Are you the type to enjoy a stroll through the cool, dark cemetery, taking refuge under the yews, perhaps picnicking beside the grave of a loved one or a lonesome stranger?
Well, my friend, then you have already participated in what was known as Howe Sitting, or Mound Sitting, in pre-Christian Germanic society, something I learned from my latest macabre text, The Language of the Corpse: The Power of the Cadaver in Germanic and Icelandic Sorcery by Cody Dickerson.
The English term ‘howe’ comes to us from Old Norse Haugr, and is cognate to ON hár or high. We encounter the practice of mound sitting frequently in the Sagas, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, and indeed throughout the aggregate lore of the Germanic peoples.
On your journeys to the cemetery, it is unlikely that you intend to soak up the secret knowledge of the dead by sitting close to – or even on top of – their grave. You visit the dead to pay respects, or just to enjoy the solitude and scenery that the cemetery provides. But the early Germanic peoples believed the dead, specifically the corpse, had quite a lot to offer. They believed dead bodies possessed sacred knowledge and magical powers. This very belief is what allowed a myriad of strange traditions related to corpse parts to develop, such as necropants, as well as the bodily holiness of saints’ relics.
Howe Sitting was such a revered practice that it was not uncommon for royalty to participate in it as well, at times even setting their thrones on top of another royal’s burial mound and then sitting upon it. The practice also extended itself to something called útiseta, which means ‘sitting out,’ and involved an individual placing themselves “in any of a number of auspicious or liminal places, such as a graveyard or crossroads” for the same purpose as Howe Sitting: “to seek counsel with the dead” (Dickerson 26-7). And as you might prepare for your trip to the cemetery by swathing yourself in raven or bringing a fresh (or wilted, depending on your aesthetic) bouquet of flowers, howe sitters and sitters-out might have dressed themselves in “an animal hide or a heavy cloak”to mark the sacredness of the occasion (27).
So the next time you venture to the cemetery, perhaps you might seek counsel with a soul who was deemed wise in their life, who might imbue you with the knowledge that can only be gained from the dark recesses of the grave.
Source: Dickerson, Cody. The Language of the Corpse. Three Hands Press, 2016.