We have returned from Alaska— actually, about five pounds more of me has returned from Alaska. Unsurprisingly, I overindulged. With the amount of goodies I had at tea every afternoon, I am not exaggerating when I say I basically ate four meals a day.
And I don’t regret it at ALL.
There were many parts of the trip that I could focus on here, the beauty of nature, the abundant wildlife, the awe inspiring majesty of the glaciers, the amazing native culture and art.
All of them are worth a post of their own, and I could wrap an atheist/pagan/Atheopagan theme around each of those topics with ease. I wouldn’t even have to go off theme.
That seems a little excessive, though, and I have to get ready to go Kentucky and don’t have time for four posts that all boil down to: Alaska is gorgeous and I’m privileged and grateful to have been able to go on cruise there.
I’ll just share this one story, which is definitely on theme, and then some.
The day before the Summer Solstice we were at Icy Strait. Walking along the boardwalk on a sunny day, the sunniest day we’ve had since leaving San Diego. I spotted this little sapling growing out of the weathered crags on top of a timber piling.
People had left shells and stones at the foot of the little tree, and it felt good and right that I should do the same. There was nothing special about the pebble I placed there, nor was there anything special about the stones and shells left before mine.
Simple gifts for a little tree that just happened to grow in an unlikely place. Life is tenacious and precious. Honoring that life felt like a natural thing to do. The piling became an altar, the sapling a symbol, and each passerby that left an offering of stone or seashell became spontaneous participants in a small moment of ritual.
Later that day I would find another pebble among the millions on a rocky beach not very far from the little tree. A pebble no bigger than the very tip of my finger. Worn smooth, slate gray and with a deep hole in the center. It reminded me of the hag stone of folklore, a talisman against evil spirits.
Known by many names: hag stone, fairy stone, witch stones, adder stones, holeys, Glain Neidr in Wales, Gloine nan Druidh (Druid’s Glass) in Scottish Gaelic and aggri in Egypt, among others.
The lore is as numerous as the cultures that gave them their names. In Germanic and Russian traditions hag stones are known as “chicken gods” and are said to protect their flocks from evil spirits.
Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and philosopher of ancient Rome wrote in his Natural History of the hag stone under it’s name “the serpent’s egg”.
A true hag stone would have a hole that goes through the entire stone, one that is completely natural in origin. I.e., it’s not a hag stone if someone manipulates the process to create the hole. My pebble’s hole, though, was incomplete, half-finished. In truth, the hole in this stone is most likely the result of a common bi-valve mollusk, a kind of boring clam that uses the edge of its shell to grind away at stones to create the holes they will call home.
Can you imagine? This little clam first grows a grinding tool out of it’s own body and then without arms or legs, never mind opposable thumbs, drills a hole into solid rock, a hole big enough to live in. I couldn’t drill a hole in a rock with real tools big enough for a mouse to live in, let alone myself.
I wonder how many hag stones were made by clams or other sea creatures that spend their lives drilling into stone in search of a safe place to live? Would our superstitious ancestors declare holes made by clams to be sufficiently magical in nature to count? Next to Pliny’s story of druids and vast numbers of snakes coiled together in a knot “by their saliva and slime”, a clam is so utterly mundane by comparison.
Of course, these little clams would hardly grind out a backdoor on purpose. That defeats the purpose of their endeavor to keep their little bi-valve bodies safe and sound. Nature would have to play a part as well. Large rocks break and erode, and with each break there is the possibility of opening the other end of a long dead clam’s old home. While no knot of snakes and saliva, it’s in keeping with the less fantastic rule about the hole being of natural origins.
I’ve always wanted to find a hag stone, and though this one falls a little short, the symbolism of it’s incompleteness strikes a chord. I learned the lore of the hag stone a long time ago, before my atheism had taken firm root. I went through a phase of eager consumption of supernatural lore and magic, as many girls of a certain age do. A time when we feel a little too powerless and need to find something that will help us remember that we are a force to be reckoned with and not to be dismissed, or told to keep our voices down, to be nice and to mind our manners.
Even though I stopped believing in magic, I held the lore and mythologies of those days dear, and finding this almost-hag stone on the beach after leaving a stone at the makeshift altar of the tiny tree could easily be interpreted as something mystical and loaded with meaning. Or, it would in someone else’s hands.
In my hands, it’s simple coincidence, but it’s a brilliant one loaded with symbolism, nonetheless. The unlikely juxtaposition of two unrelated events that are so thematically related on the surface it begs to be labeled magic or divine.
Yet, it doesn’t have to be magic to meaningful. It doesn’t have to be supernatural to be powerful. Sometimes science would have us believe that all things are orderly and explainable, but pieces can fall together in a pattern as easily as they can fall into chaos.
As human’s we’re primed to see the patterns and ignore the chaos. It’s beyond the scope of this blog (and me) to dig into the psychology behind that, but much like the young girl I once was, humankind is always searching for a way to control our controllable fates.