East Frisian Ancient Grandmother

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Holle Sand in East Frisia: a nature preserve on the duneland forest, near where my ancestors lived.

Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.

But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.

And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”   I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us.  During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors.  We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.”  And so I did.

Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.

When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries.  She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”  

I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me.  The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.

At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz.  Sweet.  Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are.  Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.

And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”

 

Avoid Spiritual Theft by Doing Our Own Spiritual Work

Indigenous spiritual traditions are inextricably woven into the network of relationships within an Indigenous community and in the particular land in which that community lives. They are a fundamental element of the Native struggle against the destruction of their cultures and homes. They are not meant to be exported piecemeal for some other purpose, however earnest it may be. If we seek to avoid spiritual theft, the best tool we can use is for us to do our own spiritual work. 

If we are seeking to reconnect to the earth, we must remind ourselves that non-Indian people are no less a part of the earth than Indians, even though we are not indigenous to this place. In reality, we all live here on this land and our lives are equally enmeshed with the fate of countless other beings around us. This land, broken as she is, is our only source of food and water. And this land is full of nourishment for us, both material and spiritual. We can love the earth, and be loved by the earth, even if she keeps some secrets from us. Step by step, we must rebuild our own culture’s relationship to the earth. Even though we might learn from the wisdom and experience of Indigenous peoples, no one else can do the work for us.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

One summer, I learned that by eating local honey, I could help the hay-fever I suffered from in summertime. By eating that local honey I could begin to make a relationship between my body and the plants which grow in that place. There has been a resurgence of interest in eating foods that are locally grown. Along with the environmental benefits, there are also these spiritual ones, this reweaving of a connection with our bodies to a place. It is our connection to a specific place, the place we live, which forms the doorway for us to hear the earth, to find her sacredness.

A sacred understanding of land is not entirely foreign to European culture. Until the advent of capitalism, land was seen in a more communal fashion. Europeans had their own indigenous traditions to connect them to their land, many of which survived even into Christian times. We see traces of this in our holidays even here in this country—the evergreen trees of the winter festival, the foods we prepare for special times of the year. Many people are seeking to relearn these old European earth traditions.

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Othila

There is a rune, part of the early Germanic ritual alphabet, called Othila, whose sacred meaning is “inherited land.” It describes the relationship between people and the land on which they live. In Germanic countries, there is still a legal right called the right of odal. It means that a person living on a particular estate has the right to stay and live on that estate after the owner has died.

In 17th century England, there was a movement of people called the Diggers, who were protesting the fencing off of common lands and believed that the land could not be owned by private individuals. A love for the earth has many roots in our European ancestors’ ways.

Rune Carvings

Beech Tree Markings 133650002When I sat in the old copper beech tree, surrounded by the hopeful carvings of many human persons, I was reminded of the runes, the early carved alphabet of the Germanic languages. I had earlier taken up the study of runes, because I was curious about the culture and spirituality of my ancient Germanic ancestors. The traditional way of making runes is to carve them into small staves of wood cut from the branch of a fruit bearing tree. The rune letters themselves are sharp and angular, revealing their origins in the markings that blades can make in wood. Each of the rune letters is a symbol of some sacred power in the German understanding of the universe.

Runes were used for magic, for divination, and for communicating with sacred forces. According to some German and Norse myths, the runes were given to the God Odin, after he hung suspended for nine days and nine nights on the sacred tree of the world, Yggdrasil. Odin then shared the runes with humankind. The runes were a gift from a holy tree.

Runes DSC01305Two of the runes are specifically linked to trees. Eiwaz represents the yew tree and Berkana, the birch tree. The yew tree is a symbol for Yggdrasil and is linked to death and the everlasting realm beyond death. The tree is poisonous and its wood was used to make long bows for hunting and war. It lives to be perhaps the oldest tree we know. There is a yew tree called the Fortingall yew, which is situated in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland. It is believed to be the most ancient tree in Europe, between two and five thousand years old.

The birch tree, on the other hand, is linked to birth and beginnings. It is one of the first trees to grow in an area after a fire has destroyed its vegetation. Birch branches were used in cheerful springtime rituals, a symbol of new life and the fruitfulness of spring. When Margy and I were looking for a home in Maine, we were feeling discouraged after May and June had passed without our finding anything. We did a reading of the runes, and pulled out Berkana—the birch tree rune. It could be read as a great indicator of prosperous new beginnings coming into our life. But we also decided to take it more literally.

We began to look for houses that had anything to do with birch trees. We noticed an ad for a house on Birchwood Road, and saw another house described as having birch cabinets, and a few others like that. So we came up the last weekend in July to check them out, and then found another house in the newspaper on the last day. The backyard turned out to be full of birch trees. It was also just what we were looking for.

Some people believe that the runes communicate magic messages. But what strikes me most powerfully about the runes is the magic of written language itself. What an uncanny ability it must have been at first—to communicate across distance or time in a way that talking could never match. The root of the word “rune” implies secret or hidden. A message could be carved out by one who knew the runes, and—sent via a messenger who did not know the message—it could be understood by another person far away. The ability of rune readers to communicate in silence with each other would have appeared magical to anyone who witnessed it. These messages could even endure beyond the death of their creators, to be received by those who came after. We have forgotten to be in awe of that power.