The World Tree In Your Backyard: Building a Stang

excerpt from The Pathwalker's Guide
by Raven Kaldera and Elizabeth Vongvisith

spiritpolesThe image came to me in a dream, and I obsessed about it for months. It was a pole, crowned with a skull, and on it were rungs decorated with many fluttering strips and hanging objects. When I looked in my books on Eurasian shamanism, I did find pictures of poles like that in old woodcuts (and a few photos from Siberia with no useful captions), but there was no explanation of exactly what was supposed to be on them, or how they were used. I knew, very strongly, that this pole was supposed to be a representation of the World Tree, and I went from there. Thinking it through, I supposed that there would have to be nine rungs, one for each world.

My friend and fellow spirit-worker Elizabeth - Loki's wife - came to visit, and we discussed the idea. I decided that there was no point in waiting; with two Northern-tradition spirit-workers on the land, something ought to come out right. So we dowsed for a place at the edge of my ritual field on the back of my farm, dug a hole, and then dowsed for the right tree to cut down. My wife followed, chain saw in hand. The pendulum led me to a small oak that was dead on the top half but still alive at the bottom - caught between worlds, as Elizabeth pointed out. We made sacrifice to it, asked its spirit for permission, and got a firm assent - we got the feeling that the spirit in it knew that it was not going to make it. Cutting it down, we lashed nine rungs to it and then stood it up in the hole, figuring that we'd decorate it standing up, like a Yule tree.

Nothing happened. That nothing seemed somehow very significant. Something ought to happen, we felt very strongly. I sat and thought about it, but got nothing but static from my tense state, which sometimes happens. Finally I grabbed some books about the research and archaeology of northern religion, and did some bibliomancy, opening them at random. (See, I've discovered what the "lore books" are good for - bibliomancy! Yes, that's me chuckling.) My finger alighted on a passage about finding holes in the ground that had been filled with offerings as part of some unknown religious rite. "That's it!" Elizabeth said, lighting up. "We need to feed the hole!"

So we went back out, took it gently down from its standing position, and laid it on the ground. I tied a skull from one of our goats on the top, and tied on strips of red cloth - it seemed important that those strips be red somehow - and then we went to the empty hole. The book had listed many things that were found in these sacred shafts, and we had some of them, and added others that we felt were intuitively important. There was a handful of old coins, an egg from our chickens, some goat milk from our goats, a few polished stones, a cup of mead, a bottle of ale, some homemade bread, some bones from sheep we'd raised and slaughtered, some pieces of junk jewelry. I recaned the hole with a mugwort stick and then threw it into the hole. Finally, I pricked my finger and let some of my own blood fall into it.

Then we stood the pole up....and it was as if we'd plugged it into an electric socket. Our prior conviction that "something ought to happen" was entirely correct. It not only turned on, it seemed to come to life, as if there was a guardian spirit in it. The skull suddenly looked like a head, glaring down at us...and I knew what the point of this pole was. It was a quick door between worlds, and the spirit that I had called in with our offerings and my own blood was waiting for orders. "Keep everything out until further notice," I told it, "and let no one but me through and back again."

We proceeded to decorate the rungs for the rest of the day. I started with strips of colored cloth fluttering off the ends - sky-blue for Asgard at the top, pink and lavender for Alfheim, green and gold for Vanaheim, dark green for Jotunheim, blue and green for Midgard, red for Muspellheim, gray and purple for Svartalfheim, white and silver for Niflheim, and black for Helheim. I made up pouches of the appropriate herbs for each world, in matching colors, and tied them on. Then we added appropriate sorts of junk jewelry and strings of wooden beads, and small bags of appropriate items - bones for Helheim, flint and ashes for Muspellheim, colored marbles in light and dark shades for the two Alfar-worlds, coins for the duergar of Nidavellir, miniature weapons and a brass sun for Asgard. I filled a small jar with raw flax dyed sea-green, and laid a small coiled snakeskin on it, and hung that on the Midgard rung for the Serpent. For Vanaheim, I put one perfect wheat head and a handful of amber chips into a narrow glass bottle and hung that up.

As we crossed the field later that night to check on the stang (and add a few more things that we'd found) we could see it literally glowing at the edge of the field. It seemed like a tall, hunched presence, draped in its fluttering strips of cloth, standing guard. It stayed very much alive for the rest of the month, and then as autumn moved into winter it seemed to recede, seemingly knowing that there would be no travel in the snow-filled months.

I began to use it to travel and get back safely. When I'd first pathwalked, I was careful to set up runic markers and wards to get me where I wanted to go, and back. With the stang, I went into the labyrinth, came out, walked right over to it, grabbed a rung, and bing! I was there, facing my stang in the physical world, and someone else's pole in another world. Apparently these things are scattered all over the Nine Worlds. Some of them are off limits; these guardians can keep you out, so I found that they were best used for places where you were expected, where you had made an appointment, as it were. Also, there aren't so many of them that they can take you anywhere you want. However, getting home was a snap; I just touched the wood of the pole itself, and the guardian of my pole - bound by my own blood - brought me right back. I'd never been returned so safely and surely.

Since then, the stang has remained in my back field, as it always will until it rots and falls over and I have to replace it. The field is host to various people's gatherings, and folks either give the stang a wide berth, or they feel strangely drawn to make offerings to it. More than once I've seen someone pause, stand before it for a moment, and then dig in their pocket for spare change, which they toss at its feet, and then they shake their head and move on.

A week later, Elizabeth built her own pole. Since she lives in an urban apartment with no land around it, she had to do it differently. She described her own stang-making in a letter to me:

My stang ended up being a bit different from yours, since I live in a second-floor apartment and don't have a connection to any piece of land, nor anywhere I can erect a pole in the ground. I decided not to do the "pole in a pot" thing because it felt wrong to just use dirt from some random place, or buy potting soil. What I did was to construct a ladder that can lean against a wall indoors. I used sections of unfinished wooden stair railing and some dowel rods from Home Depot, since I didn't have any young trees to chop down or anywhere to find suitable wood.

There are ten rungs on the ladder -- one for each of the Nine Worlds, and the topmost for the totem symbol. I had no skull (and no time to ask someone to send me one, since Hela told me I had to make the stang before Halloween, and I'd just gotten home from your place) but using a skull from an animal I didn't kill or eat myself felt kind of weird. I sat here thinking of what I should do, then I had a flash of inspiration and used a carved wooden mask that had been hanging on the wall over my desk. It felt appropriate, somehow. The mask got tied to the topmost rung of the ladder, which I had constructed using jute twine to lash the rungs on, leaving a couple of feet empty at the base and narrowing the ladder somewhat with each successive rung. I guess the idea is that the skull or mask or whatever on top of the pole represents the spirit of the pole itself, so using a clan totem or personal totem animal's skull or other meaningful symbol carries a lot of weight -- especially if it's a skull from a creature you hunted or butchered yourself, which you already know.

I added some red strips of cloth to the top rung, too, like we did with your pole and the skull -- I think this is meant to symbolize the blood of the tribe or clan, or the blood of the sacrificial animal, or both. Blood seemed to be the idea, anyway.

I tied things onto the rungs for each of the Nine Worlds. The only stuff I didn't have lying around already turned out to be feathers, ribbon, strips of cloth, some of the Nine Worlds herbs, and beer for the Vanaheim rung. I was surprised at how much stuff I managed to find in my apartment for this, even though I don't usually keep a lot of crafts stuff around. I used the same colors we used for your stang for each rung of my ladder, though I didn't have any dead snakes or actual bones at the time (I put a rubber skeleton hand on the Helheim rung, for instance, though later I found some real bones to tie on). I put a lot of unused jewelry on as well, including a snowflake bracelet for Niflheim, and a bronze medallion with a petroglyph of a sailing ship on the Jotunheim rung.

Since I wasn't putting the ladder in a hole, I thought about how to "feed" it with the egg, etc. What I finally did was to beat up the egg you gave me in a bowl along with some milk and the rest of the beer. I smeared these on the bottoms of the ladder's two poles, along with some of my own blood. I put an earthenware bowl on the floor between the legs of the ladder for the coins and various other non-food items. Then I smudged the ladder with the mugwort, blew on it, lit a candle and set it at the bottom too...and it came alive! I vaguely remember you advising me to put it wherever I dream, and so it's propped against a bedroom wall near my altars, and almost immediately I began having vivid dreams. I haven't seen the ladder glow the way your stang did that night; my bedroom doesn't get very dark due to the lights outside my building, but I could definitely feel the spooky foo coming off it when I stood in front of the ladder.

When I used it at Hallowmas to get to Alfheim, I lay down at the floor of the ladder, and then when I was ready to go, stood up out of my body and grasped the Alfheim rung, and I wound up holding the matching rung of a stang on a road that leads into the elves' realm. I later used that one to move to Svartalfheim, and from there to the Helvegr not far from Mordgud's tower. Each of the stangs I saw was built like yours -- a pole, not a ladder -- but was otherwise very different in terms of appearance.

While I was making my ladder, I had the strange feeling that it was kind of an experiment for the spirits too, adapting it for people like me who, in this day and age, may not have a relationship with the land, or own/live on property where they can build a stang without getting in legal trouble or having it vandalized or stolen, but who for one reason or another need to have and use a stang. I left enough room at the bottom of my ladder for it to be set into the ground, if I ever get the chance to do so. Right now, if I have to I can take things off the ladder, transport it to a new residence, then replace them and smudge, etc. all over again. I've added a few items here and there since I made it, too, when I felt I ought to do so.

One thing that Elizabeth and I both noticed was that the poles in various worlds looked different. The first time that I used my stang, I went to visit Angrboda in the Iron Wood; she had a pole not far from her lodge, with a wolf's skull on it. Two in Vanaheim had, variously, a horse skull and a stag skull. There is apparently one in Svartalfheim with a large saurian head of some sort, and one in Alfheim with a dragon's skull. While finding one in the Nine Worlds can actually mean a way home, be sure to find out who is in charge of it, and ask their permission to use it. Once a World Tree pole is created, it's not something that you can just abandon. If it is rooted in land, you'd better make sure that you own that land and will never be moved from it, because it is bound there by your blood. If it is a portable sort like Elizabeth's one would assume that it ought to be moved with the greatest reverence, and placed carefully. It should never be dismantled; if you must get rid of it, burn it entirely to ashes in a fire and return them to the earth.