Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: August 2008

On the Kalends

We are told, according to the De Correctione Rusticorum of Saint Martin of Braga, that one of the transgressions of those who still followed the old religion in Gaul (and by that time (572 CE) the Franks had conquered Gaul, so we are talking about Germanic religion rather than Roman or Celtic, specifically that of the tribe of the Franks, but applicable beyond that narrow focus) was that they “observed the Vulcanalia and the kalends”. This could and should quite significant for the everyday practices of modern Heathens.

The Vulcanalia (which is essentially a term relating to a fire celebration taking place in late August; it is unlikely that the classical Vulcanalia was anything more than a vague date to Martin, since the actual Roman celebration had long been done away with) will be dealt with in another post. But it is the notion that the Heathens would practice some observance of the kalends that is of interest. Much confusion lies in the fact that the writer is composing in Latin, and as such is also using Latin conventions for such things as deity names and calenderical references. It must always be asked, when he speaks of Mercury (for instance) whether he is speaking of the Roman Mercurius or the Germanic Odin, who was associated with the Roman God.

Historically, the Kalends was the first day of the month. What brings in a measure of confusion is the fact that the definition of when a month began had changed from the begining of Rome to the 6th century. At Rome’s foundation, the calendar was a lunar one, and the kalends marked the New Moon. By the time of the Imperial period, the calendar we know had been mostly introduced, and the month-names with which we are familiar had been well established. (July and August, for example, were named after Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, respectively.)

That begs the question, though; when Martin spoke of the Heathens observing the kalends, did he mean the first day of the calendar month, or did he mean the new moon? I think the answer (such as we have) lies in the politics of Gaul in the late 6th century, when Martin was writing.

Clovis I had only been baptized 80 years before, and although most of the Franklish aristocracy had converted with him, such things were notoriously slow to make their way into the beliefs and practices of the common folk. Martin, writing in Latin, would have used the term kalends to refer to the beginning of the month, no matter how the beginning of the month was actually reckoned. The question becomes, how did the common folk of the Germanic peoples actually figure out the beginning of their months?

Look to Alvissmal:

Mani heitir medh monnum,
en mylinn medh godhum,
kalla hverfanda hvel helju i,
skyndi jotnar,
en skin dvergar,
kalla alfar artala.

Tis hight Moon among men,
and Mill among gods
called Rolling-Wheel in Hel.
Hasty by giants,
Shining One by dwarves,
Called by elves, Year-Teller.

Year-teller. Cleasby-Vigfusson’s dictionary notes, “The heathen year being lunar”.

And here we have our answer, and it all falls into place.

Martin was writing for a popular audience. His letter was clearly intended to be read from the pulpit to the fallen masses. He would have used the term kalends in a way that was significant to them; not using the Roman calendar (which was solar in nature), but the Germanic lunar calendar of the Frankish peasants to whom he was speaking. The kalends was the new moon.

The Frankish Heathens in Gaul in the late 6th century were observing the new moon. Let us do no less in our reconstruction of their faith in the Gods. Up soon… how?

Ancestor worship

Many people within the umbrella of Heathenry have the idea that the worship of the dead was an integral part of the historical religion of the peoples of Northern Europe. To some extent, this is true, but almost never in the way that modern Heathens seem to think it was.

Many modern Heathens will, for example, keep a shrine to their ancestors somewhere in their home. Pictures of grandfathers and more historical figures adorn a table or shelf, or even a full-blown altar. Some will perform rituals in honor of those ancestors, usually variations on the same sorts of rituals that are used to honor the Gods, land-wights, etc. Unfortunately, this is not a practice attested to at all in either the written lore or the living folklore of Scandinavia, Great Britain, or the northwest Continent.

Some well-respected Heathen scholars have approached me on this topic, and are certain that they have seen attested references to such worship somewhere. When we try to track down these elusive references, however, they seem to have never existed. The desire (and perhaps the need) for such a practice seems to play tricks on the memory of just what has, or has not, been actually read. This is by no means a failing on anyone’s part; many’s the time I could swear I read something, only to find that I either misremembered what I thought I had read, or just couldn’t find it at all when I try to revisit a particular subject.

This is not to say that the dead were never venerated; far from it. The practice of mound-sitting is well-attested to in the lore, for example. But the mounds what were involved were those of kings or other influential members of the community (particularly in Iceland, where there were no kings, but fallen goðar seem to have taken their place in some instances). But by no means was every fallen ancestor so honored.

Also, we have the minne, or memorial toast. This is a toast, made during sumbl, in honor of an ancestor. But that is something done to both honor the ancestor and the person making the toast (by virtue of connecting that person making the toast to an ancestor of great renown, implying that such renown reflects positively on the person making the minne toast). Fine and good, and I myself have made such toasts, and will again.

There is also the singular ritual of the arvel; a feast in honor of a fallen famly member. When this was a head of the household, his successor would ceremonially assume the headship of the family as a part of the rite. Doubtless many minne toasts were made in honor of the fallen. However, this is a one-time event, not a regular ritual. Its primary purpose was to ceremonially provide continuity between the dead relative and the new head of the family. It is, essentially, a special form of sumbl, and in no way resembles a regular offering to a dead relative at some family shrine.

Ancestor worship, in the form of offerings made regularly at some sort of household altar or shrine, is simply not a practice supported in the lore, as far as I can see. If someone has a reference to such a thing, I would greatly appreciate it if you could send it my way, as I am more than happy to change my attitudes on such things when presented with new evidence.

Does this mean that modern Ásatrúar, for example, must abandon the practice of having a household shrine dedicated to their ancestors, and making regular offerings to them? Of course not. But it does mean that they need to understand and accept the fact that doing so is not an historical practice. Different branches of Heathenry pay more or less attention to such things, and although my own Þéodish Belief rests squarely on the more historical end of the spectrum (and I emphasize historicity more than most), such practices must be left to the conscience of the individual.

But personally, I see no need to insert something where it was not before, as far as we know.

On House Gods

I’m not sure if it’s just the smallish circles in which I run within the pagan and heathen communities, but there definitely seems to be a groundswell of interest and activity in the “minor” divinities. Household gods, land spirits, ancestor worship, etc. I think it’s ane excellent trend, and one which is long overdue.

In Theodism, there is a tendency (understandable, but there nevertheless) to focus on the top-down aspects of religion in general. There are the high fainings that take place three or four times a year, and they are grand events on a tribal scale. But in between, there is precious little for the ordinary Theodsman to do on a religious level.

Queue the house-gods.

There is ample evidence that the house-gods were worshipped immediately after the the heathen period, and plenty of circumstantial evidence to say that they were an integral part of everyday religion among the masses during the heathen period. This has survived into the present day in the form of the tomte, nisse, tusse, brownie, etc. Folklore tells us how these spirits are to be treated, their likes and dislikes, what insults them and when they should be honored, etc.

I’ve been working on a book on this very subject for about three years now. Not just this subject, of course, but the general subject of “everyday” worship for heathens. It’s not all blots to Odin and high sumble; it’s listening to the birds sing and leaving something for the god that lives by the hearth, or making an offering at a spring when we need a boon. Most importantly, it’s instilling that mind-set into ourselves and our children; we are not alone. Both Gods in Asgard and spirits in our homes and the woods nearby all are there as well.

Welcome to the blog

Well, here goes!

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén