Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: December 2015

The house-wight’s fee

The tomten has received his yearly fee. A heaping bowl of oat-porridge with lots of butter and cinnamon (that’s his stone on the hearth, under the wood-holder).

Gott nytt ar to all!

Reclaiming the term “Polytheist”

A lot has changed over the last couple of decades. Take, for example, the definition of the term “polytheist”. When I first came into Asatru, there were two types of polytheists – hard and soft. Hard polytheists believed in the literal existence of the Gods as distinct entities. Soft polytheists believed in the Gods as “aspects” of either two meta-Gods (most often the “Lord and Lady” or “The God and The Goddess”) or of a single meta-God.

This split had a lot to do with the complete overwhelming of the Pagan and Heathen communities by Wicca and Wiccanate ideas. With so many Asatruar at the time coming from a Wiccanate background, it made sense that a lot of them would retain that sort of “All Gods are part of The God” idea.

Today, however, perhaps owing to the growing self-confidence of Asatru and other reconstructionist faiths, the shadow of Wicca has receded somewhat, and those Asatruar who see Odin and Thor as aspects of a single male divinity, and Freja and Sif as aspects of a single female divinity, are few and far between. So the whole hard/soft thing has lost some relevancy in recent years.

However, the hard/soft dichotomy has been replaced by something of a struggle for ownership of the term “polytheism” by two factions who could not be more on opposite sides of the spectrum. On the one end, we have the atheistic Pagans who claim the term based on a loophole in the dictionary definition:

polytheism /ˈpälēTHēˌizəm/ noun
The belief in or worship of more than one god.

So because the dictionary differentiates between belief and worship, they claim the term can equally apply to them, even though they do not believe in the existence of one (or more than one) God. Personally, I don’t think that’s what the authors of the dictionaries intended; if so, then the definition of the words “theism” and “monotheism” would mirror that of “polytheism”, which they does not. Theism and monotheism are merely listed as a belief in a god and/or gods.

It’s my belief that the “or worship of” phrasing was included as an example of lingering (probably unconscious) Christian bias that no one could actually believe in such silliness; at some level the worship of Zeus and Thor was just play-acting. But that’s just my own possible explanation for the asymmetricality of the definitions.

On the other end of the tug-of-war rope, however, we have the devotional polytheists, who feel that any expression of polytheism that does not put their type of polytheism first and foremost is somehow a “betrayal“:

In my opinion, putting anything but the Gods first in a religious tradition is a betrayal of that tradition… 

And by that, what the author means is “whatever I say the Gods tell me at this moment, is what you should believe they want.” That, of course, isn’t putting the Gods first. It’s putting those who claim to speak for the Gods first, and is the worst sort of “revealed religion”, setting up a spiritual dictatorship of those who claim to speak with (and therefor, for) the Gods. That cannot be the chief universal expression of our religious faith, even though it is rightly an important expression of our religious faith for some.

For some it may well be perfectly appropriate to listen to the Gods and act on their instructions, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, as the primary motivator in their religious life. For yet others, religion is about connecting with our fellow folk, and that must be seen as just as legitimate a religious enterprise, because it is just as much a way of serving the desires and interests of the Gods as anything else. “Man is the joy of man”, if we are to believe Odin’s own words (Hávamál 47).

And where does that leave me, and the vast “silent majority” of Asatruar like me who, while we absolutely believe in the literal existence of the Gods as individuals, but who have other priorities in our religious lives than god-spousery (!) and following what self-proclaimed oracles say?

All I can do is to try to reclaim the term “polytheist” and bring it to its proper place between the two polar opposites. It means more than a hollow aping of religious ritual in honor of figments of the imagination, but so too does it mean less than a slavish devotion to what a self-proclaimed prophet says the Gods told her last night.

Those of us between those two poles must simply carry on believing in the Gods, and honoring them as well as the land-wights and alfs and house-wights and our ancestors, and enjoying the company of our fellow Asatruar, and forging and strengthening the bonds of friendship between us during sumbel and elsewhere, and studying the lore that has been left to us, and practicing the magic that our ancestors practiced, and building hofs and groves and sacred enclosures, and through martial prowess, and singing songs in praise of our Gods and our fellows, and trying to make the world a better place for our folk.

And we are polytheists none the less for all of that.

Interview with Joe Marek – godi, Gladsheim Hof

Joe Marek is godi of Gladsheim Kindred in Maryland, which also operates Gladsheim Hof in the town of Columbia, MD. Gladsheim is one of a few facilities in the United States dedicated to Asatru, and Joe was kind enough to do an interview with me concerning their hof, given the recent news out of Iceland and California regarding two other high-profile hof projects.

Q: Please describe Gladsheim Hof, both physically and spiritually.

A:  It’s a single family home on a main state road that I knew I could have rezoned  for a conditional use as a religious facility. It was a brick rancher with a cathedral ceiling in the main room and another really large room in the basement and on a half acre lot. I saw this as being perfect for our needs. Spiritually it is a place to worship the Norse Gods and help the community with being a regular place to hold rituals.

Q: What was the genesis of Gladsheim Hof? What made you want to make it a reality?

A: I have been Asatru my entire adult life. I realized early on that something other religions have in common is having a building to use for a place or worship. when I purchased a home in suburban Maryland I made sure there was space in the finished basement for rituals. But I wanted a separate building open to the public where this could happen knowing that it would help the community at large.

Q: Where did the financing come from for the Hof?

A:  My Mother passed away in 2003, I inherited the home I grew up in, I sold the house in 2005 and used the profit to purchase the Hof in Columbia. I used my own money to make this happen. The location was within a mile of I95 and easy to get to from several areas and centrally located in MD.

Q: Is Gladsheim Hof open to the public, and if so, what sort of rituals are held there? Do you have a regular schedule of events?

A: All the events at Gladsheim Hof are open to the public, we have the main Blot every second Saturday of the month. the forth Saturday is a movie/social night were we watch a movie or play games. We also hold rune classes and lore study on alternating Wednesdays, so there is something going on every week at the facility, our Website www.gladsheim.org has details.

Q: Does having the Hof, which is presumably a permanently-hallowed sacred space, change the way you do rituals?

A: Not really. I conduct the ritual the same way as I would in any other space, but It has a different level of spirituality.

Q: What role does Gladsheim Hof plays in the larger Asatru community in your area?

A: We offer the  events I mentioned before and we also have special classes offered at various times on other Asatru related subjects such as siedr.

Q: Do other groups in your area (Asatru or not) also make use of the Hof, or is it strictly for Gladsheim Kindred?

A:We  rent the Mead Hall out to a couple of other groups for meetings and classes not rituals.

Q: What do you think having the Hof allows you to do that other groups might not be able to do in their private homes or public/rented spaces?

A: There was a time when Gladsheim rented a public space, it was very sterile and plain, no where as inviting or as vibrant as The Hof, it clearly did not have the same feeling.

Q: What’s the plan for the Hof? Anything happening in the future?

A:  The Faith is growing so we are always prepared to have more days of events to accommodate future growth, Plans for making some outdoor improvements like a deck built over our existing fire circle are in the works.

Q: What do you think of the plans for the hof in Iceland that has received so much attention lately?

A: I was over in Iceland in 2006 when they first received approval from the city council to have a larger facility than the one they currently have. It’s never easy to get a major project off the ground. I find it very exciting that there are other Hofs popping up in Michigan and California and other parts of the country to serve the Asatruar there.  Another reason for creating Gladsheim Hof was to encourage others to do the same, let them know it is possible and that dreams do come true.

Photos are courtesy Gladsheim Kindred, and are used with permission.

Utgarda-Loki

One of the more interesting figures from Norse mythology is Utgarda-Loki (Útgarða-Loki in the original Old Norse, and Utgarthilocus in the Latinized version), whose name means “Loki of the Out-yard“). Found in both Snorri’s Prose Edda and Saxo’s Gesta Danorum (“History of the Danes”), Utgarda-Loki is a giant with god-like powers. Some contemporary Heathens contend that Utgarda-Loki and Loki are the same being, owing to the similarity of their names and some of the details of their respective stories. However, the evidence for this is as illusory as Skrýmir’s bag.

The first story concerning Utgarda-Loki is by far the best known. As told by Snorri, Utgarda-Loki is a king among giants, a master of magic and illusion who sets Thor, Loki, and Thor’s servant Thjalfi through a series of tests which they all seem to lose. Loki is pitted against fire in an eating contest, Thjalfi races against the personification of thought itself, and Thor is not only made to feel fear while hiding in the giant’s glove (thinking it a hall), but drinks so deeply from a magic horn that he lowers the level of the sea, and picks up the World Serpent disguised as a cat.

At the end of the contest, Utgarda-Loki admits his deceptions and disappears along with his magnificent castle, right before Thor can slay him with his hammer. It should be noted that this story is a fair indicator that Utgarda-Loki and Loki are two distinct individuals. They are in the same room as one another, after all. But of course, given the powerful illusions Utgarda-Loki is said to employ during the episode, that’s not a certainty. Too, if it were the case, it means that Loki/Utgarda-Loki is creating the whole incident specifically for the purpose of humiliating Thor, which undermines the “but Loki is a boon companion to the Gods early on” argument that many Lokeans make.

Let us press on to see if there are other differences that play out.

In Saxo, Utgarda-Loki is very different indeed. He is seen as a being to whom prayers for intercession could be made:

At first his [king Gorm’s] voyage was prosperous; later however he was battered by contrary gales until his comrades were expiring of starvation. When only a few were left alive he turned his thoughts to religion and resorted to offering prayers to the gods, reckoning that divine assistance was the only defense in their extreme plight. Finally, whilst the others were imploring the different heavenly powers and deciding that a sacrifice must be made to the majesty of various deities, Gorm solicited Utgartha-Loki, with combined vows and propitiations and thus obtained the beneficial spell of weather they desired. (Gesta Danorum VIII, Hilda Ellis-Davidson tr.)

Later on, Thorkil is sent on a journey to visit Utgarda-Loki in order to “gauge the opinion of heaven by consulting divine oracles”, when the king was concerned about the disposition of his spirit after death. What Thorkil found is a far cry from the vast palace that Thor and company found:

After this, with others in front acting as torch-bearers, he [Thorkil] squeezed his body into the narrow jaws of the cave and gazed on every side at rows of iron seats festooned with slithering serpents. Next, a quiet stretch of water flowing gently over a sandy bed met his eyes. When he had crossed it, he reached a place where the floor sloped downwards rather more steeply. From here the visitors could see a murky, repulsive chamber, inside which they descried Utgartha-Loki, his hands and feet laden with a huge weight of fetters. His rank-smelling hairs were as long as tough as spears of cornel-wood. Thorkil kept one of these a more visible proof of his labours by heaving at it with his friends til it was plucked from the chin of the unresisting figure; immediately such a powerful stench rolled over the bystanders that they had to smother their nostrils in their cloaks and could scarcely breathe. (ibid)

This is obviously a very different individual than the one described by Snorri. Is Utgarda-Loki creating the illusion of himself bound? Anything’s possible, but there’s nothing to suggest it in the text. Too, there’s nothing in that description that makes one think of an individual capable of stilling storms or granting wisdom relating to the afterlife. It is a very pitiable figure, in all.

That account has echoes not only of the description of Nastrond, the beach of corpses where murderers and oath-breakers go to a hall made of serpents’ spines and where poison drips from the ceiling, but also recalls the punishment of Loki at the end of Lokasenna (and in Gylfaginning), where he is bound with chains made from the entrails of his children, and set under a serpent whose venom drips on him, causing him to thrash and cause earthquakes.

That said, the details are different enough to see that we are not looking at the same creature. Absent, for example, is Sigyn, the wife of Loki, who is said to hold a bowl over her husband to protect him (mostly) from the serpents’ venom. Too, the poisonous serpent dripping onto his face is missing in Saxo’s account, and there is no mention of the bound Loki being associated with a horrible smell.

Despite the surface similarities, especially in their names, it’s pretty clear that Utgarda-Loki is not the same individual as Loki.

However, there remains the fact that king Gorm offered prayers and made vows to Utgarda-Loki to calm the bad weather, and later seems to have taken on Utgarda-Loki as his patron god, perhaps in fulfillment of one of those vows made to spare his life and the lives of his men, when he looks to the giant for wisdom. Is this proof of an historical cult of giant-worship?

That’s a question I’ll take up in a later post.

Mothers’ Night Part Two

Some photos from our family’s Mothers’ Night celebration. We also ended up singing along to Chase Hill’s song “Mother, Listen”, off their new CD “Sing the Sun’s Return” (accompanying booklet with music and lyrics available here) which coincidentally arrived today. Highly recommended!

Eclipse awaits the setting of the feast

The table is set

The Feast is presented to the Mothers
with song

Louisiana accepts the Feast on behalf of the Mothers…

…as does Eclipse…

…and finally Hobbes

This was the first time we’ve done a Feast of the Mothers, and I found it to be a wonderful and fulfilling experience. I definitely like the richness and texture that these sorts of celebrations bring. It really makes the season come alive, rather than just being “Heathen Christmas”.

Mothers’ Night Part One

The Yuletide celebration is not just a single day, but a whole season of festivities lasting nearly two weeks.

As our own tribal Yule celebration will be held on Saturday, January 2nd, the start of our Yuletide begins twelve days earlier, on Monday, December 21st. The traditional beginning of the season was called Mothers’ Night in Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s very likely that it was the same as the “Feast of the Parcae” (or, as we call them, Norns or Fates) described by early Christian writers as being a Heathen celebration that they wished to suppress.

As described by those who sought to stamp it out, the Feast of the Mothers (the Norns are also related to the Matronae whose worship is known from hundreds of Roman-era altars in the Rhineland and beyond) consisted of laying out a fine meal for the Fates that guided a family’s past, present, and future.

Bear in mind that every person was said to have their own Norns, which may well be the origin of the tradition of the “fairy godmother”. This meal was left out all night long, and if the Norns/Mothers found it worthy, they would reward the family with good fortune in the coming year.

So the basic connections are:

  • The Feast of the Parcae is attested to in the contemporary penitential sources around the beginning of Yule
  • The Matronae (“Mothers” – triple goddesses worshiped in the Migration Era) are associated with fate, life, death, and abundance, thus connected with the individual Norns
  • Mothers’ Night is attested to in the works of the Venerable Bede around the beginning of Yule
  • The Feast of the Parcae becomes the Feast of the Mothers

As this is more of a family or solitary tradition than something done together as a tribe, I present the following as a brief ceremony to accompany your own offering of a Feast of the Norns. It should consist of a regular plate of food, just like you were serving an honored guest in your family, and should be set out on regular dishes (not disposable plates). If you wish, you can recite the following three times to invite your Norns to partake:

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.

And remember, if the animals in your house partake of the feast, that’s a sure sign that the offering has been accepted. 🙂

If there is anything left in the morning, be sure to set it outside with some care. Don’t just throw it into the garbage; give the animals outside a change to claim it for the Gods.

God Jol!

Welcome Yule-Lads!

Today marks the arrival of the first of the Yule-lads (IS jólasveinarnir); mischievous spirits who arrive one per day for the next twelve days, and each stays for exactly thirteen days, so on the 25th of December, they’re all present. They are the sons of the Icelandic trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and each has a specific attribute.

Of course, in modern times their hard edges have been smoothed over, and they’re seen as mostly-benevolent, Santa-like figures, but all the good wishes in the world won’t change the fundamental nature of a wight. They’re basically cautionary tales for children, as they would come out of the mountains and glaciers to frighten naughty children during the Yuletide.

Now that I’ve seen this story about a woman in Peoria who has the Yule Lads on her lawn as decorations (much like Christians might have a nativity), I want a set of my own for next year!
So today, watch out for Stekkjarstaur, and keep your sheep safe.

Islam to Asatru: Convert or Die

Islam is quite obviously in the news lately, and discussions of whether or not Islam is compatible with Western values are commonplace. But what often gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that Islam treats “people of the book” (Jews and Christians) very differently from we Heathens. The people of the Book have three choices; convert to Islam, pay the jizya (a tax intended to emphasize the submission and humiliation of conquered people), or die.

Asatru is a polytheistic religion, however; we have many gods, such as Odin, Thor, Freyja, and so forth. And Islam has a shorter menu for us; convert or die. Don’t believe me? Check out the following video (the money quote is around the 1:35 mark):

If he is of the Book (Christian or Jew) we give him three choices. One, you become Muslim. If he accepts, we don’t take jizya from him. If he remains a Christian, and that’s his right, we tell him, “Give me jizya”. If he refuses jizya, we FIGHT him! But if he is a polytheist, we give him ISLAM OR FIGHTING! That’s not just my opinion, it’s the opinion of all five Islamic sects.

So yeah, the rise of Islam and the threat of jihad has a bit more urgency for me, as an Asatruar, as a polytheist, than it does to my Christian and Jewish friends and neighbors. At least you get the choice to pay a humiliating tax and still practice your religion. To a Muslim, I don’t even rate that consideration. And since I won’t ever convert…

Blacksmithing, archery, and mead-brewing

There exists within the Asatru community a bunch of folks who look down on Asatruar who have the “wrong” hobbies.

They seem to think that Asatruar who live in 21st century post-industrial societies should scorn popular culture, and have interests that only intersect with our Heathen faith. Mead brewing, archery, and blacksmithing are held to be acceptable. Liking Star Wars, football, television in general, video games, or being able to quote lines from “The Big Bang Theory” are not. Somehow if you play D&D, you can’t be a “serious” Asatruar.

Well, I’m about as “recon” an Asatruar as you’re going to find (I don’t do “hammer hallowing rituals” because they’re not historical), but I’m not ready to give up on indoor plumbing, vaccinations, or Star Wars. I live in the 21st century, and while I see absolutely nothing wrong with blacksmithing or archery or mead making (I tried once, and the resulting liquid was quite handy in stripping varnish off of an old dresser), I’m a creature of the culture in which I was raised, and that’s not going to change, even as I strive to adopt a Germanic mindset.

Are there good arguments for eschewing television? Absolutely. Does failing to do so somehow make you less of a Heathen? Absolutely not. Our Gods are thousands of years old, but that doesn’t mean we have to pretend like it’s 793 CE. Sometimes you just want to have fun, modern fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So the next time someone rags on you for playing D&D once a month, or following the Patriots, or going to a Brit Floyd concert, ask ’em how that 79 year life expectancy is treating them.

An eyewitness account of a 10th century blót

The following comes from the Risala of Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim traveler who wrote of his adventures north of the Black Sea in the 10th century CE. Here, he is speaking of the Rus, a group of Norsemen who came from Sweden down the various rivers of western Russia as traders and eventually settlers, and who gave the land its name.

The moment their ships arrive at this wharf, every one of them disembarks, taking with him bread, meat, onions, milk, and nabidh [alcoholic beverage], until he arrives at a long wooden post fixed in the ground which has a face resembling that of a man. Around it are small figures, behind which are long stakes fixed in the ground. He approaches the large figure, prostrates himself before it and says: “O lord, I have come from a far land. With me there are such and such a number of slave girls and such and such a number of sable skins,” until he has enumerated all the articles of commerce that he has. He then says: “And I am come to you with this offering.” And he leaves what he has with him in front of the wooden post. [He then adds]: “I wish you to provide me with a merchant possessing many dinars and dirhams [Arabic coins], one that will buy from me all that I desire, and who will not disagree with what I say.” He then departs.

If sale [of the merchandise] proves to be difficult, and the days of his sojourn are prolonged, he returns with a second and third offering. If [after this] what he wants proves to be difficult of attainment, he carries a gift to each one of the small figures and asks for their intercession, saying: “These are the wives of our lord, his daughters and his sons.” He continues to appeal to one figure after another, imploring their intercession and humbling himself before them. Perhaps the sale of his merchandise is facilitated and he sells it. He then says: “My lord has answered my need, and I must repay him.” He then takes a number of sheep or cattle and slaughters them, giving away a portion of the meat as alms, and carrying the remainder and placing it in front of the large wooden figure as well as in front of the small ones around it. He hangs the heads of the cattle or the sheep on the wooden stakes fixed in the ground. When night sets in, dogs come and eat everything. He who has made the offering says: “My lord is pleased with me and has eaten my gift.” 

Now, as in all things, one needs to bear in mind the prejudices and predilections of the observer, but this first-hand account of a Norse sacrificial offering is fascinating in a number of details.
  1. It makes reference to god-posts; wooden images of deities. This god-post was already there, indicating this trading spot, and the accompanying holy space, was well-established among the Rus.
  2. In this case, the god-post has a number of smaller god-posts around it, representing the family (perhaps servants, as we see in the case of Frigg’s handmaidens named, but barely described, in the Prose Edda), to whom offerings are also made if the main offering does not prove efficacious.
  3. The Norsemen “prostrate themselves” before the god-post. That is, they kneel on the ground (in contrast to many modern Asatruar, who have a taboo against kneeling).
  4. There is no altar (ON hörgr), nor is there any mention of “hallowing” or in other ways ritually sanctifying the space. The god-post is simply there, and the offerings are placed on the ground before it.
  5. Animal sacrifices are made after the successful conclusion of the business at hand. This is an obvious and blatant expression of the gift-cycle; the petitioner made an initial offering, with the expectation that his appeal would be accepted eventually, and when it is, an additional offering is made in thanks. Quid pro quo.
  6. Some of the meat of the sacrifice is eaten, some is given directly to the God(s) themselves, again on the ground, not on any altar. No mention is made of the disposition of the blood (as compared, for instance, to the vital part the blood plays in the description of the dísablót in Hervarar saga, or when Freyja is bragging about the offerings she has received from Óttar in the Hyndluljóð).
  7. The heads of the sacrificial animals are placed on the god-posts themselves. 
  8. Animals eat the sacrificed meat, which is taken as a sign that the Gods themselves have accepted the offering; the dogs in this case are acting as the agents of the Gods. 
It should be noted that this is a description of an as-needed offering, rather than one of the fixed holiday celebrations at which sacrifices were made. But the wealth of details, and their implications, are a wonderful source to consider when we modern Asatruar are developing our own ritual praxis.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén