Problems in Heathendom

I like Lucius Svartwulf Helsen over at Son of Hel. I disagree greatly with him at times, but his posts are nonetheless interesting.

He’s having a crisis of faith in a manner of speaking. Not in the gods, but in how the religion operates itself.

Heathenism has grown over the years. It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this stuff for almost fifteen years now (Gods does that make me feel old, lol), and back when I started, there really wasn’t much of anything in my area. Now, I meet another Heathen every couple months, pagans every week, and I see temples and kindreds starting to pop up everywhere.

While there was some stuff online, I can’t say there was as much as there is now. Most of how I learned to be a Heathen came from reading about the Gods, and some history books. It was my birth heritage, my grandparents came over straight from Scandinavia. The myths were amazing, the Gods so relatable, and it didn’t judge me for all the violence, anger, and pain I felt at the time.

Of course, I didn’t have any other heathens to hang out with, or even really talk to. That’s part of why I started blogging back in about ’08 I think. The Heathenism I learned, that I knew, was about brotherhood, family, honor, integrity, hospitality, and so forth.

But the heathenism I knew, sadly, is not really the heathenism that is.

I don’t see an issue in some of the things that he sees, but it’s nonetheless good to read. The comments are also worthwhile. I can agree that the so-called online community is not what it once was, but I’m unsure how to fix that. Do we declare an Asa-Pope one day to help in unifying us in such matters? It’s very, very unlikely, especially in light of the ego-driven nonsense that comes from the leadership of the Troth and the AFA. Of course, just ask the Catholics how well the Pope unifies the faith; sedevacantists may have a few words to say.

Nature Worship

Over on reddit today Skollgrimm, a Suebian Heathen, wrote a lovely post about “personification deities”, such as Sunne, Mōna, Dæg, and Niht, to use his examples. Lately people, especially over on the /r/asatru, have been questioning the worship of such deities, as they’re poorly attested. The discussion has been coming up more because of the solstice; many people posted about holding a blōt to Sun. I recommend that you read his post.

I was oddly inspired by the topic, as I’ve grown tired of people saying that we can’t worship beneficial entities, which is largely how the Ēse/Æsir are defined. After all, one doesn’t worship Fenrir or þyrsas, as these are destructive and have no relation with us. As such, an hour of sporadic writing later, I posted a rather lengthy response in agreement. For the sake of keeping my thoughts in one place, here’s what I wrote:

Mothers’ Night Festivities

The ham is cooked. The devilled eggs and potato salad sit in the refrigerator. Bread is baking. Stuffing is forthcoming. An ale is being shared currently while a wine and a mead are in the refrigerator for later use.

Everything is clean. The floors are vacuumed. The shrines are dusted.

Various festive lights are on. Candles will be lit soon. German music is playing, as is traditional for my family. My husband is singing German and Latin songs while he works in the kitchen.

All in all, the night is coming together nicely. I still have over thirteen hours until sunrise and my final offering to Sun. Various things will be burned and offered to the Mothers in the meantime.

Most people are suitably quiet online right now, but Jön Upsal posted earlier. He wrote a short piece for inviting the Mothers to join:

The three Mothers traveled to the table,
They found the feast filling;
Meat from the table,
Bread from the board,
Wine from the cask.

Boons brought the Mothers, bright fortune,
Success for the supper they saw;
One Mother was there,
One Mother is there,
Another Mother will be there.

Look upon us with kindly eyes, oh Mothers,
Bless us for the feast we give.

Have a lovely night, everyone.

Yule

Yule is fast approaching (or is already upon us, depending on your calendar) and I might as well post my plans, such as they are.

Mothers’ Night is on Monday, 21 December, though others are doing it on Sunday, varying based on what one considers the day before the solstice at that point. For me the solstice is approximately at 11:49 PM on Monday, a level of precision that did not exist historically.

The house will be thoroughly cleaned and organised before then. I’m planning on a large meal with my husband; this will involve something with ham, but I’m hardly the cook in the relationship. A full plate will be left out for the Mothers and later placed outdoors. I will give other offerings throughout the night and share stories about my female relatives, all of whom outside the immediate family having passed on.

In the morning, I will blōt to Sun.

It will then be a little quieter for a couple of days with fairly minimal celebration. On 24 December my husband and I will be joining my family for Yule. The night is usually filled with poorly made movies and sparkling cider, as is traditional for us.

On 25 December it will be like most other families celebrating Christmas, despite the sheer lack of Christians in the immediate family. Gifts will be exchanged early in the morning. Snacks will be eaten in large quantities. There is a good chance that a small fire will be burning in the backyard eventually. Later we will have our “dinner”, which, despite its name, is actually just a slightly late lunch and will involve very large dumplings, pie, turkey, ham, and more.

Further partying resumes shortly thereafter with the birthdays of two friends, which I use to share greatly with numerous people whom I don’t often see in one place.

New Year’s Eve will be the last of the major celebrations for me. I will be spending my time with friends farther north and sharing what I can with them.

On the night of 5 January I will be wassailing. If I can find an orchard nearby doing this, I’ll likely attend that. Failing this, I’ll return to my parents’ property and try to coax the lone apple tree to have a harvest later at all, let alone a good one.

Throughout this time I will be leaving offerings of milk and cream to the cofgodas and other wights.

Depending on when snowfall finally happens, I will at some point be making offerings to the Charles River in the hope that flooding will not happen. The flooding of previous years caused a lot of damage to the surrounding plants and habitat, not to mention threatening the bridge that I cross quite often. I would rather not have that happen again.

For the sake of completeness, here are some things that three others have previously said about their Yule plans on /r/asatru.

/u/ceetsie said in the a comment that sadly can’t be embedded:

First, my wife and I are going to stay up from dusk til dawn on the first night of Yule, with a bonfire, food, drink, stories and just spending time with each other. In the middle of the night, we’ll be doing a blot to Odin, the wights, and our ancestors. And when the sun rises, a second blot, for Sunna and our ancestors.

While the following is largely in regards to happenings a few months ago, it does reach its conclusion in a few short weeks:

All of these contain some good ideas that may make their way into my practices here and there. It’s a delight to hear about what others do if only for the sake of comparison and the Yuletide always brings out people willing to share.

Origo Gentis Langobardorum

The Origo Gentis Langobardorum is a seventh century text regarding the founding myth of the Lombards. It is the sole source of our knowledge of the Lombardic reflex of Proto-Germanic *Wōdanaz, known here as Godan, and of Proto-Germanic *Frijjō, known here as Frea.

This text is used by Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum more than a century later. It survived with over a hundred copies, while the referenced text only survived in three copies.

Est insula qui dicitur scadanan, quod interpretatur excidia, in partibus aquilonis, ubi multae gentes habitant; inter quos erat gens parva quae winnilis vocabatur. Et erat cum eis mulier nomine gambara, habebatque duos filios, nomen uni ybor et nomen alteri agio; ipsi cum matre sua nomine gambara principatum tenebant super winniles. Moverunt se ergo duces wandalorum, id est ambri et assi, cum exercitu suo, et dicebant ad winniles: ” Aut solvite nobis tributa, aut praeparate vos ad pugnam et pugnate nobiscum”. Tunc responderunt ybor et agio cum matre sua gambara: “Melius est nobis pugnam praeparare, quam wandalis tributa persolvere”. Tunc ambri et assi, hoc est duces wandalorum, rogaverunt godan, ut daret eis super winniles victoriam. Respondit godan dicens: “Quos sol surgente antea videro, ipsis dabo victoriam”. Eo tempore gambara cum duobus filiis suis, id est ybor et agio, qui principes erant super winniles, rogaverunt fream, uxorem godam, ut ad winniles esset propitia. Tunc frea dedit consilium, ut sol surgente venirent winniles et mulieres eorum crines solutae circa faciem in similitudinem barbae et cum viris suis venirent. Tunc luciscente sol dum surgeret, giravit frea, uxor godan, lectum ubi recumbebat vir eius, et fecit faciem eius contra orientem, et excitavit eum. Et ille aspiciens vidit winniles et mulieres ipsorum habentes crines solutas circa faciem; et ait: “Qui sunt isti longibarbae” ? Et dixit frea ad godan: “Sicut dedisti nomen, da illis et victoriam”. Et dedit eis victoriam, ut ubi visum esset vindicarent se et victoriam haberent. Ab illo tempore winnilis langobardi vocati sunt.

There is an island that is called Scadanan, which is interpreted “destruction,” in the regions of the north, where many people dwell. Among these there was a small people that was called the Winniles. And with them was a woman, Gambara by name, and she had two sons. Ybor was the name of one and Agio the name of the other. They, with their mother, Gambara by name, held the sovereignty over the Winniles. Then the leaders of the Vandals, that is, Ambri and Assi, moved with their army, and said to the Winniles: ‘Either pay us tribute or prepare yourselves for battle and fight with us.’ Then answered Ybor and Agio, with their mother Gambara: ‘It is better for us to make ready the battle than to pay tributes to the Vandals.’ Then Ambri and Assi, that is, the leaders of the Vandals, asked Godan that he should give them the victory over the Winniles. Godan answered, saying: ‘Whom I shall first see when at sunrise, to them will I give the victory.’ At that time Gambara with her two sons, that is, Ybor and Agio, who were chiefs over the Winniles, besought Frea, the wife of Godan, to be propitious to the Winniles. Then Frea gave counsel that at sunrise the Winniles should come, and that their women, with their hair let down around the face in the likeness of a beard, should also come with their husbands. Then when it became bright, while the sun was rising, Frea, the wife of Godan, turned around the bed where her husband was lying and put his face towards the east and awakened him. And he, looking at then, saw the Winniles and their women having their hair let down around the face. And he says, ‘Who are these Long-beards?’ And Frea said to Godan, ‘As you have given them a name, give them also the victory.’ And he gave them the victory, so that they should defend themselves according to his counsel and obtain the victory. From that time the Winniles were called Langobards.

Today’s Browser Tabs

It’s been just over a year since I posted my browser tabs. Might as well let everyone see what I’ve kept around in a horrid mess. Let’s count!

  1. Some Controversial Aspects of the Myth of Baldr” by Anatoly Liberman
  2. Völuspá and the Feast of Easter” by John McKinnell
  3. The Swine in Old Nordic Religion and Worldview” by Lenka Kovárová
  4. The Significance of the Rune-Names: Evidence from the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic Sources
  5. English: The Language of the Vikings” by Joseph Embley Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund
  6. Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature” by Bernadette Filotas
  7. Rich and Powerful: The Image of the Female Deity in Migration Age Scandinavia” by Rudolf Simek
  8. Thor the Wind-Raiser and the Eyrarland Image” by Richard Perkins
  9. Senses of the Past: The Old English Vocabulary of History” by Catalin Taranu
  10. Meet the Other in Norse Myth and Legend” by John McKinnell
  11. Going to Hel: The Consequences of a Heathen Life” by William P. Reaves
  12. Lutzelfrau” on Wikipedia
  13. St. Lucy’s Day” on Wikipedia
  14. Beating the bounds” on Wikipedia
  15. Rogation days” on Wikipedia
  16. The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, And Related Figures” by Lotte Motz
  17. The Sacred and the Holy” by forvrin

Could be worse.

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

Abandonment

Just over two weeks ago on reddit a user asked why the gods didn’t intervene when their followers were being converted by force. Let us ignore that many were not converted by the sword, but rather gradually in many cases.

manimatr0n responded with a delightful bit:

I’m sure they care, but humanity is not some special apex of life that commands favors and privilege from the divine. We beg and bargain for it, abd [sic] sometimes it is granted. But the gods do not work for or answer to us, and they never made some primordial covenant with man like is claimed in the Old Testament and New Testament with Yahweh or the hvitakristr.

They broke no promises. We did. And our punishment was disconnection from our ancestors and their gods and subservience to a war deity and his family-breaking son. Our punishment was self-evident, and our salvation is the same. Return, rekindle the old relationships, and equilibrium will be restored. And none of that, in any way shape or form, places the onus of salvation on our gods.

We turned our backs. It is up to us to turn face forward again, and be glad they are not, as I said before, the petty, jealous, vengeful Yahweh. What else do the gods owe us? How arrogant are we to think they failed us and they allowed mass conversion when it was, and always has been, our fault and our choice?

Well said.

Altered Eyes

A delightful article has been posted and is making the rounds: “An Eye for Odin? Divine Role-Playing in the Age of Sutton Hoo” by Neil Price and Paul Mortimer. I thoroughly recommend it.

One particular table is given on page 531 and I cannot help but present it here. It’s a listing of items with “altered eyes” in what we may assume to be representations of Wōden’s missing eye.

Object and Location Deposition Date Altered Eye
Högom textiles, Sweden c. 500 Left
Elsfleth buckle tongue, Germany c. 500–600 Left
Hellvi helmet mask, Gotland, Sweden c. 550 Right
Torslanda matrix, Öland, Sweden c. 550–700 Right
Uppåkra helmet eyebrow, Skåne, Sweden c. 550–700 Right
Gevninge helmet ocular, Roskilde, Denmark c. 550–700 Right
Vendel grave 12 shield grip, Uppland, Sweden c. 600 Right
Valsgärde grave 7 helmet crest, Uppland, Sweden c. 620–710 Left
Sutton Hoo Mound 1, East Anglia, England Helmet eyebrow, animal head, whetstone, and purse-lid figure c. 625 Left
Uppåkra figurine, Skåne, Sweden c. 700–900 Right
Øster Vandet mask-weight, Denmark c. 700–900 Left
Staraja Ladoga ferrule, Russia c. 750–800 Left
Ribe pendant head, Denmark c. 750–950 Right

Even if you limit to particular areas with more than one find, the results are still mixed as to which eye is altered. It seems like a good bet, if we’re interpreting the finds correctly, that it didn’t matter which eye was missing, just as it doesn’t especially matter now.

Solar Cycle

The sun […] was helped at sunrise and sunset by divine twins in the shape of warriors, riders, horses, or horned animals. […] At its zenith, the sun passed through the sky, where the sky god Týr ensured cosmic order. He did this by sacrificing his hand in the mouth of a chained wolf, which would otherwise devour the sun. The cosmic order was also secured by the thunder god [Þórr], who fought the powers of chaos in the sky and the world serpent in the sea around the world. During the night, the sun travelled in a night-ship in the underworld.

— Anders Andrén, Tracing Old Norse Cosmology (pg 157), on the reconstruction of the early Gotlandic solar cycle