmits the power. That night the communication was very physical via body language and objects, whereas at other times the help and advice comes in the form of visions. It is just as significant that a deer or a mouse or the wind comes and sniffs you as it is having a vision. You have declared that you are asking for advice, so everything that happens until your ritual has ended will be messages and help from Nature.
Looking beneath the surface
Our aim in the counsel and all nature magic is to meet the spirit of the beings, their enchanted aspect or soul.
You know the old stories about how trolls can’t tolerate daylight – as soon as they are hit by the first rays of the sun they turn to stone. And stone is all we see by day when we only perceive the visible surface of things, their exterior or outer side. If you want to meet the stone’s being or soul, you must go out when the sun is away, at twilight and in darkness, when the stones show that they are also trolls; or more properly said: when they show their inner side.
I was granted to see the ancient face of the stone and to know that it knew the oldest tales. Because when you sit in the magical circle you may, if you are lucky, look beneath the surface and discover the life shining within.
The traditional recipe uses both fasting, waking and staying in darkness as aids to open you up to the enchanted inner side of nature. They aid in letting your usual explanations of the world collapse, stripping you sufficiently spiritually naked that the vision – the strong sight and the power – can break through.
To put it another way - people have always known that darkness, fasting and exhaustion help us to go betwixt and between, to an altered state of consciousness. This is where you sense the connections that are hidden in the everyday life, and it hits you how the land itself is one vast shrine. Because you see the inner rather than the outer. This is what enchantment is all about. This is the magic.
A magical meeting
When I asked Nature for good counsel on that glorious full moon night in the valley I was following an ancient practice common to people the world over. Here in Scandinavia it has different versions called either “udesidning”, sitting out, “vågenat”, vigil night, or “varselstagning” taking counsel, reading omens. We find descriptions of it in our sagas, myths and legends, - and in fairy tales as well. They all give us guidance in how we should behave towards animals, elves and trolls if we wish to come in contact with them and learn from them.
Udesidning means sitting overnight in the wilderness or forest to seek insight, knowledge. You can “sit out” to get inspiration or to find vision for a new phase in your life. Or to seek power for the coming year or for a special challenge which life has presented you with.
When the old Norse writings mention “sitting out to gain wisdom”, then wisdom also includes insight in the hidden, spiritual world. No matter what the intention, it is a sacred ritual meeting between the world of humans and the world of Nature and the spirits. It has been practised since the dawn of time by both ordinary people and those versed in magic. Every culture has its own ritual directions for how it should be done. It is like a contract which the particular culture has made with the animals, earth, plants and spirits, and they know its content. This ceremonial framework makes the counsel magically effective and spiritually charged.
The Nordic recipe typically maintain that a sitting out lasts for one night during which one neither eats nor sleeps. Beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise, the ritual boundaries are formed by twilight and dawn themselves. Within this boundary, you understand everything that happens as conscious messages to you from the universe, messages to be understood in the light of your mission. That is to say, the mission you set out with is crucial to grasping your experiences.
Varselstagning, taking counsel, is a shorter, more modest version of a sitting out, as when I sat out for a few hours on that winter solstice night. I took counsel, read omens in the flight of the owl and the behaviour of the fox. But also varseltagning has a clear ritual framework. Mine started when I crossed the threshold into the valley and it began properly when I sat down on the stone and announced my mission. And it lasted until I had said thank you and crossed the threshold again.
The forgotten language
In any kind of taking counsel with Nature we ask a question of a tree, a forest or the whole of Nature and receive our answers through all the signs given by the the beings. You could say we are lip-reading nature, communicating via sign language. Reading parts of the answer in the flight of the bird, in the patterns of the water, in the movement of the branches and combine them. It’s a bit like reading a rebus. You are faced with a row of signs which give no meaning at first glance, but if you believe there is a meaning hidden and you follow the recipe you can piece together the signs and decode the hidden message.
How, for example, could it give any meaning that Owl first flew round me three times widdershins and then twice in a sunwise direction? It did so because my task was clear and because I knew the old magical language of taking counsel.
We can get on speaking terms with Nature if we re-learn the magical language which bridges species and worlds. This language has been developed worldwide by peoples who live in conscious dialogue with a living Nature; it was also used here in the Nordic lands in earlier times. Now only fragments remain in our everyday language, remnants like the weather lore saying “If the oak is out before the ash, there will only be a splash”; or things taken out of context like “If a black cat crosses your path it means bad luck”. In ancient times the cat was considered a sacred animal but changing times and new religions have stood the meaning more or less on its head. It’s a bit like being able to remember only one word of a whole language – and misunderstanding even that.
Thankfully the magical language is preserved in other places. I believe it is deeply encoded in us as human beings, because it comes so easily to children. Furthermore it is preserved in cultures which consider Nature to be sentient. Finally fairy tales and Norse mythology provide a rich and varied source, and we can re-learn it from all these places.
Let us take the expression Owl made use of as an example. Sunwise – clockwise as we now call it – has traditionally been regarded in Northern Europe as the direction which reflects Nature’s normal way, like the turning of the year. So it is the direction to use if you want to enhance and celebrate things that happen anyway, like the harvest and fertility. When you want to do something. While widdershins, counter clockwise, has a connotation of reversing or un-doing, so it would be used where you want to transform a bad situation, change the way things are heading; as in getting rid of disease, for example. With this ancient language of magic in the back of my mind I understood Owl’s message as I did. That I had more to undo than to do.
The gate of silence
The first message I received as I sat in the stone circle was; “Be silent now! Be still. Be like us!” Advice that applied not only for me that night but is of fundamental importance. If we want to meet the creatures of Nature whether in the flesh or as spirit, with nothing standing between us, we must relearn to be quiet, silent. Firstly in not making so much noise. You do not hear the whispering of the trees, the earth breathing or the dragonfly chewing on a midge if you are noisy yourself. That goes without saying.
We also need to learn to be still, to slow down. Many of Nature’s strongest modes of expression or movements are so slow that we will miss them altogether if we ourselves are hasty. It takes a while to grasp the movement of the Earth and the stars, to see a stone change into a troll, to see the plants travelling towards the sun. Because the marigolds in garden take only one step to the south – a year.
We have all learned about the movement of the stars across the heavens. Intellectually, from the outside so to speak. It is quite another thing to sit still so long under the night sky, that you actually see the stars slowly describing an arc that spans the vault of the heavens. Then you really know, from the inside. And in the meantime leaves have fallen on you and a spider has spun its web from your knee.
While the landscape has incorporated me as a part of itself, I have incorporated the movement of the stars as a part of my self.
If I am quiet!
Befriending a tree
All magical meetings with Nature’s creatures and spirits have the same basic recipe, whether it is sitting out for a whole night, taking counsel for an hour or asking for power.
Perhaps you would now like to learn the basic recipe by trying it out. You always start with a clearly formulated mission. Let’s say that your intention simply is to meet a tree to get to know its inner being better.
If you already have a favourite tree in a quiet place you can go to that one, or you could go out to find a completely unknown tree – but it does need to be somewhere where you will not be disturbed. And there must be a clear frame around the ritual both in terms of time and space; it is happening here and will start then and end then. Look for something in the vicinity of your tree which will mark your entry point, the threshold to your meeting with the tree. Maybe there are two stones or two plants forming a doorway that you step through into your ritual space, or the threshold might be a branch on the ground that you step over.
Once you have stepped through the doorway you are between the worlds; that is to say, you are standing in the magical circle – in this case , the tree’s living space – and you begin your ritual by speaking out your intent. Say why you have come, greet the tree and welcome anyone that would like to help with your mission. You can do this silently, but it is often best for us to speak it aloud or even sing it. From this point on until you leave the circle again everything that happens is charged with meaning and should be understood in the light of your mission.
The next step is making a shift in consciousness that will allow you to see beyond the well known surface of things. In order to meet the inner aspect of the tree, its soul, you let go of all expectation and analytical thoughts. If you already know that you have a tendency to be distracted by uninvited thoughts and doubting voices you might find it easier to achieve this magical state if you try at twilight, in moonshine or in darkness. Just forget everything you “know” about trees. It is a completely new and unknown being that stands in front of you, don’t let anything come between you!
Try to be quiet, both inside and out, and be open to everything the tree shows you about itself. You might shut your eyes for a while and listen with your whole being. Sense the life of the tree in its trunk, its roots, its canopy or the field of being surrounding the tree. Take your time. You can’t go too slowly. You might rest your hands on its trunk and try to feel its unseen power, its streaming life force. Be aware of what you and the tree have in common.
You can also lie down under the tree, let your eyes travel up the trunk to the spaces between the branches, where they become a forest in themselves. You might clamber up and sit in the fork of the branches like you did when you were a child. Sit or lie so still there in the arms of the tree, that you can feel the tree moving in the wind and let yourself open to the tree’s power.
Perhaps the tree will tell you its secrets – which are only secret because we haven’t listened before. It might come to you as the song the branches are singing in the wind. You might get your message from the tree as words you hear inside yourself, or you might simply experience it as a certainty in your heart or as emotions. Maybe the tree’s teachings are so beyond words or concepts that all you can do is breathe it in, be with it. If you are open for it, the tree may become your teacher or your new friend.
The last part of the ritual is saying thank you. It is an important step to learn to end all sacred meetings with thanksgiving, and luckily it’s quite addictive. So when you feel it is time to go home give thanks. Try to find words for what you have received and phrase your thanks appropriately. Your heart will tell you what is fitting, as long as you don’t let caution and convention get in the way.
Finally you step out of your magical space, leave the circle by going back through your doorway. Go home now and use what you have learned.
It is also a good idea to write or draw all that happened, as the first part of your own collection of experiences.
Now you have tried the basic recipe which underpins all nature magic and the oldest sacred meetings. You have gone to the same source of power and wisdom that people have always used. Your intention was to get to know the tree better, to experience the inner spirit side of things. Using the same intention again later, you can go deeper and deeper and continually discover new layers for years to come. But you can also go to the tree with a specific topic you seek inspiration for, or a problem you need advice on. Or you can go to the tree asking for power and new energy. You can go when you need peace of mind and devotion, or when you want to celebrate something.
The tree is but one of the beings we can consult. You can have the same kind of magical meeting with a stone, a plant, an animal or the even mightier, oldest of beings we call earth, wind, fire and water.
When I go to the council of the beings I choose consciously to focus on the strength, beauty and wisdom in all life. I choose to emphasize the kinship between us humans and other forms of life, and I look for that which connects us rather than what separates us.
The meeting with the creatures, forces and spirits of Nature strengthens the web of life between species so that wisdom and life power can flow more freely between us. My world becomes richer – even in the light of everyday – when I dare that feeling of kinship with the life around me.
Council in the daylight
When sitting out in the night, the darkness enhances our visionary sight. It helps us to easier see the soul of things, to see their spirit or inner side, so that we can take in the signs and the power that comes our way.
However, you can also take counsel with Nature in broad daylight with just a slight shift in consciousness, just an innocent openness to wonder. Now you are going to hear a story from one of my students about such a consultation, one that arose spontaneously from the moment:
“I once experienced – as many people do in the course of their lives – losing my beloved to another. I was deeply unhappy over my loss, felt betrayed and let down, and worst - I felt I could talk to no one about it.
Late one afternoon I was sitting on a deserted beach. The sunshine was warm, the small waves at the water’s edge glittered and gurgled rhythmically and melodic. Everything was so beautiful and I felt so heavy and sad.
Then I got the idea that I could ease my heart by telling the whole thing to the waves. I sat down at the edge of the water facing the waves, looked at them and began:
I haven’t been able to tell this to anyone
But we hear you - but we hear you, whispered the waves.
I was startled – I had thought this to be a monologue. I hadn’t expected an answer, or to feel so heard. But this is how it sounded, as clearly as I’m writing it here. So as I kept looking at the waves I continued to tell them the whole story and what a blow it had been for me.
Yes it was, yes it was, they answered.
But it wasn’t done on purpose, I said, it wasn’t anyone’s fault!
No, it wasn’t, no, it wasn’t
But it hurts even so, I managed to say.
We know, we know, said the waves.
The latter was said with such depth and fervour that I pricked up my ears and looked up from the small waves at the water’s edge across the bay to the open unending sea.
And then I saw that the Sea holds and remembers so many sorrows – an ocean of salty tears wept through the ages. But what I felt, what shone so strong and silent towards me from the whole ocean, was not sorrow but deep wisdom and compassion. All the sorrows of the world indeed; that do not harden the heart but make it spacious and wise.
We know, we know.
I sat at the water’s edge in the sunshine, the tears running down my face and mixing with the waves. They ran because I was released, relieved.
My great sorrow had become so small – one drop in the ocean – as it mixed with all the sorrows of humanity. The heaviness in my heart had turned into gratitude that I was part of humanity, with all its joys and sorrows. I was learning about human life, and the ocean was my teacher.”
Originally chapter 1 and 2 in the book JORDEN SYNGER (THE EARTH SINGS – The Power of Nature in Nordic Tradition) © Annette Høst 2005. Translated by Julia Crabtree and Annette Høst (chapter 1: Owl three times widdershins) and Michael Caine (chapter 2: Wisdom in the Wilderness) .
See more about the book on www.jordensynger.dk