Local Cultus

Lately people are really getting into local cultus. All in all, I’m very excited about that, as its lack has been something that annoyed me for years. Over a year ago, I was having lovely conversations with “obsessiveheathen”, a Rhode Island Anglo-Saxon Heathen who has since disappeared from the Internet, in regards to worshipping rivers and giving them offerings. Why don’t more do that? They should! It’s attested throughout Europe and it gives a good reason to throw apples into rapidly moving water, among other things.

Much of the current incarnation of local cultus, however, has been giving epithets to well attested deities. That’s a more complicated matter. My idea for such things is fairly simple: the practices of a particular region’s cultus should be one standard deviation away from the norm, at least when it comes to the divine. This is quite obviously a subjective thing, as you can’t really expect statistics to apply perfectly in such things, but it gives an idea about just how out of the way something may go before it’s just silly.

I would be inclined to say that some people have been a little too excited and instead went several deviations off the norm. Some are considerably off the charts or completely misunderstand how local cultus works.

A few days ago I noticed a particularly bothersome post on Tumblr about local cultus for Boston, outside of which I live. (Archived here in case the post disappears.) I’ll quote the relevant portion:

Demeter of Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall
– of the Emerald Necklace

Persephone of the turning leaves
– of the Boston Common

Hades of the Granary Burying Ground
– of the financial district

Hekate of the Salem Witch Trials

Hermes of the Marathon
– of the MBTA
– of the Isabella Stewart Gardner art theft

Dionysus of Provincetown
– of Martha’s Vineyard
– of the state house pinecone!

Athena of the Boston Public Library
– of the science museum

Poseidon of Spectacle Island
– of the New England Aquarium
– of the duck tours

Zeus of TD Garden
– of Fenway Park and the Red Sox
– of the Hancock

Ares of Bunker Hill memorial
– of the Freedom Trail
– of the Boston Tea Party
– of the race riots

Aphrodite of the Prudential Center
– of Newbury Street

Hephaestus of the Big Dig

Hestia of the North End
– of Southie
– of Firefly

A few of those aren’t too bad. Hermes of the Marathon works well in my mind due to his associations with travelling, roads, and athletic activities. Even  his association with hospitality works well here; many people along the marathon route offer runners water and other sustenance. Likewise, Hermes of the MBTA, our mass transit system, seems tenable, though a little specific for my tastes.

And that’s where everything falls apart. Things become too specific. Poseidon of the Duck Tours? Duck Tours is a private company founded in 1994. And what’s the association here? Because the amphibious vehicles are in the water? That’s weak and comical.

Hekate of the Salem Witch Trials? You don’t have a local cultus for a very particular set of events in the past. That’s utterly silly. And it’s not as though Hekate did anything for those who were killed during that time. If anything, the name implies to me that Hekate was somehow the source of the trials.

Zeus of TD Garden? How? Why? I can’t even fathom this one. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s an arena with a history of corporate sponsorship being more important than having a real name.

Aphrodite of the Prudential Center? That’s just a mall. I don’t see the association. Why not Hermes in his role as a god of merchants and trade?

Hephaestus of the Big Dig? Again, an event in the past. And let’s not forget that the construction project was a significantly delayed nightmare that had a cost overrun of 190%. And the costs continued to climb after the fact due to deaths and leaks! Why would you ever want to associate Hephaestus with that?

I could go on and on. In the author’s excitement, he or she failed to understand associations. Most of these just don’t make any sense. Some can be assigned to a different deity entirely; a laughable number can just be assigned to Hermes due to their being business ventures. And a few made me chuckle at how absurd they are.

Heathendom isn’t immune to these problems. Sian wrote about vocational cultus in regards to biomedical research. (Archived here.) Let’s pull out a few.

Óðinn of Humanised Mice? Frigg of Phylogenetic Trees? Loki of the Unexpected Band on the Western Blot? Sif of the Neglected Diseases? Freyja of Protein Purification? I can’t even call these silly. These are just downright idiotic. If anything, these might point more toward Eir, who is so often ignored in Ásatrú.

The closest that these ever get to being reasonable is, for example, Óðinn of Basic Research or of Longitudinal Studies. But that doesn’t scream any particular cultus. That’s just Óðinn being knowledgable. That’s it.

I’m honestly disappointed in how people are handling these ideas. People are misassigning concepts to deities who just don’t handle such functions. It’s one thing to see examples of slow development toward functions that aren’t the norm elsewhere, but people don’t want development over centuries. They want everything now, even when they often lack a firm grasp of the basics.

These things take time. Development is slow. Jumping the gun gets us nowhere. I’ll quote ThorinRuriksson on the matter of developing a Cascadian Heathendom:

But it’s difficult. It’s time consuming. It’s not as simple as picking things you like out of a grab bag of heathen ideas. Things have to make sense in a cultural way. They have to make sense in relation to our ancestors and our gods. This isn’t the heathen version of eclectic paganism… It’s the taking of everything I have ever learned, and everything those close to me have learned, and trying to make those parts into a new and functioning whole. This isn’t creation of the new, but synthesis of the old, of the learning and wisdom that I and those others involved have gained over many combined decades of study and worship. I don’t know if it will work, or if it will survive, but I do know it needs to be attempted. So, myself and a couple of other users from this sub who live nearby are doing it.

These are wise words that could serve many well.

Rather than simply being dismissive of everything, I have some examples for Þórr that I find quite possible and worthwhile. These all use Norse lore as a base.

  • His association with goats could be emphasised. He is known in Old Norse as hafra dróttinn “lord of goats”, after all.1Hymiskviða 20 and 31 From there it’s not much a stretch to see him as a god of farm animals. The loss of farm animals is a devastating and costly affair. One might think of him as being concerned with a farm’s wellbeing.
  • His association with oaks could become greater. From there one might associate him with forests in general and the wealths that can be found within. As a god of the wild places, he would be related to lumber and game, in turn providing homes, tools, meat, and furs. Once more he is helping humanity. This form could go by simply Bjǫrn “bear”.2Nafnaþulur 17
  • His association with farming could become more important. He provides the rain that we need for our crops. He could be the cornerstone of a farming community, perhaps to the exclusion of his other attributes. This form could go by Hlóriði “loud rider, loud weather-god”3Hymiskviða 4, 16, 27, 29, 37 4Lokasenna 54 5Þrymskviða 7, 8, 14, 31 6Vellekla 15. This is particularly interesting, as Vellekla was written in the late tenth century, far earlier than the other sources. or perhaps Rymr “noise, roaring”7Nafnaþulur 17, both on the account of storms.
  • His associations with combat, strength, and protection might be more important for some areas. He could become a god of militiamen, police, and armies. This form could easily go by the name Vingþórr “battle-Thor”8Nafnaþulur 17 9Þrymskviða 1 10Alvíssmál 6 11Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) pg. 71. I should note that the meaning is disputed, but may be related to Old High German Wigiþonar, whose prefix is from either *wīgian “to hallow” or *wīgan “to fight”., Reiðitýr “angry god”12Haustlǫng 20 13Petra Mikolić, The God-semantic Field in Old Norse Prose and Poetry (2013) pg. 20, or, to use it again, Bjǫrn “bear”.14Nafnaþulur 17

These are logical and not a great leap from Þórr’s existing attributes. The last two are arguably already present; consider how many Heathens cheer during a good thunderstorm after a drought or have tattoos of Mjǫllnir while serving in the military.

We needn’t stop there. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s best to start honouring the environment in more concrete ways. Honouring the wights is one thing, if also a nebulous one, yet very obvious rivers are ignored.

For me, this takes the form of the nearby Charles River. It has a long history of supporting industry. More recently, a great deal of recreational activity happens in it, such as rowing and sailing. Its watershed contains around 13 square miles of protected wetlands. As luck would have it, the name is Germanic in origin, making it very easy to integrate into our habit of using older languages. So if Charles isn’t a desired name, I could easily go by Karl or Carl, but also Old English ceorl (> Modern English churl, but with a sense change) and even Proto-Germanic *karlaz or *karilaz.

To the north is the Merrimack River, whose name is of uncertain origin. It is immensely important. It runs 117 miles through many major cities that had been founded to take advantage of the available power for mills. Its watershed is around 4,700 square miles; this is a huge environment for an impressive array of life.

Both of these deserve respect and worship as powerful wights, if not outright as gods. Should one not wish to go that route for whatever reason, think of the countless wights that would inhabit these places and the ones farther afield whose homes are supported by the presence of a nearby river.

It goes beyond this, though. Every area has activities that are very important. In Massachusetts, cranberry production is a large industry. Cranberries are harvested in the fall, typically using wet-picking, which involves flooding the beds with six to eight inches of water, then disturbing the vines so that the fruit comes off and floats to the surface, at which time it is corralled.

This makes for a fine regional event, which would not be available in much of the world, let alone even most of the US. A Heathen in California or Florida does not have access to such an event, for example. Why not imbue this event with spiritual significance? The harvest as a whole is important, which many vaguely celebrate already. This is a good place to start local practices, as well as community involvement. And is that not a foundational element of Heathendom?

In the end, there are many ways of developing local cultus. It won’t be quick. Traditions aren’t formed overnight, after all, but everything starts somewhere. We have so much available already, so let’s use it. Don’t just abandon our roots as religions with homework; we can grow from an informed base.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Hymiskviða 20 and 31
2, 7, 8, 14. Nafnaþulur 17
3. Hymiskviða 4, 16, 27, 29, 37
4. Lokasenna 54
5. Þrymskviða 7, 8, 14, 31
6. Vellekla 15. This is particularly interesting, as Vellekla was written in the late tenth century, far earlier than the other sources.
9. Þrymskviða 1
10. Alvíssmál 6
11. Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) pg. 71. I should note that the meaning is disputed, but may be related to Old High German Wigiþonar, whose prefix is from either *wīgian “to hallow” or *wīgan “to fight”.
12. Haustlǫng 20
13. Petra Mikolić, The God-semantic Field in Old Norse Prose and Poetry (2013) pg. 20

8 Replies to “Local Cultus”

  1. I think these are very important points, and I largely agree.

    My one major niggle is your statement that “You don’t have a local cultus for a very particular set of events in the past.” Actually, many ancient cultures did. Most of the athletic competitions of the past were in honor of some event–often a death as a foundation of a hero cultus, and the games are an extension of the funeral games of said individual–which has an exclusively local significance. You can’t celebrate the Olympic Games (or the Isthmian, or the Nemean) from Rome or Carthage or Gallia Narbonensis, you have to go there to the sites involved. Battles like Marathon became pretty important, and that was a very particular set of events in the past that became historically significant not only on the occasion itself, but from the wider view of later history.

    Local cultus–and all cultus, for that matter–is not *only* an emphasis on specifics of place and landscape, but also on the intersection of place and landscape with time and history. Ten years before a place is considered sacred, the place may be sacred, but until someone realizes it at a specific moment and acts accordingly, and the community there then continues to do so, then the “very particular set of events in the past” that leads to the foundation of a local cultus is lacking, and no such cultus then exists or results.

    So, in a sense, EVERY cultus, and especially every local cultus, is the result of a very particular set of events in the past. This Deity had a theophany to the community there and has been acknowledged ever since, and it could have just happened to the lone mystic who was charismatic enough to attract followers or rich enough to support a shrine; or, it could have come about in the context of a plague’s aftermath, a battle’s outcome, the arrival of a visiting dignitary, an uprising of the people, or really practically anything.

    I certainly agree that the notion of “Hekate of the Salem Witch Trials” is beyond ill-advised; but, that doesn’t mean that events both glorious and calamitous may not result in a local cultus if given the right circumstances and the informed perceptions of a functioning polytheist community of some sort. Indeed, the latter is the only thing which has ever brought about any and all cultic activities.

  2. Hi, cross-posting this from my tumblr.

    volvano and hyacinth-halcyon raised some good points, I’d like to address your criticism of my post directly.

    There are two things I believe you are missing here. The first is that I do not see our Gods in Heathenry as Gods Of certain, mutually-exclusive things that define them. Yes, they have particular concerns and interests, but they are not rigidly bound by them. Eir is absolutely the healer and medic to the Aesir, but that doesn’t preclude Her from having interests beyond that, nor from other Gods also being involved with healing and medicine. I had extended discussion with queenofswords about Hel & Skadi, how They both could also very easily be considered ‘patrons’ of rare and/or neglected diseases just as I connect Sif with that role. All three of those Goddesses can have an overlapping area of influence, without preventing the others from each bringing Their own approaches to the table.

    Secondly, my vocational cultus brainstorming is explicitly attempting to take a look at a few Deities I know well through a particular lens, that is biomed research. So yes I could say Odin rules Basic Research and Eir rules Translational Research, that covers everything, QED, put the chairs on the tables and turn out the lights. But that was not the point of the exercise. The point of that little project was to use biomed research, my job, my vocation, as a microcosm and break things down within that.

    I’m a little disappointed that you would dismiss my post wholesale as “downright idiotic” without even attempting to engage with me about it. If you would like some clarification and/or discussion about it, I am more than happy to explain to you WHY I chose those associations. I would do it here but I am honestly not sure what it is you are taking exception to beyond the fact that I didn’t mention Eir. If you actually want a good-faith discussion about this I am right here with a lot of explanations ready.

  3. It seems like a number of us are all coming to the same conclusion, that local, regional cultus is more than likely a (the?) future of Heathenry. In the Americas, at least. This was an interesting read, and I agree with much of what you’re saying in regards to the near-frivolousness and outright silliness of some of these associations.

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