The Cup of Sovereignty

A few day ago I dreamt that I was handed the Cup of Sovereignty. It was a beautiful silver chalice, my own personal Grail, given to me by someone I couldn’t see, but which had the feel of deity about it, or someone in service to deity. In that cup was my own blood, that which runs through my veins and also my menstrual blood (even though that time is now gone). I took the cup in my hands and felt the power surging through it, the power of my own life and of my own sovereignty.

But what exactly is sovereignty? The word evokes kings and queens, feudal systems and medieval times. Yes indeed, it does relate to that, everything that comes from a state which has a leader with absolute authority. The Cambridge dictionary simply states sovereignty as “the power or authority to rule”. In relation to one’s own personal sovereignty, this definition makes more sense.

We all have the power to be sovereign in ourselves. That power may lie deeply hidden beneath experiences of trauma and loss, grief and sorrow, abuse and family/social dynamics. But is it there, waiting to be accessed and recognised.

Sadly, not all of us have the authority for personal sovereignty, for there are still too many places in the world where your gender, your race or your social background prevents you from using that authority.  And yet, deep down, we might still feel a glimmer of that authority that lies beneath the suffocating shrouds of patriarchy, oppressive religions and more. Deep down, most of us are certain that we have a right to rule our own selves, to be sovereign in our self. Whether or not this is recognised by society around us is another matter.

I know that I come from a place of privilege. But that still doesn’t negate my own experience of personal sovereignty. The deep knowing that I am responsible for my actions, for my life, and that I have the power to change it, helps me to integrate my sovereignty into everything that I do. A sovereign life is a life filled with intention, instead of reaction. A sovereign life is one where you know your own self, the light and the shadow, the good and the bad, and you work with that intentionally in order to be your best self at that moment. A sovereign life is one where you see where you fit in: in your community, your ecosystem, your family, all your relationships. It is where you can contribute for the benefit of all. Because in our own sovereignty, we realise that we must give back.

For me, sovereignty goes hand in hand with service. It may not be that way for everyone, but for me it is an integral part of personal sovereignty. As an author I like to share my ideas with others through the medium of the written word, and in doing so, hopefully inspire people towards their own sovereignty. I don’t have all the answers, despite my dreams. I was given the cup of sovereignty, but what I do with it is my own life’s work. It’s a process, not a destination or an achievement.

Sovereignty might be taking back the power that you have given to someone or something else. It might be understanding how your mind works, and how you can work with that to live the life that you want, to achieve your dreams. It might be simply the power of saying “no” or “yes” to certain things. It might involve independence or community, a spiritual practice or a philosophy/way of life. It might just be acceptance of who you are, where you are and what it is that you are doing, and taking responsibility for all that you are, wherever you are. It might be a combination of these things, and then some.

We must encourage each other on our own personal journeys of sovereignty. Help someone to find their own power. Sovereignty means we must truly understand the notion of power, and the levels of power that we see in the world. The renowned author Starhawk describes three different kinds of power: personal power, power over and power with. We must release all notions of “power over” and work towards strengthening our own personal power, while at the same time working with “power with”. This means that in our own journeys, we will not bring each other down, but instead support each other and encourage each other’s experiences in finding their own power. When we work towards the benefit of the whole, the whole is benefited. When we work for the benefit of the self, the self is indeed benefited, but we must also think about extending that power to the community in whatever way we can.

We may begin with our own journeys into our own power, and eventually once we have established that deeply within our core, we can look outwards in the spirit of encouragement, inspiration and support of others in their own quests for the Grail, the Cup of Sovereignty. Sovereignty is all about the ability to choose. It is the power of choice.

And know that this quest is one that has no beginning and no end, but is simply a process of discernment, refinement, mindfulness and co-operation. We may receive the Cup of Sovereignty, but now we must share it with the rest of the world in whatever form we are able. We must fill it and we must drink from the Cup but, like a meal, it is best shared with others.

Freya: A Goddess of Love or Not?

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have heard that Freya is a goddess of love. Usually, it just ends there. But in my years of working with her, I’ve come to understand so much more about this wonderful goddess, and how she has often been reduced to a misogynistic soundbite. Well, no more.

So, where in the lore does it say that Freya is a goddess of love? Well, in just one small reference, actually. In Gylfaginning, it is said that “She loves poetry, she is good to invoke about love.” [1] That’s pretty much it when it comes to the mention of love.

Freya is a goddess of sexuality, and in relation, fertility and sensuality. Her brother, Freyr, is more about fertility than Freya, in my opinion. Freya is about the sensuous nature of life, of how to live it pleasurably and to its fullest. She does not really concern herself with fertility, per se, though she is sometimes invoked in birthing, which may be due to her role as a lady of life. Her two daughters are called Hnoss (Jewel) and Gersimi (gem). Are these actual daughters or just a kenning for some of the things she loves the most?

Freya’s power is in her own sovereignty. She chooses how to live her life, and will not let anyone tell her otherwise. She takes on lovers as she wills, but then, so do other goddesses and gods in Norse mythology. It’s not uncommon, really. Loki derides many goddesses and tries to tarnish them with the brush of harlot in Lokasenna. Is this simply a Christian gloss created by those who were writing down these myths? This piece of the lore derides pretty much all of the pagan and magical practices of the gods, and makes it a very suspect piece in my view.

Some will say that Freya’s everlasting search for Óðr demonstrates an aspect of her as a goddess of love. But let’s take a closer look at what the word Óðr means. As a noun, it means “agitation, skill in poetry, poetry, intellect”. [2] As an adjective,, it means “furious, mad, terrible and even mentally disordered”[3]. Many believe that Freya and the god Óðin have a relationship, and that is it he that she longs for. But is this just looking at the surface, and not delving any deeper into who Freya actually is and what she represents?

Freya was the one who taught the art of seiðr to the gods. She was the original witch. In the magic of seiðr, we often come across a trance practice of walking between the worlds or calling in the spirits. This work can fall into the category of an ecstatic practice, and therefore could it not be that Freya is seeking the ecstasy that comes with magic, poetry, divination, sexual activity and more? What she longs for is to break free from the bonds of “normality” and shows us just how to do so, to reclaim our own power.

Freya is known by many names, including Mardöll (shining of the sea), Hörn (flax), Gefn (the giving), Sýr (the sow, or to shield/protect) and Vanadis (the woman of the Vanir) among others. She is thought to be the witch, Gullveig, whom the Aesir lusted after so much that it began a war. She is also thought to be Mengelöd, a healing goddess atop Lyfjaberg. She is also known as Val-Freya, the chooser of the dead. For when the valiant warriors die, Freya gets first choice of them to come and live with her in her great hall, Sessrumnir, in Folkvang. Odin gets the leftovers. That’s something the television shows and movies neglect to mention.

A teacher of mine told me that Freya is not a goddess of love, per se, but rather a goddess that loves life.[4] She is life itself. So why has she been reduced to a mere soundbite as a goddess of love, time and time again?

Well, Freya is not the first powerful woman to be belittled and demeaned in such a way. It is rife in our culture and society. At the time of writing this article, the misogyny of the British Parliament is coming into light, with over 50 cases of sexual misconduct by Members of Parliament currently being investigated.[5] Our own Prime Minister as the then editor of The Spectator in 2001 printed a cover page article written by now Cabinet minister Michael Gove that deplores men doing “women’s work” such as changing nappies and housework while the woman maintains the position of wage earner.[6] The article was titled: “”The male eunuch – what the wimpy British can learn from the chauvinism of the French”. In the US, the Supreme Court plans to overturn a case which gives women autonomy over their own bodies with regards to Pro-Choice rights.[7] The patriarchy and the misogyny are not just something of the past, but are here and now affecting women all over the world.

We know that the Prose Edda was written by Snorri Sturluson, an historian, poet and politician. The old ways had passed on two hundred years earlier, and Iceland was firmly in the Christian camp. The Poetic Edda may have been written earlier, but both have roots in an oral tradition of poetry that was passed down from generation to generation. And we know how stories can change when a different storyteller is telling the tale. The sovereign goddesses of the Viking Age and earlier are now labelled as “witches” and “harlots”.  This label has carried on for centuries. Look at Hilary Clinton, labelled “The Wicked Witch of the Left”, or Anne Boleyn even[8]. Women in politics, whether it is with Republicans or Kings, face such slander when they rise to positions of power. It doesn’t just stop at the Middle Ages, oh no. It has carried through to the present day. Women have been objectified for so long, that it is entrenched in the social fabric of the present day. We have MPs watching porn in the Commons.[9] The whore or witch label is still firmly entrenched upon women in order to keep them from their own power. And so it is with Freya. Or at least, it is still being attempted.

But we know differently. We can see beneath the slurs and slanders and the Christian patriarchal gloss that covers her stories. We know that she is an independent and sovereign entity unto herself. She is beholden to no one. She does as she pleases. And she is there for us. The lore tells us that Freya is the closest to humanity – she reaches out to us when we call for her. She is there for us. And just as we need to reinstate the divine feminine in our own societies as we see women’s rights and sovereignty being stripped away in ever-increasing numbers despite progressive movements, we need to take back the stories and the memories of Freya, The Lady. We need to reclaim her as something more than a goddess of love.

Freya is life, the pleasure of it and the quest for sovereignty of the self. Let’s change our current narrative so that it can truly reflect the nature of this great goddess. And in doing so, we might just change the world too.


[1] Gylfaginning 24

[2] Näsström, B. Freya: The Great Goddess of the North, Clock and Rose (2003) p. 63

[3] Ibid

[4] Zindra Andersson.  Courses now held in Sweden and Germany: https://www.hexenkram.at/en/article/der-pfad-der-vlva-jahresausbildung-mit-zindra-andersson-2022-23/812a89fa-51f9-4d19-bacd-9e0974c1d578

[5] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/56-mps-face-sexual-misconduct-claims-znv2m9x8s

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-michael-gove-sexist-article-male-chauvinism-b2070874.html

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/roe-v-wade-protest-latest-abortion-overturned-b2071255.html

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/07/cursed-from-circe-to-clinton-why-women-are-cast-as-witches

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2022/apr/30/calls-for-neil-parish-to-resign-after-being-named-as-mp-who-watched-porn-in-commons-uk-politics-live

Finding the Balance: Wedding Discipline to Devotion

Finding the Balance: Wedding Discipline to Devotion

Our culture of “not good enough” is so rampant, that it can be terribly hard to disassociate oneself from it. I was able to come to terms with the capitalist way of life here in our Western world through Eastern means, specifically through Zen Buddhism. That led to deep meditation, of simply being in the moment, of enjoying the simple things in life while maintaining a deep discipline of distancing myself from the “not good enough life” into one where “it is enough”. This occurred on both a physical and spiritual level. Indeed, it usually does, because the two cannot be separated from each other.

The discipline aspect was hard, at first. I didn’t feel like meditating, like being in the moment. I would do so without any spiritual or religious intent, per se; it was merely to be in the moment, experiencing my body without distraction, noticing my thoughts. As I became more proficient at this, through sheer dogged determination and mule-minded stubborness, the light began to shine through the cracks that had opened up in my mind and in my way of being in the world. I could see that it was all illusion, that what my mind created was illusion, that the way we thought and acted in the world was all based on illusion. At first I was angry at the deception, then I was sad, depressed at the state of the world and not seeing a way through. But through perseverance, I came through the other side. How did I persevere? Again, it was discipline, but this time it was wedded to devotion.

Discipline itself wasn’t enough to get me through. I knew I could do it, and indeed I had. But when I dropped out many things in my life, all the illusory things, I didn’t at the time realise that I had to fill up the hole that they left with something more nourishing. Instead, it left me feeling empty, which at first was an interesting way to be, but then voracious hunger kicks in, when we’re empty, when we need refuelling. Carefully deciding on the path that I wanted to take, in order to find and maintain a sovereign sense of self, I brought devotion into my practice, in order to grasp that deep intention and give meaning to all that I did. After all, isn’t that the meaning of life? To give your life meaning?

And so I devoted myself to the gods of my local landscape, and several other “traditional” gods within the Celtic pantheon, some that I had worked with for decades, others which called to me to come and dance with them, for however long or short a while. And so I did, weaving discipline, daily discipline, with devotion, giving meaning to the work that I did, both for myself and for the wider world. When the hole was filled, through the previous emptying of my mind and soul, it was enough.

This is not a one-off process, however. Every day I am learning just what enough means. We are bombarded each and every day by media trying to create feelings of inadequacy. It brings to mind the Druid maxim: the Truth against the World. I have to hold my truth, against that of the world around me which seeks to distance myself from my truth. I have to work hard to be sovereign of myself. The hard work is worth the effort.

That’s not to say that I don’t have my bad days, that I don’t slip into despair every now and then, of my own failings and that of the world. But when I go outside, listen to the blackbird singing songs of the Otherworld, when I see the herd of deer running through the woods, or the bloated corpse of a fallow deer rotting down into the leafmould; when I see the hawk flying over the treetops, screaming in hunger or joy, or the waves of the sea gently lapping the shingle and whispering secrets of the murky depths, I come back to an awareness of the Mystery. That Mystery is that the world is more than me, that I am a part of a great web, a connecting thread in all that there is, all that ever was, and all that shall ever be. I am the awen, from the depths I sing.

It’s important to remember that human beings are part of nature. Our culture tries to create the illusion of separateness, but when we pull back the veil we see the interconnectedness of all things. The air that I breathe is oxygen created by trees and plankton, grasses and daisies. They in turn take a deep breath of the carbon I expel from my lungs, in one great harmonious intake and outtake of a World Breath. Just breathing can connect us to each other, can remind us of that connection each and every day. That was why the sitting meditation, or zazen of my earlier days, of just focusing and concentrating on breathing was such a great stepping stone in my life. From there, from just sitting and breathing with the world, I came to a sense of connection that led to a life of devotion, where I work to achieve a sovereignty of self in a world that seeks to make me its subject and slave.

We might think that we aren’t equipped to do the daily practice, to help others, much less help ourselves. But we are, if we remember. Re-member: to bring together disparate parts of ourselves. If we remember that connection, the threads of awen that connect each and every life form to each other, then we can work to know that our existence is not just a mere blight on the planet. We have destroyed so much, and we are at a tipping point, for sure. But there is also the great possibility that this is the moment where we all wake up. That humanity undergoes a revolution of its own mind, its hive mind. That we open up to the wonderful magic of possibility. That we are able to use our intelligence, discipline, compassion, empathy and more to make this world a better place. Is this altruism? Not entirely, because we also will benefit greatly from this revolution. We are doing it because we know that we are all connected. We are all related.

For me, wedding discipline to devotion helped to give my life meaning, and to put my feet upon the path towards this revolution. Working with love and compassion, for myself and for the world around me gives my life meaning. Even when I’m not feeling particularly loving, especially towards humanity, I have to remember the potential, the possibility that we can change, that we can reweave our connection to the land. It’s the basis of the work I do at Druid College, to hope to inspire people find their sovereign self, to come to know what enough really is, to work with the gods, the ancestors, the spirits of place and to really understand on a deep level that we are the land. There is no separation. Lying down upon the mossy ground in my backyard, underneath the beech tree, tiny buds appearing on its ever-expanding canopy year upon year, I look up into the blue sky just beyond the tangled web and know that there is always possibility, that there is always change. Buddhism and Zen teach of impermanence; so too does Druidry, in the natural flow and cycles of the seasons of our lives. When we truly come to understand the nature of impermanence, we come to truly know abundance.

© Joanna van der Hoeven 2017