Unwrapping the Stangen

Fertility is relevant to all human beings for several reasons. The assumption that heterosexual sex is a universal human activity is NOT one of those reasons.

This comes up most obviously in Wicca and Wiccanate traditions that use the Great Rite, or similar rituals. The Vanir are, amongst other things, fertility gods, so this also comes up in Vanatru, and is something that I, as a Vanic Gythia, need to stay aware of.

Disclaimer: I quite enjoy PiV sex. I consider sex in general a form of worship, and engage in sacred sexuality as a personal practice regularly.

I am therefore in no position to expound on what it’s like to be someone who does not, for any of a variety of reasons, enjoy PiV sex. I can not directly represent those who find the use of heterosexual symbolism painful and upsetting.

What I am is incredibly fed up with the ideas that fertility means heterosexual human sex, and because sex is a potentially ecstatic religious experience, it’s the only human gateway to the sacredness of fertility. I’m fed up with the idea that “sex” and “fertility” are synonyms.

Every year, the Vanic Conspiracy – the vanatru group I run – dances the Midsommer Stangen as part of our Summer Solstice celebration. A Midsummer Stangen is the same as a Maypole, but because Sweden is much further north, the relevant season and associated traditions happen later in the year. In the Vanic Conspiracy, our stangen is made from the trunk of the yule tree, and is later unwrapped and cut up for the yule logs to complete the Solstice cycle, with the ribbons remaining to wrap next year’s stangen. (This makes me think – perhaps I should find a way to use the ribbons as garlands on the yule tree too? Hmm…)

We also gather for charity at Yule and Midsommer, the former for local community members in need, the latter to donate to a wide-reaching charity. For us, the two solstices in contrast are bound into a larger metaphor for all the cycles moving between contrasting elements: life and death, hot and cold, bright and dark, fire and ice (or around here, flood), utgard and innangard, going out and coming home, chaos and order. While the contrast between the two elements is part of the point, the idea that there’s specifically two things in contrast is a side effect, not the goal. The cycle itself being unending is the point, and those “opposites” are merely ways to mark the transitions from our limited, human perspective because we literally can not conceive of the whole of time, all life, all worlds, simultaneously. (I would argue that if we dig into it, there aren’t truly nine worlds, but that we see them that way because we need to sort the information, but that’s another post.)

I am not interested in applying this appearance of duality to everything; This is not a Norse Yin-Yang principle.

However, there IS another binary that comes up at Midsommer: It’s the only time I ask everyone in attendance to pick a “team” of Male or Female. I don’t require anyone to be cisgendered, or even binary in their personal identity. I don’t require anyone to stick with the gender identity they usually have, even. It’s just that dancing the stangen involves two teams, one traveling clockwise, the other traveling counterclockwise, and because the whole thing is a big metaphor for heterosexual sex as representative of fertility in general, those two teams are deemed Male and Female. If a heterosexual cis woman wants to dance on the Male team, so be it.

The midsummerstangen is a metaphor in the sense that dancing around in circles isn’t sex, obviously. It’s also a metaphor in that human sex is only one of countless forms of animal reproduction, and animal reproduction is in turn only one category of reproduction in living organisms.

It is NOT a metaphor in that the fertility we’re referencing is not a placeholder for creativity in general. We’re not raising energy to fuel our art projects, inspire fantastic ideas, or bring us more money (at least not directly – if everybody ends up going home and redecorating their temples in a creative flurry, I’m not going to complain). What we’re doing is raising energy to make more life happen.

Now yes, sometimes the life we’re aiming to promote is a human life. One year, we did indeed have a member who wanted to get pregnant. We had her hold up the stangen. Her child is beautiful and healthy and that went very well.

The rest of the time, what we’re promoting is the fertility of the land, the plants, and animals. We’re raising energy to encourage our living resources to multiply, because last time I checked, everyone needs to EAT, and all of our sustainable resources are, in some way, tied into the ecosystem of living organisms.

THAT is what fertility is. The thriving interaction and reproduction of living organisms. All of them.

In this sense, fertility is relevant to all human beings, because fertility is relevant to all life. We need to eat to live. We need fertility to eat. Fertility is literally a matter of life and death, including our own lives.

If we want to honor the fertility that feeds us all, we can indeed use symbolic heterosexual sex as a metaphor for all the other kinds of fertility. Alternatively, we can pass around a plate full of bread, and a horn full of mead, maybe share some meat, and give thanks to the plants, animals, and microorganisms whose actual lives we are consuming.

Now, it’s also true that we, being living organisms, reproduce. I like babies. I want to have babies someday. I enjoy sex, too, so that works out pretty well for me. As such, I find it very easy to accept a role in rituals that use human baby-making as a metaphor for other things, especially as a metaphor to promote more actual human baby-making.

(I also experience sex as a form of ecstatic ritual, and as a deeply intimate way to connect with another person, whether human or divine – but in that sense, it has almost nothing to do with fertility at all, and again, there are many other forms of intimacy, and  ecstatic ritual.)

However, the fact that some people want children, and lots of people enjoy sex is NOT why human reproduction is relevant to all human beings.

There is only ONE reason human reproduction is relevant to all human beings, and that’s that we all came FROM human reproduction. By definition, we exist because somewhere a sperm met up with an egg.

It’s true that the vast majority of the time, that happened in a womb because at some prior point a penis entered a vagina. But it’s not safe to assume that the sperm came out of a man, that the womb or egg belonged to a woman – or even to the same person. It’s not safe to assume the baby came out of the womb through the vagina. It’s not safe to assume that the people involved were heterosexual. It’s not safe to assume that it happened on purpose, or that the act was consensual, or even that heterosexual sex was ever involved. The only universal factors here are that individual human beings start out as a pair of gametes forming a zygote, and until technology allows otherwise, they must incubate in a womb for roughly 9 months before becoming autonomous (if highly dependent) individuals.

That’s it.

If what we want to honor is where we came from, we can indeed use symbolic heterosexual sex as a metaphor for human creation. Alternatively, we can engage in Ancestor Reverence, and give thanks to the humans whose actual acts of reproduction created us.

To put it another way, trees are a great metaphor for life, and thus fertility. We are all part of the human family tree. We all come from the same roots. We can all appreciate the existence of our tree on some level. This does NOT obligate us to all be BRANCHES. Trees need leaves too, people – endpoints in the overall system. We are not all obliged to allow the tree to continue growing through us, past us, just because we exist on the tree itself!

This is, for me, something of a relief, to be honest. Because I DO want children, and always have, because I DO enjoy sex, and sacred sexuality, but with humans am almost demisexual, I sometimes fret that I am neither lusty enough, nor procreative enough to go about representing a bunch of Fertility and Sex Gods.

But that’s irrelevant, because my very existence is part of fertility, I carry within my body countless other reproducing organisms, which in turn help me digest my food. I am dependent for my continued existence on the fertility of plants and animals. Someday my death will feed back into that cycle (well, okay, probably not given how we handle our dead these days, but that’s the ideal).

So yes, sex is sometimes about fertility – but fertility is NEVER just about sex!


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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1 Response to Unwrapping the Stangen

  1. Pingback: DPM 19: Get a Move On | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

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