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Switch to Forum Live View Gender and death in pre-Christian Northern Europe
2 years ago  ::  Jun 26, 2012 - 1:00PM #1
John_T_Mainer
Posts: 1,658

Abstract: To illustrate how the treatment of gender roles in literature and in post funeral veneration imply pre-christian heathens understood male and females to be different after death; examining parallels in social and biological function of each gender role with reference to death.


 


When I became a heathen, I learned what most of my generation accepted as truth; that our female ancestors were the Disir and our male ancestors the Alfar.  This certainly matched the Romantic age and later 1960’s pagan and Wiccan understanding, and accorded well with the modern western understanding of equality of the sexes.  The role of the Disir was easy to see in the lore, but the depictions of the Alfar did not seem to match that of our male ancestors, in fact the only barrow wights and draugr had any connection to our male dead, and each of these would be described as hauntings or restless spirits, as opposed to the honoured dead who receive the continued offerings of their living kinsmen.


 


The image is given us of the Norns sitting at the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil weaving the wryd or fates of humanity and the gods (Voluspa)


I know an ash tree, named Yggdrasil:
Sparkling showers are shed on its leaves
That drip dew, into the dales below,
By Urd's well it waves evergreen,
Stands over that still pool,
Near it a bower whence now there come
The Fate Maidens, first Urd,
Skuld second, scorer of runes,
Then Verdandi, third of the Norns:
The laws that determine the lives of men
They fixed forever and their fate sealed.


Norns are seen as the weavers of wyrd, determining the length of life of a man, and the shape of his destiny. His own actions shall determine his glory and worth; that being the brightness of his thread and how it affects others in the larger pattern of orlog, but its length and ending are as fixed as its start.  From the Helgakviđa Hundingsbana in Fyrra ,Helgi Hundigsbane's birth:


Night covered the court;


Then came the Norns,


Who for the atheling [prince]


Numered his days:


Bade him become


Boldest of captains,


And among heroes


Hold the highest renown.


 


Mighty they were:


They laid life's threads,


While the towers


Broke in Bralund;


Forth they stretched


The golden cords,


Fixed them midmost


In the hall of the moon  Helgakviđa Hundingsbana in Fyrra, quoted in Munch, 156


 


Frigg is depicted as the patron of weaving, as she is of the Disir and Norns.  To some Germanic tribes these attributes belong to Frau Holla en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weaving_%28mytholo...


Frigg is seen as the patron of weavers, and the patron of those female agencies associated with eternity; the Norns, the Valkyrie, and the Disir.  All three classes of female share Frigg’s foreknowledge, the Norns who weave the fates of gods and men, the Disir who watch over the family lines, who care for the orlog that ties together and affects all of their descendants, and  the Valkyrie who ride to select the best and bravest from among the fallen warriors to share Odin or Freya’s fine halls to battle and feast until their chance to die once again at Ragnarok to save who may be saved of their descendants.


 


The practice of offering to the ancestors, both through family rites and through saga poetry serves to keep alive the memory of the honored ancestors.  Through offerings at feast and sumbel, through carvings and grave monuments, and through the passing down of heirloom names and weapons, the male ancestors are shown continuous veneration.  As expected from a people with a strong warrior tradition and a heroic mythos, the male ancestors are shown great respect with their deeds being kept alive to each generation in turn through the skaldic arts.  What is interesting is the difference between how the male ancestors and female ancestors are remembered, and who is offered to for what.


 


Male ancestors are remembered, honoured, spoken to, and even offered strong oaths with the expectation that they will be aware of their descendants succeeding or failing in meeting these oaths.  Male ancestors are not asked to intercede, they are not asked to make changes in the world that is, nor for favours in what is to be.  The Hamaval promises men only this:


78. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.


The immortality promised men is only this; to be remembered by our descendants; to be remembered by the line that continues.

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 26, 2012 - 1:01PM #2
John_T_Mainer
Posts: 1,658

The Disir were quite different.  Offerings given to the Disir or Matronae, the female ancestral spirits, often as a collective, were given with the understanding that they could offer real change in the present and future.  The offerings were given with the understanding that the Disir retained an interest in the orlog of their family, the wyrd of its specific members, and had active agency to affect change in their support www.friggasweb.org/matrons.html.  Records of Germanic soldiers erecting alters and shrines to the Disir on the battlefield to ask for victory show that they had great confidence that the Disir both cared to and could give them aid in return for their veneration and service.


 


                Valkyries offer the best of men the chance for a very limited form of immorality, as a dedicated sacrifice through battle.  What the Valkyries offer is not eternity, but alternating battle and feasting until Ragnarok where the gods will use these sacred shock troops to hopefully tilt the scales on that direst of days.  Nowhere is it promised the einherjar have a chance to do aught but die a second time.   Indeed both Aesir and Vanir’s leading lords are promised death, with the possibility of victory buying a future for their descendants and our own.  The Voluspa, itself a seeress prophesy  would offer thus:


 


A further woe falls upon Hlin
As Odhinn comes forth to fight the wolf;
The killer of Beli battles with Surt:
Now shall fall Frigga's beloved.


Now valiant comes Valfather's son,
Vidar, to vie with Valdyr in battle,
Plunges his sword into he son of Hvedrung,
Avenging his father with a fell thrust.


Now the son of Hlodyn and Odhinn comes
To fight with Fenris; fiercest of warriors
He mauls in his rage all Middle-Earth;
Men in fear all flee their homesteads;
Nine paces back steps Bur's son
Retreats from the worm of taunts unafraid


members.iquest.net/~chaviland/Voluspa.ht... (W H Auden & P B Taylor Translation)


 


 


 


 


In this section we see both Aesir and Vanir lords falling.   Odin, Frey and Thor fall along with their Loki spawned foes Fenris and Jormunger, but nowhere do we hear the goddesses leading their own hosts upon the field, nor are the Valkyries sung of as present at this, of all, battlefields.


 


Freya is spoken of as the Van-dis or Vanir Disir, and indeed she is proported to receive half of the honoured dead or einherjar for her own halls, yet there is no mention of her leading them to this battle for which alone they have been preserved.   Both the living and the dying gods are mentioned, yet not one of the goddesses is listed as surviving, or falling.  The absence of either mention begs the question of why it was that the male spirits of the dead, and the male gods face an end to immortality, but no such doom is spoken for goddess, Norn or Disir.  Is death different for them?  Perhaps it was once assumed naturally so.


 


Wyrd is spoken of as a weave.  In most Indo-European cultures, from the Greek and Roman, through the Celt, Finn, and Norse/Germanic, we see the image of wyrd or fate being a skein of woven fabric made up of the lives of gods and mortals.  What is compelling about this image is the nature of weaving.  To weave a tapestry one requires two types of threads, warp and woof.  Warp threads are long strong structural threads that form the enduring structure of the weave, often less brightly coloured as they are constant throughout the tapestry.  Woof threads are shorter crossways threads that are often very bright and make the visible pattern.  Where designs are wrought, the woof threads become overlain, raised, crossed and layered to great effect, while the warp remains closer to constant to retain the shape of the fabric.   Since we speak of society also in terms of the fabric of society, how might we compare the two terms warp and woof with the forces that shape our own, and our ancestral society.


 


There are the family lines, the deep rooted connections to our heritage, our enduring values, and our need for continuance.   Indeed the warp of our society is our families, for as we all know, children are our future, and we, in the present but stewards for those to come.   The family in this sense is focused both backwards to its roots, and forward beyond sight towards its future. In this sense, family forms the warp of our society, acting across many generations.   The woof of society is our social interaction, our political, economic, community, national and international structures that allow us to cooperate and compete as groups.  It is through these interactions for short term (inside a single lifetime) that communities are built, fame is won, wealth and status competed for.  It is through these actions that societies grow stronger and are able to compete with one another to the benefit of those families contained within a successful competing group, tribe, or nation.


 


In her paper Themes of Female Honour in the Icelandic Sagas 


libres.uncg.edu/ir/asu/f/Rivenbark,%20Su...


Susan Rivenbark argues that male and female honour were different, in both focus and action.  Male honour was based on society, where a man’s worth derived from his deeds in the outer world, from wealth won, oaths made and followed, recognized success in trade, craft, warfare, or legal and political debate brought with it social standing, and the ability to provide for and protect your family.  To have great honour was to be able to act for your family, and to lose honour was to no longer be able to act in that society, threatening your ability to either provide or protect.  Thus any dishonour to a man must  be addressed or threaten everything that he held, status, wealth, and the security of allies, as well as his ability to enter  trade agreements or speak at law.  Man’s role then is that of woof, the bright threads that make history, the rise and fall of nations, clash of armies, exploration, trade, raid, innovation and ambition.  While these threads are bright, they are also short.  Kingdoms rise and fall over few generations, and even empires rise and fall inside the space of a few paltry centuries.


 


In her work, Susan Rivenbark argues that female honour is tied to the family line,  rather than herself.  Often a woman would swallow an insult to herself, frequently being married off to a foe to settle a feud or secure a peace, with little thought to her own happiness.  In this, a woman was expected to suffer for the greater benefit of her line.  Her honour is found in the success of her line, a thing that cannot even be perceived in her lifetime.  Where a man may know the success of his greatest ambition in a few paltry years, a woman must often wait generations to know if her sacrifice brought benefit or not.  While women often were peace makers throughout history, their understanding of honour was more long term than that of their husbands, and when the family honour was touched, they were far less likely to accept wealth or political favour, holding such transitory rewards of little interest compared to cleansing the family honour through justice, or outright blood vengeance.


 


In Volsungs saga we see how the daughter of King Volsung would rather die, or even murder her own children than suffer her husband’s betrayal of her family and name.  Indeed, she is far from the only woman in the saga’s to take sword in hand not for political power or ambition, but to avenge a slight to their family honour.  The women in these sagas are not interested in the short term gains for themselves, but rather the effect on the whole of their line, the hundreds of generations to come.  Women then formed the warp of their society, less focused on the political and economic competitions of the day, and more on the future of their family.


 

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 26, 2012 - 1:26PM #3
John_T_Mainer
Posts: 1,658

Gender roles in society are often reflections of the role of each gender in biology.  Biologically, male sexuality is an ephemeral thing.  Men produce sperm by the millions.  At most a sperm can live for a week (www.mayoclinic.com/health/pregnancy/AN00...), and men produce them in staggering numbers whether we need them or not.   Men are always capable of fertilizing eggs from the time of puberty until age and damage shuts down the machinery; designed to take advantage of any opportunity.  Male fertility does not come with a cost, for a single male can impregnate any number of women without bearing any biologic penalty, any metabolic cost, or innate health risk.  There is a benefit to assisting your own progeny, and those lines that do so enjoy great competitive success, but there is no direct cost to the male that does not.


 


Female sexuality is a reflection of eternity.  A woman’s eggs are born with her, and live as long as she does


(www.healthology.com/focus_article.asp?f=...) .  Typically one egg a month is released, with a fertile period that is a brief window every month.  To become pregnant for a woman is a commitment of great time, huge resources, and in the society of our ancestors, great personal risk.  To become pregnant is to risk death.  Given a classical rate of infant mortality of about 30%,(historymedren.about.com/od/medievalchild...)


 it demanded a woman risk her own death for only the possibility of a new life.  Initial modern assumptions would suggest women withdrawing from children they know they may well lose, but archeology shows us instead that ancient mothers bonded closely with their children (historymedren.about.com/od/medievalchild... ), embracing the risk of death inherent in the promise of life.


 


For a woman to marry in a society without birth control was to know you were risking death, and to know that you were likely to bring forth children who had great chances to die young.  To take such great risks requires great strength, to make such sacrifices willingly requires great goals, goals that stretch beyond any one lifetime.  This was where a woman’s honour was measured, in the success or failure of her whole line, not simply the children of her womb, but of her entire family.


 


There is much talk today about the anachronistic concept of “women and children first”.  Our ancestors understood this.  Men are ephemerals, we are given to death from our birth; it is only through our deeds and from our lines that immortality can come.  Women are given to eternity.  From them comes such immortality that humanity can know.   When a man puts himself between danger and the women and children of his people he is risking a piece of flesh that will be dead within a few years anyway, against the possibility of the continuance of his line, either his direct line, or that of his near kindred.  Rather than being evolutionarily foolish, it is the height of prudence.  What is one death against possible immortality?


 


The ancestors lived in a world that was shaped by the hands of men, where the tapestry of history was woven by the bright threads of the brave and the bold, the foolish and the fortunate.  Look at the realms of the gods of our folk: Odin who governs war, warrior chieftainship, skaldship, learning.  Thor the storm bringer, the laughing warrior, patron of farmers and craftsmen.  Tyr god of law, the thing, and of the political structure of society.  Frey the peace-king, bringing fertility, wealth, and prosperity.  These are realms of male power, of rapid change, raw force to shape the world in a single day, year, or lifetime; social forces to bring a folk together towards a common goal in peace or war.  This tempestuous tapestry was woven on the underlying stability of the women, both living and dead, who guarded the lines of their families from the vagaries of wyrd.  Mother Frigga who watches over the lines of of the folk, both as seeress and guardian.  Sunna, the ever giving sun who brings life to us all. Nerthus and Sif, goddesses of the renewing earth and harvest who sustain us, and Hel, who keeps those who have passed.  These are goddesses whose realm is not swift change, but slow change, the work of generations and centuries, not single battles or elections.  The actions of Freya and Frigga often seem to run counter to the male gods in the mythic past, such as Longbeards Saga www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/19234/ where Odin had deemed victory to go to the Vandals, yet Frigg and Freya tricked him into granting it to the Longbeards (Lombards), binding him with oath and  familial duty to provide naming or baptismal gift.  When the needs of the day clashed with the needs of the future, the power of men often yielded to the vision of the women.


 


 


In a tapestry there is no question of warp or woof being superior or inferior to each other, for you cannot weave without both.  Warp is the continuity, the foundation, the underlying form of the weave.  The woof is the colour, the pattern, the shape.  Our ancestors valued women more than most ancient cultures, yet their own society was one that reserved the shaping of the world for the hands of men.  The woof, the pattern of history was a thing for the strength and fury of men, the might of the gods.  The warp of wyrd, the orlog that binds families, the future of the folk was a thing for the wisdom, the patience, of women.  Men were as a storm upon the land, a force potent and irresistible.  Women were the earth itself.  How could men and women be equal in death?  Whatever its fury, when a storm passes, the earth remains.  However bright the thread of woof, however it bends the threads around it, when it is cut, it is gone.  The warp remains, through all generations, for all time. 


 


Special thanks to Jennifer (Pixie)Thrasher, whose understanding of weaving, womanhood, and our gods made it possible to bring this topic into a such coherence as it now knows.


 


John T Mainer


 


 


libres.uncg.edu/ir/asu/f/Rivenbark,%20Su...


Themes of Female Honour in the Icelandic Sagas


 SUSAN ELIZABETH RIVENBARK


Submitted to the Graduate School


Appalachian State University


in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of


MASTER OF ARTS


 


members.iquest.net/~chaviland/Voluspa.ht...


The Song of the Sybil (Voluspa)


(W H Auden & P B Taylor Translation)


 


www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/19234/


Longbeards Saga


(Translated by Charles Kingsley)


 


www.sacred-texts.com/neu/vlsng/index.htm


The Story of the Volsungs


Translated by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson


[1888]


 

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 26, 2012 - 8:04PM #4
christine3
Posts: 6,668

I think you make a very good argument for biological difference of the sexes governing their venerated forms' roles in the mortality and immortality of humans.  Is that the way to say it?  You have a very interesting study.  What led you to pursue this study?  

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 26, 2012 - 9:29PM #5
John_T_Mainer
Posts: 1,658

Archeology.  There were burial finds of funery decorations of women who were adult.  They were not marriage related, nor child bearing, nor social status.  There was something that changed for women who came of age, something that related to death.


I had a challenge from one of the leaders of our Kindred to research a paper on our area of guild mastery.  I held the Skald or poets guild, and had held warriors guild.  As Cheiftain or Freyr, I had honourary leadership of the Ritual and Lore guild.  I sought to match the challenge by doing a paper on each.  The Ritual and Lore paper lead me to discoveries about death that didn't fit my preconceptions, and whose implications I am only now beginning to integrate.

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 27, 2012 - 2:46AM #6
Namchuck
Posts: 11,349

Jun 26, 2012 -- 9:29PM, John_T_Mainer wrote:


Archeology.  There were burial finds of funery decorations of women who were adult.  They were not marriage related, nor child bearing, nor social status.  There was something that changed for women who came of age, something that related to death.


I had a challenge from one of the leaders of our Kindred to research a paper on our area of guild mastery.  I held the Skald or poets guild, and had held warriors guild.  As Cheiftain or Freyr, I had honourary leadership of the Ritual and Lore guild.  I sought to match the challenge by doing a paper on each.  The Ritual and Lore paper lead me to discoveries about death that didn't fit my preconceptions, and whose implications I am only now beginning to integrate.




"Discoveries about death", John_T _Mainer, or discoveries about ancient attitudes to death? 

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 27, 2012 - 8:58AM #7
John_T_Mainer
Posts: 1,658

Discoveries about death.  In being forced to look again at the funadmental assumptions that every person carries, I took a good hard look at the ones that I possessed, and weighed them against such evidence as I had, and against the standards of reason based on such other premises that had thusfar withstood testing, and they were found wanting.


The Judeo-Christian attitude of the preceeding centuries valued female spirituality not at all, in fact prior to the Diet of Wurms, it was not held that women possessed souls at all.  The age of enlightenment brought about the doctrine of equality, with the assumption that male and female souls were pretty much the same.  The Dianic Wiccan myth of the matriarchy was pretty much a mirror of Judeo-Christian thought, with women being the only souls of note.


Examination of pre-Christian beliefs of my northern ancestors revealed an understanding uncorrupted by these foreign concepts.  Male and female souls existed.  Male and female spirituality was equal in depth, but different in focus.  Male and female experienced life differently, found honour based on entirely different standards, and experienced death in different ways as well.  There was no thought of one being greater or lesser, one being stronger or weaker, any more than there is thought of water being stronger or weaker than stone.  Water is water, stone is stone.


Somehow the idea that we could be equal yet dissimilar had not occured to me, even as it was a natural assumption for my ancestors.  Equal in status and worth, but different in nature.  The lore and my life experiences have always seemed to march in step, yet my assumptions up until now fit with neither.


Having questioned my own assumptions about death, I have discarded them.  Having tested my ancesters assumptions, I have found them worthy, and am working on integrating them now.

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 28, 2012 - 2:54AM #8
Namchuck
Posts: 11,349

Jun 27, 2012 -- 8:58AM, John_T_Mainer wrote:


Discoveries about death.  In being forced to look again at the funadmental assumptions that every person carries, I took a good hard look at the ones that I possessed, and weighed them against such evidence as I had, and against the standards of reason based on such other premises that had thusfar withstood testing, and they were found wanting.


The Judeo-Christian attitude of the preceeding centuries valued female spirituality not at all, in fact prior to the Diet of Wurms, it was not held that women possessed souls at all.  The age of enlightenment brought about the doctrine of equality, with the assumption that male and female souls were pretty much the same.  The Dianic Wiccan myth of the matriarchy was pretty much a mirror of Judeo-Christian thought, with women being the only souls of note.


Examination of pre-Christian beliefs of my northern ancestors revealed an understanding uncorrupted by these foreign concepts.  Male and female souls existed.  Male and female spirituality was equal in depth, but different in focus.  Male and female experienced life differently, found honour based on entirely different standards, and experienced death in different ways as well.  There was no thought of one being greater or lesser, one being stronger or weaker, any more than there is thought of water being stronger or weaker than stone.  Water is water, stone is stone.


Somehow the idea that we could be equal yet dissimilar had not occured to me, even as it was a natural assumption for my ancestors.  Equal in status and worth, but different in nature.  The lore and my life experiences have always seemed to march in step, yet my assumptions up until now fit with neither.


Having questioned my own assumptions about death, I have discarded them.  Having tested my ancesters assumptions, I have found them worthy, and am working on integrating them now.




Well, yes, John_T_Mainer, I hear what you are saying about the more meritocratic view of gender held by our "northern ancestors" (they're my ancestors, too), but I don't see what any of this has to do with the fact of death, other than the rather obvious observation that the grave makes no distinctions relative to status, gender, etc, or, for that matter, one's preferred beliefs. 

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 28, 2012 - 8:58AM #9
John_T_Mainer
Posts: 1,658

What it has to do with death is this; as we do not experience life the same, we do not experience death the same.



Disir is the name given to our female ancestral spirits, not the name given to simply the blood ancestors, but the spirits of all of the deceased females of our family.  The Disir were venerated for their ability to affect change in our lives, and for their greater understanding of the needs of the family as a whole.


While what awaited men was simply the mound; for the world is given us to shape in life, as we are given to it in death, for women there was more.  This was not seen as just or unjust, this was simply accepted truth.  Men blaze like torches for a time and light the world, but when we are dead, nothing but the memory of our deeds survives.  Men's deeds are those of their life, and their results and honour largely received either in life, or imediate upon passing.  Women's most important deeds bear no fruit in the present, belonging to the future.  As they are not wholey given to the present world, they do not wholey pass from it.


Men are storm; we shake and shape the world by the power of our passage.  When the mightiest storm has past, there is still silence.  Women are more like gardeners, planting seeds whose fruit will be born in antother season.  Shaping and guiding, blending and joining disparate things in the hope that they will grow strong together.  While the effects of a storm, however powerful, begin to fade when it ends, the effects of a gardener will live on.  While the storm is tied to nothing after its passage, echoes of the gardener will always remain in the garden.   Our ancestors understood the hand of the gardener not to be stilled by the grave; that the Disir watched, tended, guided, and sometimes pruned their great work long past the days of their mortal lives.


There is more than a chromosome that seperates the genders; in death moreso even than life.   

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2 years ago  ::  Jun 30, 2012 - 2:12AM #10
Namchuck
Posts: 11,349

Jun 28, 2012 -- 8:58AM, John_T_Mainer wrote:


What it has to do with death is this; as we do not experience life the same, we do not experience death the same.



Disir is the name given to our female ancestral spirits, not the name given to simply the blood ancestors, but the spirits of all of the deceased females of our family.  The Disir were venerated for their ability to affect change in our lives, and for their greater understanding of the needs of the family as a whole.


While what awaited men was simply the mound; for the world is given us to shape in life, as we are given to it in death, for women there was more.  This was not seen as just or unjust, this was simply accepted truth.  Men blaze like torches for a time and light the world, but when we are dead, nothing but the memory of our deeds survives.  Men's deeds are those of their life, and their results and honour largely received either in life, or imediate upon passing.  Women's most important deeds bear no fruit in the present, belonging to the future.  As they are not wholey given to the present world, they do not wholey pass from it.


Men are storm; we shake and shape the world by the power of our passage.  When the mightiest storm has past, there is still silence.  Women are more like gardeners, planting seeds whose fruit will be born in antother season.  Shaping and guiding, blending and joining disparate things in the hope that they will grow strong together.  While the effects of a storm, however powerful, begin to fade when it ends, the effects of a gardener will live on.  While the storm is tied to nothing after its passage, echoes of the gardener will always remain in the garden.   Our ancestors understood the hand of the gardener not to be stilled by the grave; that the Disir watched, tended, guided, and sometimes pruned their great work long past the days of their mortal lives.


There is more than a chromosome that seperates the genders; in death moreso even than life.   




Very poetic, John_T_Mainer, but death is indifferent to all of our musings. This I learnt from my northern ancestors.

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