Much folklore, tradition, and mythology talk of a boundary, an edge, a division between worlds. Why this is common should be fairly evident. If there is an Otherworld, Underworld, any type of world beyond ours, if there was no separation, there would be no other world, the two would be one. For the two to be distinct, or function as distinct, something must divide them.
There are different words in different languages and cultures, different meanings, different methods to cross this boundary. But the boundary is constant, because it has to be. If there’s another world, there is a boundary making these worlds distinct.
One common word used in English is the Veil. This is the term I most commonly use. As do many others.
The term brings to mind for some the veils of nuns or brides, the veils of mourners, the veils of Islamic women. For others, it brings to mind the veils of belly dancers, or harems, or erotic chambers. For others still, it brings to mind the curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, and of the verse in the New Testament of that veil torn in two from top to bottom.
These imaginings of the Veil are useful, of course they are. But how accurate are they? Why do we use the term, and do our images match the reality the term is trying to describe.
Lets start with the meaning of Veil, and it’s origins.
c.1200, “nun’s head covering,” from Anglo-French and Old North French veil (12c., Modern French voile) “a head-covering,” also “a sail, a curtain,” from Latin vela, plural of velum “sail, curtain, covering,” from PIE root *weg- (1) “to weave a web.” Vela was mistaken in Vulgar Latin for a feminine singular noun. To take the veil “become a nun” is attested from early 14c.
The beginning of this description of course is some of the uses we described above, a head covering, a curtain. But note first the Latin vela, velum. Despite it’s use as singular, vela is plural, and that is the word we get veil from, not the singular. Of interest, though, is that the Latin velum also becomes the English velum, which is the soft palate, the roof of the mouth. A veil is thin and covers, but it isn’t necessarily cloth or fragile.
Of more interest is the fact that Velum comes the reconstructed *weg- meaning “to weave a web”. It is the image of a spider’s web across a surface or over an opening. Have you ever walked into a room or cave or cavern or between trees and walked right into a spider web at face level? That is a veil.
Web comes from the same word and so does weave. These two retained that meaning well. Most of the words coming from this root mean something along the lines of entwined, interlaced, woven.
But, as words do change meaning over time, do these meanings hold relevance to our Veil, the way we use it in the context of this discussion?
Consider for a moment, the idea of the endless Web of Fate I have described elsewhere. Each being, human or not, has a knot of Threads at their core, that tie them to everything else. These Threads interconnect with other Threads of those we encounter and interact with, and to our ancestors by blood, lore, or past lives. These form a multidimensional Web, woven by the one who weaves. I describe the web like this:
“Picture a spider web, a huge orb web, threads of web radiating out in all directions on a plane from a central point. Picture those threads connected to other threads between them, forming circles, spirals, curves around that centre. Picture the log thread stretching from the central point out to infinity in all directions, an infinite web. Picture the way the light shines through and across those threads, sometimes making them shine like glass, sometimes hiding them from view. Sometimes you see one thread, or three, or ten, sometimes just the part of the web near you. Lift your head, change the angle. You see the whole web sprawling out to eternity in the direction you are looking.”
What if this Web I describe is the boundary between worlds? What if it is our woven interconnectedness throughout Time and Space that separates us from that which is outside our Time and Space? If this is the case, the Web that binds us together holds us in what we think is reality. This would make crossing over that boundary very difficult, because we ourselves become the sentilils and guards, the Guardians of the Gate if you will. All our experiences and pasts and futures and interactions in this world tie us deeper into the Web and more to what we think is reality. People tend to see what they expect to see.
But, then, crossing that boundary also would mean being disentangled from it. Not necessarily cut free (after the one who cuts cuts our Thread, we cross the Gates of Life and Death; completely cut free of the Web is freedom from this world and our bodies, for the Threads are what knits flesh and spirit, spirit and flesh) but loosed. So, to cross over, the knots that hold us to what we know and expect of reality must be loosened and the Threads allowed to bend. The Threads of Fate but be bent, Fate must be bent.
Consider for a moment the word “warp”. In most common usages in Modern English, it is to “to bend, twist, distort”. This word is believed to come from the reconstructed Proto-Indoeuropian *werp- meaning “to turn or bend”. In weaving, it is used in contrast to “woof”, the woof being the set threads in the loom, the warp twisting and turning through the woof, bending it, to create a fabric. “Woof” comes from *webh- meaning “to weave”, which is the source of both our English weave, web, and wave.
If the Web of Fate is the boundary between worlds, and the All as a loom, and we see it as the woof in that loom, the threads that aren’t connected to the woof that twist and turn between them and bend them become the warp. The warp bends the woof, the weave, the Web. Without a warp in a loom, there is no fabric. Cut the ends and the woof is a pile of strings. But with the warp wove through the woof, a fabric forms. The warp hold the woof in place, and of course gives it colour and pattern. The woof is the foundation, but the warp defines its form.
Some Celtic sources describe the worlds as the Endless Knot, two separate lines interwoven but never connecting. The is of course the two worlds, the world we know, and the Otherworld. The two are seen as being tied together in certain places, and the Veil being thinnest there. Places meaning points on the earth, spatial places, and points in time, temporal places. At certain locations, the Veil is very thin because the worlds are so close. At certain times, liminal times, the worlds draw close, and the Veil thins. This idea of two interwoven worlds fits well the idea of the fabric of the Veil being the interweaving of the woof, our world, and the Threads that connect us, and the warp, the Otherworld and the Threads that connect those that live beyond the Veil, beyond the Gloom out in the endless Gleam.
Then, expanding the metaphor, and the reality it describes, crossing over is a matter of being tied to that other Web, that is the warp, which would mean that those who cross over are tied to both webs, that the Threads at their core run both out into the Woof Web of Fate and the Warp Web of Fate. They span the worlds, are the Gates, and guardians thereof, they are of both worlds, so not fully of either.
It’s by no accident that one of the folk etymologies for “witch” is that it came from a word meaning “to bend or turn”. Especially when we consider that the English “weird”, from the Germanic “wyrd”, urdr, ultimately meaning Fate, and is the name of one of the three Norns in Norse myth, comes from *wert-, from *wer-, the origin of *werp- we discussed above, “to bend or turn”. The warp of the loom, the wyrd, the fate, the Norns who decide the fate of all beings, the Spinner who spins the Thread, the Weaver who weaves it into the Webs, and the Cutter who cuts to on the Black Altar. The Grimr.
Moving on from weaving and webs and veils, let’s consider another common term for the boundary between worlds, the Hedge.
The image here is English style hedgerows of the type that separate fields or surround a residence. These form a living, wild boundary between two fields, or between what is inside and what is outside. For metaphoric purposes, we can use the image of a hedge around a residence, separating the inside and the outside.
Taking this idea back, and looking at the residence with a hedge around as an extension of the hill fort with a baracade or the castle or city with a wall, the inside becomes “us” and the outside “them”, the hedge as protection from the Other beyond it. Inside, we cultivate and control, we build and grow crops, we live life in relative safety. Outside, there’s uncertainty, danger, the settled, civilized farming settlement with the dangerous dark wood beyond, the image of the shift from nomadic to settled life.
The hedge is a wild and dangerous place, but intentionally so. There’s a reason two of the most common hedge trees are the whitethorn (hawthorn) and blackthorn (sloethorn). While pretty trees, and both producing fruit (the haws and sloes) that provide food for those within and without alike, and to birds and rodents and other animals, the thorns are the important part. These are thicket forming trees with long, dangerous thorns. The blackthorn’s thorns will cause nasty infections, and both are long and very sharp. You can’t cross the hedge without a lot of pain and threat to your body. Among the thorns creatures live and other plants, including other trees, grow intermixed. The result is a very dense wild boundary almost impossible to cross.
The hedge, though, being a wild space, also becomes a space where many herbs and other plants grow, giving rise to one of the two major modern usages of the term “hedgewitch”. The second meaning relates more to the hedge metaphor I’m going toward than the mundane hedgerows.
Often stiles are built where passage is needed. Stairs up one side and down the other, these triangular constructions allow passage over the hedge, the only safe passage. And these often can be gated at the top, and also mean limited known ingress and egress points.
Our hedge is like that, a wild space that both keeps us in, we that live in the Dreaming, the reserve if you will, and keeps the Other out, the deadly things that roam the Gleam, dangerous things our hedge protects us from. The hedge itself is dangerous to both, but limited and defined, a wild place that keeps the inward inward and outward outward.
The thin spots we talked about above function similar to stiles, but it should be remembered that what allows one to go outside the hedge also allows one to come inside the hedge. The stiles both allow passage out into the Gleam through the Gloom and become a dangerous gateway for things to possibly come into the Dreaming.
Just like with the mundane hedgerow, there are things in this hedge that can provide healing and nourishment, and things that are poisonous or deadly. Those who enter the hedge can gain much for it, but also must be cautious. And those that cross completely through or over the hedge instead of riding it must be very careful, because there’s a reason we live inside the hedge. The risk can definitely be worth it, though.
~Lorekeeper, Muninn’s Kiss