Thor the Rainbringer

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A black swallowtail visits the Cenizo in my front yard.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, one of my long-term goals is to adapt Heathenry to Texas. I think this is necessary in order for Heathenry to survive into the future. We can’t keep Heathenry stuck in Viking Age Scandinavia. It has to be allowed to evolve and adapt. Of course, transplanting Heathenry to Texas is going to be difficult because of the climate difference between here and Northern Europe, but I think it can be done.

Part of that is adapting seasonal festivals to the local climate, which is what I’ve mostly been writing about, but I also think that the gods manifest themselves differently in different regions. That could be because I’m a very nature-oriented person, but I don’t think I’m the only person who has noticed this. For example, I have a lot of trouble with Skadhi because she’s a frost giantess, and last winter we didn’t even have any freezes! That will only become more common as the climate warms. I also don’t have much to do with Njord because I don’t live by the coast. Even if I did live on the Gulf Coast, I have a feeling Njord would manifest a lot differently there than he does in Scandinavia, since the Gulf Coast of Texas is semi-tropical. Texas Njord had better like palm trees and sea turtles!

That being said, some Germanic gods seem to have no problem making themselves known here in Texas, and I’d say the easiest one is Thor. He fits right in. Come on, can’t you imagine him wearing snakeskin cowboy boots?

In Northern Europe, Thor fights the Frost Giants, but here heat and drought are his main adversaries. Though he comes from a long line of Indo-European thunder gods, in Texas he takes on the job of the bringer of life-giving rain, giving him a bit more of a fertility aspect which is downplayed in the Scandinavia lore. I don’t live in the desert, but my ecosystem is still drought-prone. We had an especially bad one in 2011, making it obvious how much we rely on Thor’s blessings. There’s nothing like getting a nice thunderstorm rolling in after enduring another Texas summer of 100 degree heat. The brown landscape comes back to life after it soaks up the life-giving water. There are several plant species here that bloom right after a rain and are dormant the rest of the time. I consider those plants sacred to Thor.

But as it often is with natural forces, there is another side. My area is also prone to flash floods. Last year we had some especially bad floods that killed several people and caused massive amounts of destruction. Then there are the tornadoes. I’m actually a little too far south to have a lot of tornadoes, but they do show up occasionally. However, I grew up in the Dallas area where tornado watches and warnings were common.

Thunderstorms also bring hail. If you are a Texan, it is not hard to understand why Hagalaz is one of the most dreaded runes. It was only a few weeks ago that San Antonio got baseball-sized hail that broke many car windshields and roofs and windows of houses. Now imagine if you are a farmer and your livelihood depended on your crops, and just as they’ve started to grow up nice and green, a hail storm pulverizes them. And now it’s too late in the year to replant and get a crop in time. Your entire year’s income just got wiped out in one day.

So thunderstorms bring us life-giving water and relief from the heat. They fill our rivers and aquifers and water our crops. They also destroy our crops with hail, destroy our houses with floods and tornadoes, and kill people. It should be no surprise then that Thor is prominent in Texas.

In Central Texas, we have two rainy seasons. The big one is just coming to an end. May and June are our wettest months. The summer crops get plenty of water, but this is also when the most flash floods happen. Then things dry out in July and August before our second, less severe rainy season happens in September and October. Either of these rainy seasons would be a good time for a Texan to do a big ritual in honor of Thor.

I often make smaller offerings to him during thunderstorms, especially if it comes when I really needed it. I like to give him Shiner Bock, which is a Texas beer that I like (so I often have it in the fridge), or I burn him some Dragon’s Blood incense. During the dry season, offerings of rain water from the rain barrel seem like an appropriate sacrifice as well. On my altar I have a rain stick for Thor that I sometimes use when offering to him.

Everyone knows that Thor’s sacred tree is the oak, and my area has plenty of those. The main species here is Quercus virginiana, the Southern live oak, and it’s also the most common tree on my property. We also have a few Texas red oak (Quercus bucklei) seedlings and saplings coming up here and there.

Like I mentioned above, there are some native Texas plants that bloom when it rains, and I also consider these sacred to Thor even if it isn’t traditional. One is a shrub called Cenizo, Leucophyllum frutescens, which is a popular landscape shrub around here. It has silvery foliage and blooms with beautiful purple flowers. One of its common names is “barometer bush” because if its habit of blooming when it rains.

Another one of Thor’s plants is the rain lily, Cooperia pedunculata, which waits underground as a bulb until it rains. Then once the water soaks down to the bulbs, their cheerful white flowers emerge. Rain can be spotty around here, so there have been several times I’ve been driving out in the country and commented, “Oh, it must have rained here. Look at all the rain lilies along the side of the road.”

As for animals, Thor is usually associated with goats, and the Texas Hill Country is good for goat farming, judging by how many goats you see driving around out in the country, especially towards Dripping Springs and Fredericksburg. It looks like both meat goats and milk goats thrive here. Locally produced goat cheese is a common sight at farmer’s markets. I think it would be a good offering to Thor. Goat meat still doesn’t seem to have caught on much among white people, but Hispanics love it, so if you are adventurous enough you can go to a Hispanic meat market to get some. I’ve had it once or twice, and it was good. It tasted to me somewhere between beef and lamb.

Thor also has a sacred bird here. In the Scandinavian lore, Odin is associated with ravens and Freya with falcons. It seems to be modern lore to associate Frigg with some kind of water bird, like a heron or osprey, which I think is appropriate. But Thor doesn’t have a sacred bird as far as I know.

Well, for Texas at least, I propose the Yellow Billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) to be Thor’s bird. It’s also known as the Rain Crow because of its habit of calling before thunderstorms. They migrate to Central America in the winter, but always arrive in my area in time for the thunderstorm season. I hear them really often, but they are seldom seen. They like to creep around high in the trees and don’t usually perch out in the open. I have actually seen one three or four times though. If you’re not looking carefully, they can be mistaken for a mockingbird, but they’re bigger, browner, and have that distinctive yellow bill (mockingbirds are grey with a black bill).

The kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk kowlp-kowlp-kowlp sound of the Rain Crow, the smell of ozone, the blooming Barometer Bush, the cool breeze just starting to cut through the heavy, humid air, those are the signs that Thor the Rainbringer is on his way! Instead of going inside, we stay out and watch the dark clouds billowing in the distance and the first few drops of rain hitting the dusty dry earth. “Finally it’s raining. We really needed the rain,” we say before heading under a roof to avoid getting soaked. But we keep watching as the thirsty trees and grass and gardens soak up Thor’s gift and the sky lights up with a spectacular show.

Hail Thor! Hail the Rainbringer! Welcome to Texas. We hope you’ll stay fer a spell!

Sacred Plants: Texas Mountain Laurel

I think that pagans who want to get more in touch with their local environment would do well to learn more about local sacred plants, especially native plants, which I think are often overlooked, though cultivating an herb garden is also a good idea.

I used to lead a native plant workshop at a local pagan festival, until the festival became prohibitively expensive for me to keep attending with my current financial situation. We went for a short hike around the festival grounds while I pointed out the plants and talked about each one. The workshop was well-attended, but I was somewhat disappointed at how often I got the question, “What kind of spell would this plant be useful for?” as the person snatched up a forb growing in the meadow. Giving people lists of “correspondences” for native plants was not exactly what I intended that workshop to be about. If you just want an herb for your money spell, you would probably do better grabbing a jar of dried basil next time you’re at the grocery store.

What I was really intending for the workshop was to get people to learn more about the native plants of Central Texas. I want them to learn about the plants themselves. What kind of environments they grow in, when they bloom, what sort of mundane things did the Indians or pioneers use them for, as well as any magical properties they might have. I guess I’m too much of an animist to feel right about just pulling off some leaves to use for some spell, without getting to know the plant’s spirit first.

So here’s my first post highlighting a local sacred plant that all people living in the Hill Country should be familiar with, and all pagans living in the Hill Country should revere: Sophora secundiflora. They are in full bloom sometime between Imbolg and Ostara, which is right now.

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Mountain laurels in my front yard

The common names for this plant include Texas Mountain Laurel and Mescal Bean. It is a small evergreen tree in the legume family. There are other small flowering trees in North America also called “mountain laurel” that are unrelated, hence the “Texas” part of the name. It lives in the Hill Country, all the way west to a small area in New Mexico, and south to Central Mexico. I tend to call the trees themselves “mountain laurels” and their seeds “mescal beans”. They’re one of my favorite trees, and I was delighted that most of the trees on our property we moved to a year ago are either live oaks or mountain laurels.

A mountain laurel bloom

A mountain laurel bloom

They bloom in March with these fantastic purple inflorescences, which give off a strong, sweet, mouthwatering fragrance most people liken to grape soda or Kool-Aid. They’re fairly popular as a native ornamental plant. The parking lot where I work has a lot of them in the medians, though many people choose not to plant them, complaining that they grow much more slowly and don’t bloom for as long as that popular Chinese native, Crepe Myrtles.

The thing is, most native plants here grow slowly. It’s how they survive the lack of water. Mountain laurels grow in poor, rocky soil and can take just about anything Texas throws at them. And personally, the short bloom time (the blooms only last two or three weeks) seems to make them more special to me. I guess in a culture where we can get ripe strawberries in winter, people just don’t appreciate these brief, seasonal events that you have to enjoy right then until they’re gone for another year.

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Mountain laurel pods and seeds

The purple flowers soon give way to peanut-like pods with bright orange-red seeds that litter the sidewalks and parking lots next to the trees. Maybe that’s another reason why some people are reluctant to plant them, because the seeds are listed everywhere as deadly poisonous. What I’ve heard is that plenty of kids have swallowed the seeds with no ill-effects, because they have very hard seed coats, so they pass through the digestive system unscathed. The toxin is inside the seed, and is only released if the seed is crushed or chewed up. Of course, caution is still warranted, but I’m certainly not going to chop down all my mountain laurels when I have a kid.

OK, so now we come to the part all the pagans are waiting for. What are the magical properties of the Texas Mountain Laurel? Well, to figure that out, you should think about why their other common name is Mescal Bean, those “poisonous” seeds. You see, they’re also hallucinogenic, and were used as an entheogen by the Native Americans living in this area. The Indians would crush them up and ingest them in rituals, though the dosage is a bit tricky, and they can make you very sick or even kill you if you take too much. Once peyote cactus was imported from further south, using mescal beans as an entheogen was abandoned, since peyote gives a better high with fewer side effects.

However, the mescal beans were still considered sacred, and even today Indians wear necklaces made of beads of mescal beans with holes drilled through the middle during their peyote rituals. I must say, they make a very pretty necklace too, and I’m considering making one myself some day.  I certainly have enough of the seeds here in my yard.

So I don’t recommend actually ingesting the seeds unless you’re under the supervision of a trained native shaman (and even then you’d probably do better with peyote or ayahuasca), but the seeds or strings of the seeds made into beads could be useful if you’re doing any sort of divination or trying to receive visions or contact the Otherworld in some other (safer) way.

The mountain laurel behind my ritual circle

The mountain laurel behind my ritual circle

The biggest mountain laurel I have in my yard is right behind the sacred circle. I thought it was an oak tree at first, since it’s as big as a lot of the smaller oaks in my yard. They seldom get that big, but I think it’s a good sign that it’s there. Who knows, maybe that’s why I got such good “vibes” about putting my ritual circle in that spot.

Local Sacred Spaces: Purgatory Creek’s Ancient Oaks

Another thing I wanted to do with this blog is document my search for sacred spaces in my local area. In Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson (an excellent resource!), it talks about how my ancestors viewed sacred spaces. They had man-made sacred spaces, but also recognized the existence of natural sacred spaces that already existed in the landscape. When Iceland was settled, one of the first things the colonists set out to do was find these sacred hills, groves, etc. in their new land.

I had already been noticing sacred spaces around San Marcos ever since I moved here over six years ago (my goodness, has it really been that long?), but reading that book encouraged me to document my finds on this blog. I hope that it might be helpful for other pagans to see how I find these spots, so they might try it out where they live.

The first one I’d like to feature is one near and dear to my heart, because this is where my husband proposed to me. It’s an ancient live oak tree in Purgatory Creek Natural Area. We found it when we were trying out geocaching. We lived in a rented house only a couple of blocks away and visited that park often. Someone had stowed a geocache inside its hollowed-out interior. This park has other old oak trees, but this is the biggest we’ve found.

I already know my ancestors venerated trees. Oaks are sacred to Thor, so it’s probably most appropriate that I post this on a Thursday. My husband estimates this tree to be about 400 years old, give or take a century, based on its girth. It would be impossible to find out for sure, because the way to do that scientifically (and not hurt the tree) would be to take a core and count the rings, and like many very old live oak trees, this one has become hollow inside. In fact, the space inside is big enough for a couple of people to sit in comfortably! Clearly this is a venerable tree, an avatar of Yggdrasil! Sometimes I call it the Engagement Tree, since my husband proposed to me under it, but maybe a better name for him would be Grandfather Oak. Oaks don’t have separate male and female individuals, but oaks are usually considered a masculine tree in European mythology, so Grandfather it is.

The oak seen from the main trail.

The oak seen from the main trail.

Like many large oak trees in open areas, it has acted as a nurse tree to smaller trees that have sprouted under its branches. Birds perch in the branches and drop seeds underneath, which grow sheltered from the hot Texas sun in its shade. This tree mostly has Texas Persimmon under it, a beautiful small native tree with peeling bark, smooth white trunks, and small black persimmons loved by wildlife. It also has an Anacua or two, another native tree with tasty berries eaten by birds.

Curtains of Spanish moss drape gracefully from the branches. Spanish moss isn’t a true moss, but actually and epiphyte related to bromeliads. Its close relative, ball moss, seems to be much more common around here, but it doesn’t form the long curtains. (It does, however, make excellent kindling for campfires!)

Going down the trail to the tree, you pass through curtains of Spanish Moss. The dark leaves are persimmon, while the lighter leaves are the oak's.

Going down the trail to the tree, you pass through curtains of Spanish Moss. The dark leaves are persimmon, while the lighter leaves are the oak’s.

The Spanish moss and smaller understory trees create a kind of wall around the central oak tree. People have worn a path branching off the main trail to the tree, and walking down the path, you have to push aside the Spanish moss like you’re moving through curtains through a portal to another world. And then you come to the open area underneath the canopy, and there is the trunk of the mighty oak, twisted and burled, beckoning you to climb its thick branches or shelter in its hollow trunk.

Oak leaves in the foreground, with the tree's trunk far behind.

Oak leaves in the foreground, with the tree’s trunk far behind.

What things has this tree seen in its long life? A lot has happened in 400 years. Indians probably sat under its shade, then Spaniards, or maybe German settlers. Countless acorns have fed generations of wildlife, and generations of birds and squirrels have built nests in its branches. I wonder if my husband was the first person to propose to his beloved under it, or if the tree has seen that before too. Every time I visit the tree I give it an offering of water from my water bottle.

The hollow trunk of the tree close up.

The hollow trunk of the tree close up.

We also try to remember to bring a trash bag. We’re not the only ones who know about this tree, after all, and some people are less respectful than us. Sometimes we find beer cans, plastic water bottles, cigarette butts, even discarded clothing and condom wrappers. Signs that others are enjoying the tree, yes, but I do wish more people would remember to Leave No Trace. We read the logbook in the geocache, and some of the people writing in there agreed with us about how amazing this tree is, and that those other people should quit leaving their trash around. My husband and I try to remember to bring a trash bag whenever we go hiking, because there’s always stuff to be picked up. I see that as an even more important way to honor the land spirits than to leave any sort of offering. I usually only offer water anyway, something I know will leave no trace, and something that’s actually quite precious in an arid area like this.

Looking up into the branches.

Looking up into the branches.

We got married last year in March, and around the same time bought a house a bit farther away from Purgatory Creek, so we can no longer easily walk to it. Getting married and buying a house at about the same time is not something I would recommend! We were so busy it was several months before we visited Grandfather Oak again. Finally, last fall we thought about how we hadn’t been over there in a long time, and decided to visit again.

As we hiked down the main trail, it didn’t take long for us to notice some work had been done on the park since the last time we were there. A sign stating this was Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat had been put up towards the beginning of the trail. This is an endangered songbird that only nests in Central Texas, specifically only in old-growth Ashe Juniper (a.k.a. “cedar”) forests. A mature juniper tree has this beautiful shredding bark that the warblers use to build their nests. Female junipers also get blue berries on them that are eaten by several species of birds, including Cedar Waxwings, which were named after their favorite food.

This made me happy, but as we hiked, we started seeing the telltale signs that, ironically, someone had brought a Cedar Eater into the park. This is a huge machine that shreds trees, leaving big stumps and chunks of wood the size of my forearm in its wake. Most people around here really hate “cedars” because some people are allergic to their pollen, and they tend to take over pastures that have been overgrazed. (There’s also a myth that junipers are especially thirsty trees that suck up all the water, but I have found scientific studies that say otherwise.) Personally, I think the Ashe juniper is one of the most unfairly maligned native trees around here, hated even more than the mesquite. I think they’re being used as a scapegoat for a larger problem, which is mismanagement of land. If you overgraze your land, eventually nothing but junipers will be left because cattle don’t like the taste of them. If the land never burns, there’s nothing to thin the junipers out. It’s not the junipers’ fault they’re such good survivors under the conditions we’ve given them!

I have no idea why they decided this nature preserve needed cedar-eating. Here the junipers are mixed in with the oaks and persimmons like they’re supposed to be. “Mixed oak-juniper woodland” is the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s habitat, and you can’t have a mixed oak-juniper woodland without junipers!

We hiked down the trail past shredded chunks of juniper trees and shorn-off stumps lining the trail, and past limestone boulders that had been scraped and chipped and smashed by the heavy machinery. Then the trail flattens out and takes you through a more savannah-like area, out of the thicker forest. This is where the really big oaks live.

I gasped when I got to Grandfather Oak. For a few minutes my husband didn’t believe it was the actual tree. All the trees growing around it had been ripped apart. There weren’t even any junipers in that area to begin with. I don’t know why they decided they needed to shred the persimmon trees too. Most of the Spanish moss had been torn down as well, so instead of being hidden, the trunk of the oak tree was now completely exposed and viewable from the main trail.

Upon closer examination, it looks like they brought the Cedar Eater right up to the trunk of the tree and scraped off the bark in several spots, trying to get at the Anacua that was growing up through the oak’s roots. My husband was outraged. He said the tree could get oak wilt from these wounds. He wished he had known about this sooner, so he could have at least brought some pruning spray out here to cover the wounds. But it looked like this had happened a few months previously, because the wounds had already started to heal, and the stumps of the persimmon trees already had new sprouts growing out of them. Too late to do anything about it now.

We haven’t visited the oak tree since. I’m a little afraid to see what else they’ve done to “improve” the park. I don’t know why they decided to clear out all the trees from under the oak. Can they not tell the difference between a persimmon and a juniper? Is shredding trees so fun that they just got carried away? I wonder if they decided to clear under the tree to discourage teenagers from hanging out under there, but that doesn’t seem worth injuring a 400 year old oak tree for.

Well, as long as the oak tree didn’t get oak wilt, it will recover. The persimmons were already starting to sprout back from the stumps. The Spanish moss will probably grow back. That is, if people don’t make cedar-eating a regular thing there. (Don’t get me wrong, I know sometimes some tree-cutting is needed, but there are cleaner and more selective ways of doing it than using a Cedar Eater.)

I didn’t really mean this post to turn into a rant, but I wanted to write about Grandfather Oak, and it seemed misleading to pretend that the oak still looks the way it did when my husband proposed to me under it. It seems desecrated now. I guess that just shows that my husband and I have a very different view of these things than most people do. I think the point of a place like Purgatory Creek Natural Area is to mostly leave nature alone. That tree has survived just fine for hundreds of years without people messing with it. San Marcos has other parks that are more developed, with ADA accessible trails and picnic areas and so on. Purgatory Creek is wilder, with just some hiking trails through it, and that’s it. I think we need both kinds of parks, but the population of San Marcos is growing rapidly, and I’m afraid the parks department might feel the need to “develop” and “improve” the parks even more.

This is why I think it’s important for pagans to find their local sacred spaces, because a lot of them need to be taken care of. We no longer live in a society where groves, springs, hills, and trees are widely recognized as sacred places that need to be respected. We need to get out there and pick up the cans and bottles, and become involved in preserving wild places for future generations.

My husband and I should probably get out and enjoy what wildness is left around here as much as we can, while we still can.