Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Stang

A stang is a forked staff, of usually two or three tines, that can serve many purposes. It can act as a vertical altar, a bridge to the other world, a symbol of the world tree, a symbol of (or altar to) a Deity, a walking/traveling stick, or as a staff to raise/direct energy and to mark ritual space. It is usually used by hedgewitches and other traditional witches, but can be incorporated into numerous paths.

The historical origins of this tool are not clear. Some say Robert Cochrane invented the tool, but it seems more likely that he simply reintroduced the tool to modern day witchcraft, and perhaps gave new meanings to the tool. Old woodcuts of witches show them using a forked staff (sometimes riding it) along with other "traditional" witches items, such as the besom and cauldron. It is possible that the staff shown was related to a cooking stick, hay fork, distaff, or another common tool. One possible origin for the term stang comes from the Old Norse language, and can be roughly translated as "staff, pole, or rod." Others speculate that it comes from the Old English language, and shares a similar root with the word distaff.

In modern use the stang is often made of ash, or another wood symbolic of the world tree such as rowan, yew, or hawthorn. However, it is not uncommon to see other woods being used for their various properties - such as poplar for underworld work, or oak for protection. The wood used really depends on what the stang's primary use will be, and the personal preference of the witch making it. Some use fallen branches (and may not even know what wood the fallen branch is), seeing the fallen branch as a gift from nature. Others choose to connect with a tree and cut a branch from it, wishing the specific energies and bond with that tree. Again, it comes down to personal choice.

There is no set size for a stang. While they are usually staffs, some choose to make smaller, almost wand sized stangs. Some have shoulder height stangs, head height, or even giant six or seven foot stangs. The huge stangs are usually coven tools in traditional witchcraft. A solitary might instead like to use a small walking stick type, or even the wand type, depending on what they want to use their stang for, where they practice, and how portable they need their stang to be.

A stang often ends in a natural two pronged fork, although sometimes a three pronged fork is used. Larger stangs (shoulder height or higher) are sometimes topped with a skull with antlers or horns, or just the antlers or horns, to make the fork. Metal tines can also be added instead of the natural fork. The bottom of the stang can sometimes be covered with a metal point, or the wood slightly sharpened, to make it easier to drive into the ground during ritual.

Stangs can be decorated in various ways. Natural decorations, such as bone, beads, feathers, fur, leather, shells, cotton ribbon or string, are common. It can also be sanded, painted, stained, carved, or burned with symbols or patterns. Of course, it can also be free of any decoration. How it is decorated will depend on what it will be used for, the personal symbolism the witch chooses, and individual taste.

The stang is rich in many layers of symbolism. As a symbol for the World Tree, the top fork can represent the upper world, the middle staff section the middle world, and the end (which is driven into the earth) the lower world.

The two prongs can also represent feminine energies, the staff masculine energies, the whole the union between the two. It can also symbolize union between the sky and earth. Or, one prong of the fork can symbolize feminine energies, the second prong masculine, and the staff creation manifest. The two prongs can also represent duality... light/dark, sun/moon, sky/earth, seen/unseen, physical world/spiritual world, life/death etc. while the middle section of the staff can represent balance between the two. It is a symbol of union, cycles, and transformation.

Some see the stang as a totally masculine tool, especially when used as a symbol of/altar to a God. However, others see the stang as a relative of the distaff, a traditional women's tool used in spinning. (Especially true of three pronged stangs, but also in the two pronged ones as well). As a tool of feminine energies and spinning, it can represent creative energies and is sometimes used as a symbol of fate, or of a Goddess in this way.

The stang can also act as a portable altar, representing all the elements/common ritual tools in one object. The fork can be seen as the chalice (water), the middle section of the staff as athame (fire), the whole can be used as a wand (air), and when driven into the earth completes the connection between all elements (especially true with a metal tipped end).

As it has many symbolic meanings, so can it have many ritual uses. It can be used as a symbol of the world tree, an aid to creating a gap in the hedge (thinning of the veil), an assistant to shamanic journeying. When used in this way, it is generally struck into the middle of the ritual space.

The stang can be used in a similar way as a wand, to focus and direct energy. The stang can help pull up energy from the earth, or aid in grounding energy when ritual is over (or after otherworld work). As a staff, it can also be used to draw out the compass, or ritual space, on the ground.

A stang topped with a horned skull (or just the horns) can also be dressed up in a shirt or robe and act as a protector who watches over the ritual (sometimes called a scarecrow in this form). In a similar way it can act as a symbol, or altar, of a Horned Deity. In this form it is often placed in the North section of the ritual space, or, moved with the cycles of the sun (in a daily or yearly way. For example, in the south at noon, or at Litha). In this form, it can also be placed into a cauldron to represent the cycle of life, death, and rebirth - an especially popular symbol at Samhain, but also used at other times.

The stang also makes a fine walking stick for the wandering witch. A small bundle of ritual items can be hung from the fork (or just below it) to be carried to the working site - or if one is out foraging, to carry things back home. During a night ritual, when a fire is not wanted, a small lantern can be hung from the stang to allow for a bit of working light. I have also seen a few uses that are more obscure, such as being used as a sighting pole (it was recommended to mark 1/16th of the horizon in this form).

Usually the stang is decorated for times of celebration, especially when it is serving as an altar or representation of the World Tree or of a Deity. For example, after erecting the stang in the ritual space on Beltaine, it could be decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons. Or, a wreath and other evergreens at Yule. Libations or other offerings can be left at the base of the stang. When used as an altar for ritual focus, it can be stuck into the middle of the ritual space, or at the north of the compass, or on Sabbats with the corresponding direction (north-east on Imbolc, east on Ostara, etc.)

Like many ritual objects, different individuals and traditions often put their own meaning to the stang. While I've tried to bring information from many sources, it is sure that the stang has more uses and layers of symbolism to it. Like many things in witchcraft, some of which can only be discovered personally through its use.

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