“People reciprocate gifts given by other people and thereby demonstrate that they are indeed related people… They are people because they give and receive gifts… gifts are given and received not only by humans but also by trees, forests, rivers, seas, and all other living persons, communities and/or domains.”
Graham Harvey – ‘animism – respecting the living world’
In Heathenry, most of our rituals involve sacrifice. A Heathen will give gifts to gods, to the earth or particular places, trees, stones, grave mounds, or land spirits. We believe that this strengthens the relationships between us and the other – than – human people with whom we share our world. Whether we focus on spiritual beings, features of the landscape, or personifications of natural forces, giving in thanks, or in the hope that giving will obligate the receiver to give back, is fundamental.
Ritual can sometimes be a literal act of giving in return for a favor, or a more symbolic acknowledgment of the role of a deity in someone’s life. It is connected, too, to the importance of hospitality; if you visit a wood, bring gifts for the wights – you wouldn’t turn up empty – handed if you were a guest in a human household. According to the Havamal, gift giving is important to the growth of friendships.
“Friends shall gladden each other | with arms and garments,
As each for himself can see;
Gift-givers’ friendships | are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.
To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,
And gifts with gifts requite;
But men shall mocking | with mockery answer,
And fraud with falsehood meet.”
Havamal, Bellows translation
‘Rituals are the traditional core of heathenism. It is not a dogmatic religion that places the belief in its teachings in the centre, but a living relationship to the gods, to nature… Being a heathen means to practice heathenism’
Fritz Steinbock, -translation from Stefanie von Schurbein’s ‘norse revival- transformations of Germanic paganism’
So, what do these practices look like?
Well, it turns out that even these vital, Heathenry- defining practices can be remarkably vague. We know very little about Pre – Christian rituals, and rituals today, like in the past, will vary from group to group. Influential descriptions of sacrifices often come from the sagas, for example –
‘Thorkel left Thverá, he went to Freys temple, and taking an old steer up thither, made this speech:–Thou, Frey, said he, wert long my protector, and many offerings hast thou had at my hands, which have borne good fruit to me. Now do I present this steer to thee, in the hope that Glum hereafter may be driven by force off this land, as I am driven off it; and, I pray thee, give me some token whether thou acceptest this offering or not. Then the steer was stricken in such a way that he bellowed loud and fell down dead, and Thorkel took this a a favourable omen. Afterwards he was in better spirits, as if he thought his offering was accepted and his wish ratified by the god.’
“It was an old custom, that when there
was to be sacrifice all the bondes should come to the spot where
the temple stood and bring with them all that they required while
the festival of the sacrifice lasted. To this festival all the
men brought ale with them; and all kinds of cattle, as well as
horses, were slaughtered, and all the blood that came from them
was called “hlaut”, and the vessels in which it was collected
were called hlaut-vessels. Hlaut-staves were made, like
sprinkling brushes, with which the whole of the altars and the
temple walls, both outside and inside, were sprinkled over, and
also the people were sprinkled with the blood; but the flesh was
boiled into savoury meat for those present.”
We don’t hang people from trees, or sprinkle blood around, all that often these days. Time spent litter – picking or volunteering, making a carving or a piece of art, writing and performing poetry or music, are all common ways for modern Heathens to honor the gods. Rites usually start with a setting aside of the ritual space in some way, either with a procession up to it, a fire or alter set up, a blow of a horn, or just organising those gathered into a circle. Gods, ancestors, and land – wights are usually hailed, or perhaps the ritual is dedicated to someone or something in particular. Offerings are usually poured out onto the ground, or into a bowl, to be poured out once the ritual is finished. Readings, stories, or music might be included too.
Day to day heathen rituals may be as simple as sharing a drop of beer with the god – idols in the garden, or putting bread, milk, butter or porridge out for the elves. Seasonal festivals or feasts for special occasions may be more elaborate – we’ll get on to those in the next couple of posts.
Further reading –
Several different varieties of heathen celebrations are described here http://www.norsemyth.org/2017/03/nine-heathens-speak-of-spring.html?m=1
Here is a history of the modern blot in more detail, including a ritual outline-http://odin.heathenthing.org/?page_id=43
Take a look this Jackson Crawford video on Norse worship and beliefs –