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On Grief: Beacons of Light in the Shadows
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Gudrun of the Victory Gods
Article ID: 16045
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Maire Durkan (Wunjo Frithweaver) [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: August 25th. 2018
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“I remember many wrongs.” -- (The Poetic Edda, The Whetting of Guđrún)
Perhaps more than any female in the Prose and Poetic Eddas, Guđrún Gjúkadóttir is both a tragic heroine and a monstrous woman whose filicides make her, to modern sensibilities, little better than Grendel’s mother. These poems, however, were not intended for modern sensibilities or even, initially, for medieval Christian sensibilities. When considering Guđrún, one must keep in mind that “vengeance is of central importance to the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda, underpinning the action of each one, ” and that an "absolute, epic distance, " separates heroic time, the good old days, and the time when the lay was performed (Clark 173) . Furthermore, while the English language has only two or three interchangeable terms for fate, Old Norse has six words that cover the concept of fate: örlög, sköp, miötuđr, auđna, forl and urđr (Bek-Pedersen 166) . In comparison, English vocabulary has only “fate, ” “destiny, ” and the archaic “wyrd” which are often synonymous.
Nevertheless, the character of Guđrún tells us much about the obligations of kinship bonds and how they are connected to örlög. sköp, and urđr. Guđrún claims that she was “enraged with the norns” (Larrington 228 v 13) . In order to understand Guđrún’s actions as portrayed by the writers of the lays, I will examine the roles of örlög, sköp and urđr as those terms are applied to her. Our deeds become the urđr which is the weft woven into the warp of örlög. Consequently, Guđrún's choices and how she is viewed in the Eddas reflect the values and ideals of the poets and of their audience. An in-depth analysis of Guđrún’s lays and the other poems and lays in which she plays a part, would require a dissertation. Therefore, this paper focuses upon how the three aspects of fate expressed by the poets influence the cycle of vengeance in which Guđrún plays a part.
Andvari’s Curse and Guđrún’s Örlög
The elements of Guđrún’s name are guđ "god" and rún "secret lore" or “mystery” (Campbell) . Given her heritage and the powerful course of her life, Guđrún’s name is certainly apt for she inherits a powerful and mysterious örlög, primal law or layers, which was laid out by her human ancestors, the nornir, and the gods themselves through Loki’s slaughter of Fafnir and Reginn’s brother, Ótr, and the wergild required to make amends.
Guđrún’s örlög is initially laid down with Loki’s slaying of Ótr. It is notable that Loki, a deity of chaos, takes the ring from Andvari which elicits his curse upon the hoard. In the “Skaldskaparmal, ” Snorri also relates the tale of “Ótr’s Ransom” and how Andvari’s curse upon his gold begins to work upon all who obtain it destroying even the closest kinship bonds and breaking the frith of the innangarth.
In Fafnir and Reginn’s patricide and Sigurđr’s killing of Fafnir and his foster father, we begin to see how the layers of örlög surrounding the cursed gold were laid and how its attendant cycle of blood feud and vengeance was carried forward even into Guđrún’s marriage bed. The role of such kinship ties cannot be understated as they involve the orlog of Guđrún, Sigurđr, and Atli. These three families started out as innangarth with all of the attendant obligations dependent upon that proximity of relationship. As powerfully as Andvari’s curse upon the horde fixes the örlög of those who acquire it, örlög also lays the foundation of Guđrún’s life through the kinship bonds between the Budlings, Gjulkings, and Sigurđr’s family through his maternal line. In “Skaldskaparmal, ” Snorri Sturluson relates two tales that directly affect Gudrun’s örlög.
In the tale of “Halfdan the Old and Distinguished Lineage, ” we discover that Guđrún shares distant kinship relations with Sigurđr, Brynhild and Atli that link their örlög as all three of the great dynasties are descendants of Halfdan the Old:
“Halfdan and his wife had another nine sons…The second was Nefir, founder of the Niflungs [aka Gjulkings] …The seventh was Budli founder of the Budlings [Alti and Brynhild’s clan] …The eighth was Lofdar. To that lineage belongs Eylimi, the maternal grandfather of Sigurđr who slew the serpent Fafnir…From the Niflung lineage came Gjulki” (Sturluson, Byock trans 117) .
The daughter of Queen Grimhilde and King Gjúki, Guđrún first appears as an innocent maiden, a "blond young girl" growing up with Gunnar, Hogni and Guttorm at the Burgundian court. She states, “I was a girl of girls—my mother brought me up/ radiant in the woman’s quarters/ I loved my brothers greatly, until Giuki endowed me with gold and gave me to Sigurđr.” (Larrington 191) . As Patricia Lafayllve asserts, “None of us can change our örlög. Some people have a stronger örlög—lines of heroes, for instance, tend to beget heroes, and heroes have a hard time living ‘normal, average lives’ …our past, our örlög, informs us because it creates us.-- (Lafayllve 102-103) .
In another example, “Örlög directly associates itself to the notion of law, to that which has been or will be laid down on the foundational levels and on which everything else rests or will rest…It is a person’s individual ‘law’ which is given to them at birth and which they cannot go beyond. They may interpret this ‘law’ in a variety of ways, but they cannot ‘break’ it. Moreover, this ‘law’ is ruthless and adheres neither to social nor to human norms, although it does maintain order of a kind.” (Bek-Pedersen 172-173) .
The cursed gold weighs heavily into Guđrún’s orlog as does her mother’s lust for it when she gives Sigurđr the mead of forgetfulness to establish kin relationships that would give the Gjulkings access to it.
Grimhilde’s Sköp and Guđrún’s First Vengeance
Sigurđr arrives, already famous as the dragon slayer and the owner of great treasure. Grimhilde, a skilled magic worker, perceives him to be a powerful ally because of his prowess and knowledge. As she will later with Guđrún, Grimhilde employs sköp, her shapings, with a mead of forgetfulness that makes him forget his promises to Brynhild. He marries Guđrún, Gunnar and Hogni swear oaths of kinship, and Sigurđr is incorporated into the Gjúkung, aka Nibelung, innangarth.
Despite many poets’ additions to her character over the years, Gudrun’s fierce love for Sigurđr remains constant. In the whetting of Guđrún she proclaims, “Sigurđr alone for me was better than all.” (Larrington 227 v 13) . Guđrún’s love for Sigurđr is deep and profound. He is more than an excellent match; he is her true love who is also “my friend to talk to” (Larrington 174 v 21) . For a while, Gudrun enjoys frith, well-being and harmony, gives birth to the twins Sigmund and Svanhilde, and seems to be a contented wife and mother.
This period of frith ends when Sigurđr is killed by his brothers-in-law at the instigation, the whetting, of Gunnar’s wife Brynhildr whom Sigurđr had courted magically disguised as Gunnar. Yet it is Guđrún who escalates this cycle of blood and vengeance when she displays Andvarinaut, the cursed ring Gunnar supposedly possessed, and tauntingly informs her sister-in-law that she has not married the best man and has, in fact, been duped. As explained by Patricia Lafayllve, “Our past, our örlög, informs us because it creates us. However, what we do in our lives becomes our wyrd [urđr] and matters a great deal in what we eventually become” (Lafayllve 103) . Like a nuclear reaction, each character’s choices affect the web of urđr leading to more bloodshed and to more tragedy. Brynhildr incites Gunnar to kill Sigurđr and his son.
The depth of Guđrún’s grief is powerfully depicted in the first Lay of Guđrún:
Then Guđrún knelt, leaning on the cushion;
Her hair came loose and her cheeks grew red,
And drops like rain ran down over her knees…
So that tears fell into her hair…
“the kin of Giuki caused my sorrow,
wrenching weeping for their sister.”
Then said Gullrond, daughter of Giuki
Yours, I know was the greatest love…
Inside or outside, you were never happy
Unless, my sister, you were with Sigurđr. -- (Larrington 174 vs 15-17)
Guđrún exacts the first of her three acts of vengeance when she curses her brother and promises more vengeance to come, “may fiends take Gunnar, Sigurđr’s gravedigger! /Thoughts bent on wickedness shall be revenged! [hefnt skal verđa]” (Larrington 170 v 11) . This curse is as far as Gudrun’s personal revenge will carry—but it was heartfelt and spoken with woe working intention so it is possible that, in addition to the örlög cursed gold, future sorrows are woven into the web of urđr. Inconsolable in her grief, she refuses weregild (her compensation for Sigurđr) and travels to Denmark where she spends seven “half-years” (probably three and a half years) at the royal court, embroidering Sigurđr's heroic deeds for distraction.
Given her passionate love for and devotion to her husband, and given a code that demands vengeance for such a murder, it seems impossibly out of character that Guđrún would not avenge Sigurđr’s death. Furthermore, given the fact that her future actions prove her fiercely capable of extracting a terrible vengeance, only a powerful intervention, in the form of her mother’s sköp could prevent Guđrún from doing just that.
The term sköp “is related to the verb skapa, “to create, organize, put in order.” Sköp is cognate with the English verb “shape” and with the Danish noun “skćbne, ” fate, and verb “skabe, ” to create (Bek-Pedersen 170) . Discovering her whereabouts, her mother, Grimhilde gives her a drink of forgetfulness (“óminnisveig” --much like what Grimhilde gave Sigurđr) in order to reconcile her with her brothers.
This is a magical working that affects urđr for woe or weal. Gudrun’s destiny, her urđr, shifts course because of her mother’s shapings. In usual circumstances, such a shaping might be as gentle as a parent’s instruction regarding a child’s behavior. As any mother would, Grimhilde wishes to take away Guđrún’s pain, but she also wants to make her forget that her own brothers killed Sigurđr because forgetting the kin-slaying removes the threat of revenge and opens up the possibility of another advantageous marriage.
Grimhilde is a powerful magic worker and here certainly intentional shapings known as sköp, “are the methods used by the magicians to shape its details to örlög. All things considered, the örlög are the ‘raw material’ of fate, and the sköp are the result after an artist left his/her trace on them, as a piece of furniture testifies the skill of a craftsman to shape wood” (Örlög and Sköp) . Grimihilde’s sköp, which also employs taufr (the cutting, blooding, and imbuing of runes with magical intent) , upon her grieving daughter is wrenching and its consequences will actually lead to disaster for her clan.
Grimhilde brought to me a cup to drink from,
Cool and bitter, so I should not remember the strife.
In the drinking horn were all kinds of runes,
Cut and red colored—I could not interpret them…
Many bad things were mixed into that beer…
Boiled pig’s liver since it blunted strife.
And then, they forgot those who drank it,
All the prince’s death in the hall.
-- (Larrington 194 vs. 21-22)
Urđr and örlög: Guđrún’s Revenge of her Brothers and Daughter
As Jana Schulman points out, “marriage alliances are the cause of conflict and the bonds of kinship win out over marriage ties. Instead of promoting social stability, when marriage alliances break down husbands kill brothers and women take vengeance into their own hands against their husbands at terrific costs” (Schulman 211) . The irony is that the very marriages that are intended to strengthen and promote the power of the Gjulkings, the Volsungs, and the Budlings prove to be the fatal undoing of these families.
It is obvious from her protest and prophesy (perhaps due to her eating of the Fafnir’s heart) that Gudrun is set on a course of vengeance, “Stop pressing so perversely/this unholy kinship upon me! / He’ll make ready ruin for Gunnar, / tear out the heart of Hogni// Then I won’t delay until I take/ the life of the vigorous man.” -- (Larrington 2nd Poem of Gudrun 195 vs 31) .
At the urging of her family, Guđrún reluctantly marries Atli, Brynhildr’s brother and the leader of the Huns. She journeys to Húnaland and becomes the mother of two sons. When Atli decides to invite her brothers for a visit with the secret purpose of obtaining the cursed Nibelung wealth that they have retained, she vainly tries to warn them and sköp, shape, their choices away from destruction. Refusing to yield the treasure, the brothers are killed by Atli. In retaliation, Guđrún murders her two sons by Atli, kills her husband in bed, and sets fire to the palace.
In order to understand how Guđrún could commit these atrocious acts and still be awarded praiseworthy kennings such as “Guđrún of the Victory Gods, ” “the bright faced woman, ” “the gosling-bright woman, ” “that formidable woman, ” and “fierce spirited woman, ” one must examine the obligations and örlög laid down in a blood feud (Larrington 204, 207, 208, 221, 228) .
The male poets of these lays offer three different motivations for female revenge that could be expressed either physically or verbally (as in Gudrun’s curse promising vengeance for Sigurđr’s murder, revenge for her brothers, and vengeance for her daughter) :
“The attachment between a sister and her brothers and the former's instinctive reaction to seek revenge for crimes committed against the latter was the oldest perception. Found in Continental sources as well, this ancient articulation is expressed in Atlakviđa [Poem of Atli]. If vengeance for brothers necessitated killing a husband, the wife first had to sacrifice their children in order to make him understand that he himself could no longer hope that he would be avenged” (Jochens 140) .
Our modern sensibilities recoil with horror from Gudrun’s monstrous vengeance. However, to judge her vengeance by modern ethical and moral standards would be, to ignore the ethics of the society where the lays were popular. Gudrun seems a monstrous frith breaker, but the her orlog and the code by which she lived dictated her duty and would have deemed her lacking had she not fulfilled her vengeance, “the greater the sacrifice a vengeance requires the more heroic it is. Gudrun’s vengeance for her brothers no doubt seemed an unexampled heroic deed” (Clark) . This is explicitly stated in the “Greenlandic Lay of Atli:”
She ended then the brothers’ childhood,
that formidable woman, did what she had to do. [underline added] (Larrington 221 vs 79) .
The final verse of the lay actually extols Gudrun’s sacrifice on all levels:
Fortunate is any man who afterwards can father
Such heroic children as Giulki fathered.
After them in every land
Their defiance lives on wherever people hear of it.-- (Larrington 225 vs 105-108)
Gudrun is extoled as a woman warrior who fights alongside of her brothers and kills one man and maims another. In the eyes of the poet, her filicides and the murder of her husband when she “gave the bed blood to drink, ” are viewed with a lack of horror quite alien to modern ethical sensibilities (Larrington 210 vs 41) .
Carolyne Larrington states, that Gudrun’s revenge is a sacrificial act, ” the trading of a heart for heart, the boys’ offal recalling the unquivering heart of Högni, recently cut from his living body and displayed on a biöđ “platter” to Gunnarr” (Odoroehirjournal.com) Guđrún’s revenge strikes immediately at the center of Atli’s lordship: his relationship to his men. The Huns groan aloud when they hear how they are implicated in the act of cannibalism, and the high-status guests, “i öndvegi ‘in the high-seat’ are also shamed, those whom Atli favored with the choicest food, that which the lord is eating himself.” Guđrún, therefore, defiles Atli both as a father and as a king (Odoroehirjournal.com) .
Furthermore, other sources such as Beowulf extol this heroic code of vengeance as appropriate, at least, in the context of the heroic times when the action of the lays took place, “It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning (Beowulf, Heaney trans vs 1251) .
In other words, whether in poetry or in prose, the Old Norse poets and writers preserved the concept of the woman sacrificing her marital for her natal family. Unlike childbirth, sacrificial killing is “deliberate, purposeful, ‘rational’ action, planned and, “under perfect control. Both birth and killing are acts of power, but sacrificial ideology commonly construes childbirth as the quintessence of vulnerability, passivity and powerless suffering” (odroerirjournal.com) .
The fact that Guđrún suffers and attempts to end her life by drowning, proves that she is in great despair. Lamenting örlög and choices that she felt honor bound to make, she goes to the seashore and loads herself with stones, “Women’s lot is crushed by the dominion of men/the trunk collapses when shorn of its branches” (Larrington 220 vs 73) .
But the Nornir have decreed a stern örlög and the waves carry her off to the land of King Jónakr, who marries her, and with whom she has two sons. She raises them together with Svanhilder, her daughter by Sigurđr, who, when of age, is married to the old King Iormunrekk. Accused of adultery, Svanhilder is trampled to death by horses.
The only surviving child of her marriage with her beloved Sigurđr, Guđrún Gjúkadóttir is devastated by this loss and “whets”, that is urges, exhorts, and fires up her two remaining sons to seek vengeance. It is important to understand that whetting was not viewed in a negative light, “According to Scandinavian and Nordic prose authors, this goading behavior continued among the Nordic peoples during the Viking migrations and the establishment of settled society at home and in the new colonies, and lasted until Christianity had become firmly established. Long conveyed orally, the poetic images of goading women in the Edda inspired the depiction of women in the vast body of Old Norse prose literature” (Jochens 174) . Her murder of her sons by Alti lays down örlög for her two remaining sons, as the brothers are bereft of kinsmen to seek vengeance for their sister’s slaying. As her son Hamdir points out:
Vengeance for your brothers was wounding and painful
to you when you murdered your sons.
We could all have avenged on Iormunrekk
Our sister all of the same mind. -- (Larrington 227 vs 5-8)
To a modern sensibility, it seems abhorrent that a mother might sacrifice her sons. But Iormunrekk kills Svanhilde horribly and the heroic code –again—demands retribution. Guđrún’s last gesture is a sköp in the form of a verbal shaping that sharpens her son’s desire to seek revenge. To “whet” involves the stimulation of desire, but it also means is to sharpen the blade or a tool or weapon—to shape—sköp it—so that it will achieve its purpose with maximum efficiency it.
Clearly, this fierce mother views her last surviving sons as tools of revenge, but she also arms them and, “went sorrowfully to sit on the threshold” lamenting the warp of örlög, augmented by the shapings of sköp, and the weft of urđr that have brought her to the final act of her tragedy. She senses that her sköp, her “whetting” her sons will result in their deaths as well as the end of her line.
Because her one true love is murdered by her brothers, because she is bound to a harsh code of honor and vengeance that forces her to break frith, avenge kin and weave a wyrd that sacrifices even her children, because she preservers and, within the context of her society, is loyal and courageous, Guđrún is a tragic heroine. The örlög of the nornir and of Andvari’s curse has been laid out and Guđrún, the last surviving member of the three related clans, is left to lament:
I went to the sea strand, I was enraged with the norns;
I wanted to reject their unyielding protection
Great waves lifted me, did not drown me—
so I came to land, I had to go on living…
To all warriors—may your lot be better;
to all ladies—may your sorrows grow less,
now this chain of griefs has been recounted.
-- (Larrington 228-229 vs 13-16 and 22-24)
Bek-Pedersen, Karen. The Norns in Old Norse Mythology. Dunedin, 2011.
Campbell, Mike. “Meaning, origin and history of the name Gudrun.”
Behind the Name, www.behindthename.com/name/gudrun. Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.
Clark, David. “Undermining and En-Gendering Vengeance: Distancing and Anti-Feminism in the Poetic Edda.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 77, no. 2, 2005, pp. 173+. Questia, www.questia.com/read/1G1-134536207/undermining-and-en-gendering-vengeance-distancing. Accessed Mar. 2017.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: Bilingual Edition. First ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 2000. Print.
Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Questia, www.questia.com/read/14462837/old-norse-images-of-women. Accessed Feb. 2017.
Ker, W. P. Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature. Dover, 1957. Questia, www.questia.com/read/6397382/epic-and-romance-essays-on-medieval-literature. Accessed Feb. 2017.
Lafayllve, Patricia M. A Practical Heathen's Guide to Asatru. First ed. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2013. Print.
Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda: Revised Edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2014.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, 2002. Questia, www.questia.com/read/124125881/norse-mythology-a-guide-to-the-gods-heroes-rituals. Accessed Mar. 2017.
“ÖRLÖG and SKÖP IN POETIC EDDA.” Nordic Magic Healing: runes, charms, incantations, and galdr, www.nordic-life.org/nmh/WyrdEng.htm. Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.
Sturluson, Snorri, translated by Jesse L. Byock. The prose Edda: Norse mythology. London, Penguin books, 2005.
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