Heathenry for Beginners – part three

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Sacrifice

“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

Practice

‘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.’

http://sagadb.org/viga-glums_saga.en

 

“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.”

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/heim/05hakon.htm

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 –
https://youtu.be/E_xi8QQZo0Q

 

Heathenry for Beginners – Part two

Part two: Gods and Giants

Disclaimer: The following is only one heathens opinion, mine, and I’m learning as I go just like everyone else. Different opinions by better educated folks are available.

Out of Ymir’s flesh

was fashioned the earth,
And the ocean out of his blood;
Of his bones the hills,

of his hair the trees,
Of his skull the heavens high.

– Bellows, ‘Grimnismal’

In Norse mythology, we have the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jötnar ( the giants.) The Aesir and Vanir are the gods that are worshiped, holy powers of creation, prosperity, and order, and the giants are older powers, who like to break things; they are wildfire, avalanches, floods, the hag in the dark wood and the serpent under the sea.

In the Poetic Edda, the giants were here first. The creation of the earth is described as an act of violence against them – the gods Odin, Villi, and Ve kill the giant Ymir and use his various dismembered body parts to make the world, and this theme, this tension between chaos and order, creation and destruction, is common throughout the Norse stories. The Eddic poem Völuspá speaks of monsters, long held in check by the gods, breaking loose from their bonds and making a terrible mess.

Now Garm howls loud

before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst,

and the wolf run free;

– Bellows

In Anglo – Saxon, Eotenas is cognate with the Old Norse Jotunn. Giants in English folklore are often portrayed as hostile, powerful, and greedy. Like the Norse Jotnar, they were from the edges of the world, outside of civilization.

‘The outside was considered a place of wildness and chaos where untamed spirits dwelt and danger lurked around each and every corner.’
https://larhusfyrnsida.com/fundamentals/innanbord-utanbord/

The giants are not just wild, but because of their great age, they are a source of ancient wisdom, and there are several tales of Odin visiting to question them and find out what they know. The Vanir god Frey marries the giantess Gerd, and his father Njord marries the giantess Skadi; there’s no clear, all – out war between the two groups. The giants are dangerous enemies, but the gods are frequently seen tricking them, loving them, stealing from them, or, if you’re Thor, hitting them with a really big hammer.

‘Nor did he only fight these battles on behalf of the gods… he was struggling for mankind, and for the precious civilization which men had wrested from a hard and chaotic world.’

 – H R Ellis Davidson, ‘Gods and Myths of Northern Europe’

Despite being firmly on the side of the gods, Thor travels often with Loki, who is portrayed in the Völuspá as one of those monsters who breaks free, riding with the giants at the end of the world. In Asatru the gods are not wholly good, or the giants wholly evil, and neither are people. We do not need to be saved, or fixed; there is no need to be purified, or for a spiritual journey towards perfection. We can just enjoy good soil, good weather, good friends, and develop strong communities to support us when life is bad.

In Norse mythology, change and conflict are often necessary to create new things. The environment on Earth is stable enough for human life to flourish, but without the occasional catastrophe, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, we might not have got here at all. It is like ice and fire; ice is unmoving, fire is destructive. Too much of either and nothing can live. But in the Prose Edda, it is in the space where those opposites meet that life begins.

The year turns between cold and hot, stillness and movement, order and chaos, and we make time in each season to give thanks to the gods, to those powers of nature that carved stability from the primordial giant.

‘The victory of the gods over the Eotenas was the re-assuring victory of order over chaos, the assertion of human values over disorder… the giants were elemental forces of nature, temporarily held at bay but never to be finally overcome.”

 – Stephen Pollington, ‘The Elder Gods – The Otherworld of Early England’

Further reading –

The Jötnar in more detail –

https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/giants/

Were the Jötnar worshipped? Maybe 🙂

http://www.heathenhof.com/worship-jotnar/

March Moot

A few pics of the wonderful Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset. The Open days don’t happen often and they are a great opportunity to explore the site and see some living history in action. Details of the next moot will be up soon!

Heathenry for Beginners – part one

Polytheism

Disclaimer: The following is only one heathens opinion, mine, and I’m learning as I go just like everyone else. Different opinions by better educated folks are available.

“… Although the different notes appear to be mere modalities in vibration, it is in their difference, in their relation, that the nature of music lies…”

– Alain Daniélou, the Myths and Gods of India

Heathens worship many gods. But what are these gods? Personifications of natural forces? Poetic metaphors? Jungian Archetypes? Spiritual entities? Manifestations of a higher consciousness? The awareness of the natural world? Inter – dimensional beings? Aliens? We don’t know. Or rather, the lack of dogma and central authority means that there are as many beliefs about the true nature of the gods as there are heathens.

Despite this, there is common ground to be found, as all heathens base their practice (at least to some extent) on the polytheism of the Pre – Christian Northern Europeans.

Two common features are –

– the view that gods are immanent within nature, that they dwell or manifest in some way within the physical world;

– the view that gods are not omnipotent or omniscient, but complex and individual, each with their own areas of concern.

Those who believe that the gods are independent beings tend to feel that they ‘walk with us’ in this life, rather than looking down on us from the next. They are seen as a part of the ordinary world, just as much as those who believe that they are aspects of it; Those who believe the gods are archetypes don’t turn up at a ritual and hail ‘the great archetypes’; the gods are treated as individuals, greeted with their own names as you would any other friend, just as much as those who believe they exist independently of the human mind.

Germanic paganism was a patchwork of localised traditions, beliefs and practices, rather than a unified religion, and in that sense, modern heathenry resembles its predecessor rather well. It’s orthopraxic, not orthodoxic; Your actions are more important than your beliefs. It’s perfectly common to have a room full of heathens, each with a different conception of the gods, coming together to practice the same ritual.

That’s not to say that beliefs are irrelevant. The kinds of ideas that are accepted or not will vary between groups. Some communities are more open, where your beliefs will be largely your own business, and some will be more restrictive, admitting only those heathens who share a similar outlook.

It’s important to understand the ideas behind the practices we aim to revive, and important, too, to understand where your own beliefs come from, as a creative mix of education, personal experiences, and what we think we know about our polytheistic history.

The most popular holy powers in Heathenry today are Odin, Thor, Tyr, Frigg, Freya, and Frey. Odin is a creator, a poet, a source of inspiration, but also a trickster, a shaman, and a god of death. Thor is

“…more common than Óðin (Odin), more people-friendly. He is the God of farms; He makes the earth fertile with His Hammer; The God of Strength and Help.”

– Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson

Tyr is a sky – god, a warrior, whose principal myth is about the consequences of oath- breaking. Frigg is called on to oversee childbirth, and the everyday running of the household, while Freya is all about the gold – sex, death, and prosperity are intimately linked in the figures of both her and her brother, Frey, a god of peace and good harvests.

Those are some of the ‘universal’ deities, who were known by similar names and attributes over a wide area. There were also many gods and goddesses attached to particular features of the landscape, gods of rivers and lakes, woods and mountains, who were only known to those who lived close to them.

Our polytheist ancestors were slaves, farmers, poets, and craftsmen. They believed in what worked, and this essentially practical approach is one that serves us well today. They turned to the gods for signs, for luck, for fertile fields, but didn’t expect them to fix every problem. A relationship with a deity is one of give and take, and this is reflected in the Heathen rituals of blot and sumbel (We’ll get on to those in a different post).

“If such beings exist and govern the natural world, their gifts are as obvious as food and drink on the table, rain on the fields, fertility in the soil, and the fact of life itself… In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, anything that is a source of benefit to human beings may be seen as a giver of gifts, and an appropriate recipient of reverence and offerings.”

– John Michael Greer, A World Full of gods

So how do you get started? Get in touch with your surroundings. Look at your local history. Are there place – names related to Anglo -Saxon or Norse deities? Are there special sites, woods, burial mounds, features of the land that have folklore attached to them? Find one and go there. Read the Eddas, get to know the personalities of the gods through their stories. And don’t be stingy with the gifts; mead, wine, bread, cake, poetry and the blood of your enemies are all historically appropriate offerings 🙂

A little suggested reading –

www.indigogroup.co.uk/twilight/ast0440.htm Bob Trubshaw’s essay on Anglo – Saxon worldviews,

John Michael Greer’s ‘A World Full of Gods’, is an argument for traditional, or ‘hard’ polytheism,

Hindu philosophies are often cited as a source for a lot of modern pagan ideas, so for an alternative side of polytheism, take a look at Alain Daniélou’s “The Myths and Gods of India,”

H R Ellis Davidson’s “The Gods and Myths of Northern Europe” is a classic introduction to norse mythology,

The Poetic Edda – the Carolyne Larrington translations are good, I’ve heard great things about the Jackson Crawford, and the Bellows is free, at

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/index.htm