To Hrothgar was given such glory of war,
such honor of combat, that all his kin
obeyed him gladly till great grew his band
of youthful comrades.
It came in his mind
to bid his henchmen a hall uprear,
a master mead-house, mightier far
than ever was seen by the sons of earth,
and within it, then, to old and young
he would all allot that the Lord had sent him,
save only the land and the lives of his men.
Wide, I heard, was the work commanded,
for many a tribe this mid-earth round,
to fashion the folkstead. It fell, as he ordered,
in rapid achievement that ready it stood there,
of halls the noblest: Heorot he named it
whose message had might in many a land.
-Beowulf, Grunmere trans.
So runs the prologue of Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving tales written in English. King Hrothgar is a mighty man, mighty enough to have erected his meadhall called Heorot. The noise and tumult of a great king’s court rouses the monster Grendel from his lair, who goes on a murderous rampage and slaughters many of the king’s thegns. What should have been a beacon of light and joy, evidence of Hrothgar’s might, now becomes a deserted place.
The great man of the Geats, the hero Beowulf, arrives with a band of men, to slaughter Grendel and win much fame and fortune. Along the way, he kills the fiend’s mother and, later in life meets his end as a grey-bearded king who kills a dragon that threatens his kingdom, dying himself by a wound inflicted by that very same wyrm.
Imagine if you will, how the tale would have been told: a mead-hall with long benches and burning fires, long benches for the warriors and folk to sit at as food was served and mead was drunk from horns and cups; laughter and mirth as the chieftain sits there, responsible for his people and his land.
Close by sit his trusted men, a body of men bound by oath and loyalty – all fierce fighters and practical sorts – and about their arms and necks they bear the gifts of their lord, recognition of their valour and service. Imagine the firelight glinting off metal, gleaming off weapons and worked jewellery.
Can you hear them call out loudly for a tale, a narration of mighty deeds and great things? Might you perhaps see someone shake their head, busy as they are with the business of feasting? Hear again the roar, the cajoling and the cursing of those assembled which ripples out in a wave of good-natured complaint to be met with a heavy sigh and a nod.
Rising to their feet, the scop makes their way forward.
Now the scop is smiling, slow and easy, with a quick tongue that flicks a few barbs in the direction of the more vocal or insulting detractors, to the delight of the crowd. A reminder then, if any were needed, that this one can make weapons out of words and ways out of songs. Meeting the eyes of all present, by the strength of gaze and a raised hand, silence falls.
Do you recall how that goes, how the silence comes – first as a drip, then as a trickle, then as a wave breaks over them all? The way you find yourselves adjusting into a familiar, comfortable position – allowing your body to prepare itself for the long haul – as you begin to listen, even before the storyteller speaks. It’s intriguing how easily you can do that; adopting an attitude of acceptance even before any sense of the story is known, because you are in a very real way placing yourself in the hands of the storyteller; you are giving them and I license to transport you.
For Hrothgar was a mighty man, and Heorot was a mighty hall, as befits a king. Mightier still was the fiend Grendel, for he drove Hrothgar from that place until the coming of Beowulf. Mightier than king or monster was Beowulf, and this you know – for were it otherwise, there would be no tale, would there?
Since all this is true, and since you are here reading these words, following me as I write them in the past, you are indulging in looking backward, aren’t you? So I’d like to make a suggestion – that now you realize how easily and simply you can look back, you turn that sight back over certain concepts with me now.
Consider then this tale of mighty men, of mothers and monsters – consider it as a beacon from over a thousand years ago; a gleaming treasure flickering in the fire-light.
Cen byþ cwicera gehwam, cuþ on fyre
blac ond beorhtlic, byrneþ oftust
ðær hi æþelingas inne restaþ.
The torch is known to every living man
by its pale, bright flame; it always burns
where princes sit within.
The best leaders are cunning – they know how to get the most out of their men and their environment. Cunning men and women then, these folk; knowledge, will and ability all combined into something, distilled down to some essence that sets them apart. They have the wherewithal; the ways and the means to inspire and to lead their followers to their goal in defiance of obstacles.
This means that a mighty individual is one who is capable of surviving where others fail; Beowulf kills the three monsters, doing the seemingly impossible, returning Heorot to Hrothgar, winning fame and becoming a king. Not bad for a man who casts aside his sword and wrestles with Grendel and tears the monster’s arm off, is it?
Can you picture it? Beowulf vs. Grendel; circling, waiting for the moment to strike, each looking for weakness in the other, when suddenly and without warning the Geat tosses the sword away and leaps on the monster who has torn men asunder and gobbled their flesh, cracked their bones and sucked out the very marrow!
Locked together in loathing, struggling and striving for the upper hand in a mead-hall surrounded by corpses and wounded men in the depths of the night, Grendel’s jaws are scant inches from Beowulf’s face as he snarls his hate…
Could you bear to meet that infernal look, a look that would kill you, and deal with the knowledge that if it fails there’s row upon row of razor teeth that would finish the job? Can you allow yourself to conceive of the strength of will that must have taken, to hold Grendel as close as any lover, to embrace your potential death and dismemberment, or does your heart quail within your chest at the thought of meeting that dread abyssal gaze up close and personal?
Not so for Beowulf! He tightens his grip and pulls the monster closer as claws rake his flesh and jaws snap; foul breath fills his lungs, his vision narrows and Grendel’s awful visage swells to fill the entire world. Then Beowulf, brave Beowulf of the Geats, Beowulf the wave-rider, mighty Beowulf son of Ecgtheow…
Rips off Grendel’s arm. At the shoulder. With his bare hands.
How easily might you hear once more, here in the now, the roar that raised in the mead-halls? Do you know how raw that cry of exultation is, sent forth from myriad throats across a thousand years? I think you do – and that is mighty fine! For this is what greets a hero’s deeds, an exultation, a joy which transcends time and space.
In that moment we are all elevated, all drawn in to dwell with those who hear, and the sense of it, the raw, unrestrained emotion rips through you; all those times you have punched the air, howled with laughter or felt the rightness of something deep inside – I’m certain you know of what I speak!
This is the sheer presence of it. The knowing of the power as it flows from an individual, the way they move, and the the way they act. We’ve all seen it – the way some people are inexorable, how their confidence marks them out, their progress a seemingly foregone conclusion. We recognize it, are aware of it subconsciously – something beyond mere physical prowess, beyond circumstance. Some part of our lizard brain is aware that they could do anything.
Watch them. Watch them closely. Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!
Then there’s the way that these people seem to be able to get away with murder. How do they do it, always landing on their feet, even in situations which would cause most people to grind to a soul-destroying halt? You know the feeling – when your options have fallen away and you’re staring at an impasse; dead-ended as the walls are closing in. It saps your strength, makes you wonder why you bother sometimes, right?
It’s exhausting, frustrating and, if you care about what you’re doing, not a little painful.
There’s only so much pain we can take, only so many times we can pound our fists against that wall, head-butt the desk, feel our heart gripped by despair, our guts twist in sick horror at the unfairness of a situation.
Only so much we can deal with; we reach the end of our tethers, finding the limits of our resources and feeling our resolve beginning to crumble, until eventually we have to let go and move on. Because you know, you can’t win ‘em all, can you?
Except, they seem to be able to. Those thrice gods-damn bastards, those lucky sods. It’s like some people were just given a greater portion of luck by the gods, by chance, by whatever the hell it is that deals with these things, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing though:
Most people find themselves thinking that way at some point or other in their lives, even if they know it’s irrational. I’d bet you good money that you can recall a moment when you thought something similar – and I’m certain I would win. The reason I’m so certain is that such a concept is very very old, and has been used in magic and various nefarious sorceries throughout the ages.
Have you perhaps idly wondered if it might be possible to…appropriate someone else’s luck – after all, they have bucketloads and wouldn’t miss a little would they? Or maybe you’re of the school that says you make your own luck, and because of that you wonder what exactly these super-lucky people do to be that successful?
Repeatedly. Over and Over. Again and Again.
Maybe you’re hungry for that edge – and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you were. Look at the way the mighty are remembered, how they achieve virtual immortality. From Einstein and Socrates, to Beowulf and Jack the Giant-Killer – they are all legends. All of them are larger-than-life, enduring icons and heroes in the technical sense.
- hero (1)
- late 14c., “man of superhuman strength or courage,” from L. heros “hero,” from Gk. heros “demi-god” (a variant singular of which was heroe), originally “defender, protector,” from PIE base *ser- “to watch over, protect” (cf. L. servare “to save, deliver, preserve, protect”). Sense of “chief male character in a play, story, etc.” first recorded 1690s.
No longer just an ordinary human, almost half a god, raised above ordinary mortals. These are mighty men and women, by any stretch of the imagination – extraordinary people. Now, hopefully, if you have read my work, you’ll know by now that it’s the extra-ordinary that fascinates me, and if you’ve been following me through the paths and byways of this piece, you may begin to realize that there’s a connection here.
Maybe it’s obvious to you – that mighty means extra-ordinary, and if so then I congratulate you. By way of congratulation, I’d like to flash you a quick grin and note that I do tricksy things with words. Part of that tricksiness is to dig down into the roots of my native language, and by now you’re wondering what on earth Necropants are, or what they have to do with mighty folk.
We’ll get to the grisly couture, the deathly trousers, the pantaloons of peril soon – I promise.
Hidden in our everyday use of language are secrets that can be used to great effect; occult roots which when applied properly, can reveal secret paths to power. After all, the world is full of communication, full of mutual agreements of how things should be done – all based on shared assumptions and empathy. It’s a tenet of neurolinguistic programming that you can change people’s internal states by judicious use of words alone. Sorcery on the other hand, is the art – and believe me, it is an Art far more than anything else – of changing things; an attack on the status quo of reality itself!
Accepting this, what if the words I’m using now – the words you are reading here – have deep roots which might be used to change things? What if our language, our stories, contains secrets our ancestors knew, what if mighty men and women was more than a mere descriptor?
- might (v.)
- O.E. mihte, meahte, originally the past tense of may (O.E. magen “to be able”), thus “*may-ed.” See may (v.). The first record of might-have-been is from 1848.
- might (n.)
- O.E. miht, earlier mæht, from P.Gmc. *makhtuz (cf. O.N. mattr, O.Fris., M.Du. macht, Ger. Macht, Goth. mahts), from PIE base *mag- “be able, have power” (see may (v.)).
Consider the above for a moment – that might is intrinsically linked to ability, that the mighty are more able than others, because they have more might. The luckier you are, the more opportunities you might (pun intended) have. There is some quality which is possessed by, or is intrinsic, to certain individuals.
What if it was in your interest to be able to take advantage of anything and everything, wouldn’t it be a good idea to align yourself with the ones who seem to know how to do this instinctively? What if, by aligning yourself with one of those people, you increased your chances of survival, and because of that, you became known as a mighty individual?
Such things form the basis of social engineering of course, but suppose we go even beyond that. Suppose we begin to notice that a culture of success tends to breed even more success, and that culture shares a root with cultus and cultivate. Suppose you could be able to cultivate might itself?
A little heretical perhaps, in these days when performance-enhancing drugs are cheating, when everyone is supposedly equal – or at least ideally so. But when we are dealing with survival, that may just go out the proverbial window – you would try to survive with all your might and main, wouldn’t you?
- main (n.)
- O.E. mægen (n.) “power, strength, force,” from P.Gmc. *maginam- “power,” from *mag- “be able, have power” (see may). Original sense preserved in phrase with might and main. Meaning “principal channel in a utility system” is first recorded 1727 in main drain; Used since 1540s for “continuous stretch of land or water.”
I am pretty sure that the notion of mægen is a little alien to us today, and yet it could be said that some might find comfort in the notion that such things are hardly modern, or even New Age. On the contrary, it is a deeply old concept which is tightly bound with the world-view of those who came before us. Because of that, with our eyes turned backward, we are already hip-deep in waters that run through underground rivers beneath the words.
All it takes for us to understand these things is an open mind, and the realization that our ancestors held no illusions about the fact that life is precarious. The closest most people get to an ‘act of (G)od’ these days is an insurance policy!
So what does it mean to us, this faculty of concentrated ability, this elixir of luck and potency? Might you muse on it a little, allow yourself to be drawn into a heavy consideration of power and mastery, so that you can do what is required? Or perhaps you could let yourself drift back in time, to follow the lines of your blood and your thoughts back to the space where both converge into one?
In either case, may be confronted with the stark fact that in order to harness your full abilities, you would have to reject those things which limit you, in whatever form they may come. You may have to cast aside many dearly held beliefs about yourself, and more importantly, others around you.
For the issue is not one of ethics or morality, it is how you can maximize your ability and how you choose to affect the world. Everybody wants to be better at what they do, to follow their dreams and be greater than what their critics deem them capable of. Even those who simply desire to be content wish for the ability to be so without restriction.
Imagine what you could do if you divested yourself of all the things that hold you back, and then add to that the notion of being able to enhance those things which enliven and strengthen you, until they cause you to be so very much more than you had ever dreamed.
Imagine that out of next to nothing, you could somehow bring forth all you needed to wax and thrive well. Wouldn’t that be something to desire above anything else?
Would you wear a dead man’s skin? Would you dig him up, and peel the hide from his cold flesh, put a coin and a magical stave in the scrotum, then feel joy as they melded with your own body? For these are some of the things you must do, should you desire a pair of Nábrók, which literally translates as ‘Necropants.’
I first heard of the Necropants via a good friend who was giving a talk on runic magic and sorcery, and was reminded of them by a question asked on Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery blog. So Jason, if you read this, the entire post is indirectly your fault, all right?
Now, the rune-stave comes from Iceland, so I’ll let the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft do the explaining:
All of the signs and staves seen here can be found in Icelandic grimoires, some from the 17th century, some from later times though all of them seem to be related. The origin of this peculiar Icelandic magic is difficult to ascertain. Some signs seem to be derived from medieval mysticism and renaissance occultism, while others show some relation to runic culture and the old Germanic belief in Thor and Odinn. Much of the magic mentioned in court records can be found in grimoires kept in various manuscript collections. The purpose of the magic involved tells us something of the concerns of the lower classes that used them to lessen the burden of subsidence living in a harsh climate.
More information is available at the Museum site, which is full of wonderful things, including what is required to make the deathly trousers work properly:
If you want to make your own necropants (literally; nábrók) you have to get permission from a living man to use his skin after his dead. [sic] After he has been buried you must dig up his body and flay the skin of the corpse in one piece from the waist down. As soon as you step into the pants they will stick to your own skin. A coin must be stolen from a poor widow and placed in the scrotum along with the magical sign, nábrókarstafur, written on a piece of paper. Consequently the coin will draw money into the scrotum so it will never be empty, as long as the original coin is not removed. To ensure salvation the owner has to convince someone else to overtake the pants and step into each leg as soon as he gets out of it. The necropants will thus keep the money-gathering nature for generations.
According to the commentary on the website, the coin stolen from the poor widow must be taken at Christmas, Whitsun or Easter. These three festivals all occur at times when pagan feasts occurred before the coming of Christianity – Yule, Summer’s Day and Eostur-monath respectively. Also that the sorcerer must make a pact with the man while still living, and that if the sorcerer died in the necropants, his body would be infested with lice.
This is particularly interesting since Early Christian doctrine held that the bodily Resurrection required the dead to be intact – those infested with lice would be unclean at best and rotten at worst, certainly not suitable for the Kingdom of Heaven. Add to this the fact that the sorcerer must find someone to stand in the right leg of the necropants before he steps out of the left, and we are left wondering if the notion of the via sinistra and all the associations with widdershins and leftness applied here also.
Further, the commentary states that wealth would be taken from ‘living persons’. Let’s consider this for a second:
A pact is made, wherein an individual agrees to let the sorcerer wear his skin after he is dead. The skin is synonymous with form and shape in many cultures, so could we be looking at an act which allows the sorcerer to take on the form of the dead? Note also the importance of the scrotum, the sac beneath the generative organ.
Into this is placed a coin stolen from a poor widow, echoing the biblical story of the widow in the temple:
1And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury.
2And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.
3And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all:
4For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. -Luke Ch.21
There are multiple ways to look at this theft – the coin may draw the blessings of God to the scrotum of the necropants in the form of money, the theft breaks through morality into necessity, or that the coin provides a magical link to money held by others. There are probably even more valid options, but they have been lost under over four centuries of time.
Regardless of the fact, we once again see the importance of the dead in Northern sorcery, and that of might. The notion of Mighty Dead who are not bound by mortal law or the structures of the human world is extremely important. Whether they be in service to the sorcerer through being bound by force, a sense of familial obligation or an altogether more wyrd pact, they are ever-present.
What is also fascinating is that the wealth is taken from the living – one might suppose that in elder days, the wealth might have been something far more esoteric, which in turn enabled the acquisition of what was necessary for survival. To requote the Museum:
The purpose of the magic involved tells us something of the concerns of the lower classes that used them to lessen the burden of subsidence living in a harsh climate.
The harshness of the environment is something that should never be understated – survival is not a right, despite what we would like to think. Is it any wonder that those exposed to the Elemental turn to magic of an equally visceral and Elemental nature? There’s absolutely no need to say more on the necessities of existence than to quote the saying Flags, flax, fodder and frig!
If you’ve read this far and not walked away in despair, indeed if you are as intrigued by these ideas as I am, then perhaps you might muse still further. As you digest all that I have written, as the concepts arrange themselves in a way that makes some kind of sense to you, perhaps you may find yourself considering all this again when you perform the necessities of your life – the eating, the drinking, the having sex, the way you can notice shifts in temperature as you cross a threshold…
All these things can serve as reminders, doorways into understanding the magic of mægen , the sorcery of survival, born of the icy North.
That said, does anyone want to give me their hides for some pantaloons of peril..?