Well this was a wonderful surprise in my YouTube subscriptions today. Just in from Gering Heall, home of the King of the Gearings and founder of Theodism, Garman Lord, we have this wonderful Robin Goodfellow Mummer’s Play, with two pieces of Morris Dancing as entr’acte, from earlier this month.
Going through the content briefly, having the explanation not only of Mumming in general, but the specific themes present in this particular play, was perfect. Didn’t weigh down the audience with a lot of facts, but gave just enough to perceive the significance of what was being presented.
The interspersed Morris Dancing was also really nice, giving a quick break for the actors in the play to get ready for the next act, as well as giving the audience a diversion-within-a-diversion.
I personally find these sorts of activities wonderful additions to Heathen ritual events. Not necessarily as part of the ritual itself (although sacral dramas could certainly qualify), but as light-yet-significant entertainments (significant because of the hidden mysteries in the symbolism and dialogue of the plays themselves) to keep the assembled folk centered on the day, rather than on their phones. Plus it beats the monotony of yet another round of axe-tossing or kubb, while at the same time imparting wisdom for those who would seek it.
I’ve been banging this particular drum for years, of course, and have had some small success in bringing such things to my local community. I would love to see these sorts of traditions get much wider traction, and become a staple in gatherings both large and small.
As a caveat, it’s worth noting that there is nothing to indicate that Morris Dancing or Mummer’s Plays as we know them today date from the pre-Christian period. While there are some tantalizing possibilities, the threads are just too thin to hold up to casual pulling. But the pedigree of plays, guising, and dance as a general thing in Germanic Heathenry is undoubted, and when one is uncertain of the historical form, there’s no reason not to pull in something with deep roots in English custom.
EDIT 5/30/19 (and beyond): I replaced the original video with a longer version that was posted today on the same channel. It has the same Mummer’s Play and Morris dancing, but opens with a “Beating the bounds” ritual to hallow the area, shows a brief sumbl in honor of the King, and ends with a fire dance and a 19th century English garland dance.
From the early days in the Asatru revival in the 1970’s and 80’s, the ceremony of blót, or sacrifice, has predominated. It has lost its original primary meaning of an animal sacrifice, although the practice has not entirely died out, and many of the more traditionalist groups within Asatru embrace it, but on the whole, the blót remains the primary ritual within Asatru in North America, and I daresay around the world.
And what does that blót entail? Usually, based on the early works of Edred Thorsson and Kveldulf Gundarsson, it consists of a sacrifice of mead, which stands in for the original blood of the animal sacrifice. Often, the participants are sprinkled with the sanctified mead, in emulation of the description of the disablót in Heimskringla.
Also often, the participants will make a toast to some god, often the god to whom the blót is dedicated, in a circle:
“Hail Thor!” (drinks from a horn)
“Hail Thor!” (drinks from a horn)
“Hail Thor!” (drinks from a horn)
Over, and over, and over (and over, and over, if you’re in a large ritual with a large group of people). I’ve personally seen it go on for half an hour. Shoot me now.
This sort of blót / sumbel hybrid has been christened a “bumble” by certain wags in the early 2000’s, as it is a combination of the rituals of blót and sumbel, and is entirely ahistorical.
No, not that sort of bumble!
At some point in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the ritual of sumbel came into fashion within Asatru. My personal theory is that the Theodish emphasis on sumbel had an influence on its adoption within Asatru. This is the ritual drinking of toasts as described in Beowulf and other sources. The “toasts to three gods” described in Heimskringla was somehow morphed into three “rounds” of toasts, where the first round consists of toasts to gods, the second round is toasts to ancestors and/or heroes, and the third is an “open” round for various other sorts of toasts, gifting, and so forth. And no food is to be eaten; it’s all about the drinking.
This, too, is a somewhat inaccurate interpretation of the sumbel as a ritual, but perhaps not as wayward as the blót as it is currently practiced.
As might be surmised, I’m not a fan of either the bumbel or the sumbel as it exists today, from an historical perspective. But what I’m really aiming at here is that this emphasis on the blót and sumbel has blinded most modern Asatruar to other forms of ritual that are no less traditional and historical, but which have largely been ignored for the last forty-plus years of the modern Asatru revival.
English, Scandinavian, and German folk-practices are replete with procession ceremonies. But what strikes me is that the goal of the ritual isn’t to process to a specific place, where another ritual will then be held, but the procession itself is the ritual. This recalls the mentions of perambulations of god-images in Tactitus’ Germania, as well the Sagas of Icelanders and Heimskringla.
In more modern times, we see this sort of procession-ritual in the parades of Krampus and his associated figures in the Alpine regions. The parade and its associated customs are the point of the ritual. There are specific skits, or short plays and readings, that accompany these visits by the performers. It’s not difficult to draw a line between processions of god-images in pre-Christian times and processions of pagan-like figures in post-Christian times.
This is likely linked to both ritual guising, wassailing, and visiting traditions that have endured for more than a millennium after the conversion.
That some of the poems that survive to us in the Poetic Edda might be recordings of “scripts” for ritual dramas is an old theory, and one that is not only well-supported by an examination of the poems themselves, but which has been embraced by modern scholarship as a whole. The use of present-tense case in some of the poems (“Freyr says” instead of “Freyr said”), and the inclusion of what could be termed in modern parlance as stage directions in the text, leads to this conclusion.
Several years ago, as I have mentioned more than once on this blog, we did a three-part ritual drama enacting the exile of Odin, the rape of Rindr, and the return of Odin, linked to the tale of Balder’s death, and leaning heavily on Saxo’s account. But the possibilities for modern dramas around mythological themes are nearly endless.
We know for a fact that the pre-Christian Gemanic peoples danced in a religious context, and we know it precisely because the Christians wrote extensively about how awful it was that people were still engaging in such awful pagan practices. Obviously, we don’t know what the dances themselves looked like, but there is a full and vibrant tradition of folk-dance from England, Scandinavia, and Germany to draw upon.
There’s a whole “code”, almost, of telling stories through the dances themselves, as we see in English Morris dancing particularly. There are also images from pre-Christian Scandinavia that show sword-dances and spear-dances, performed by warriors in animal guise. The theory is that this is somehow linked to the ulfedhnar and berserker cults, but the practice is widespread enough in pre-modern times, especially because of the many, almost hysterical, Christian prohibitions, to warrant assuming that ritual dance was a part of pre-Christian religion.
Rites of Passage
These sorts of rituals can take a whole array of forms. Water-sprinkling of newborn children to give them a name. Weddings have several distinct steps, none of which particularly involve a sacrifice. Funerals have a whole other series of rituals, culminating in the arvel feast. Each of these has a whole rhythm and structure to it, beyond the standard blót format into which everything seems to be squeezed nowadays.
There’s so much out there that our ancestors did that don’t fall into the neat categories of blót and sumbel. It’s a shame that modern Asatru seems so fixated on blót, and to a lesser extent sumbel. There’s so much else that we could be doing that is just as much a religious ritual as a blót, and it all seems like it could be so very engaging. Much more so than standing around a field saying “Hail Thor!” over and over again…
If I may be permitted a brief interlude in my series on Yule and pre-Yule subjects, I’ve noted that Asatru tends to have a lot fewer holidays than other Indo-European religions. And here I am talking about well-attested historical celebrations, not modern inventions that (for instance) honor heroes such as a Day of Remembrance for Ragnar Lothbrok, or convert modern holidays into deity-specific holidays through dubious folk etymology such as celebrating Vali’s Day or Einherjar Day in lieu of Valentine’s or Veterans’ Day.
Historically, we really know only of a few holidays that are described even briefly; Winternights, Yule/Midwinter, Sumarmal/Sigrblót/Ostara, Disablót, Alfablót, and Thorrablót. From the Anglo-Saxon, we can add Charming of the Plow and Mother’s Night. Maybe one or two more. But even these are but sparsely described. and leaves us with only eight celebrations on the calendar, and a total of 20 days if we are generous and give all of the blóts three days spans.
I submit that the Germans had just as many holidays as their southern and eastern neighbors; we simply haven’t identified them yet. My research on these Yule and pre-Yule celebrations has pointed me strongly in this direction. What we’re seeing, for instance, with the subject of yesterday’s post – a celebration involving a celebration of the story of Thor’s goats, possibly with animal guising and faux child-napping – isn’t “part of Yule”, but rather was simply another holiday, which didn’t get mentioned in direct attestations, but which survived through having its outward features adopted by the church, and surviving in mutated fashion through to the current day. We moderns have lumped all these sorts of things together in our zeal to categorize and reduce complexity, not to mention the modern secular and commercial effort to make the start of the Christmas season ever-earlier. When you look at some of the 19th century folklorists’ accounts of rural life and peasant and folk customs in England, Scandinavia, and Germany, the year is positively crowded with celebrations and customs.
If this is true, then we could have an inkling at a living year of holidays and celebrations undreamed-of (with several of these sort of folk-holidays each month), as well as a possibly methodology to suss out some details (looking for Christian saint’s day or other holy day celebrations with incongruous elements that are unique to northern Europe). This would yield something closer to the medieval European folk-calendar, which the church deliberately designed to emulate the old Heathen cycle of celebrations, in order to supplant it, or the old pre-Christian Roman calendar.
Of course, not everything that “seems” pre-Christian is indeed pre-Christian, and care has to be taken to separate the wheat from the chaff. I doubt that the full extent of these celebrations will ever truly be recovered, but I think it’s at least worth investigating beyond the December/January examples I’m laying out here.
“Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” – History of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, bk. IV
No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants. … Diabolical games and dancing or chants of the gentiles will be forbidden. No Christian will do them because he thus makes himself pagan. Nor is it right that diabolical canticles should proceed from a Christian mouth.” – Life of St. Elegius
But, for some reason, modern Asatru hasn’t embraced this aspect of our ancestors’ practice, for the most part. Our rituals tend to be staid, pretty dull affairs in and of themselves, even if an occasional game of kubb might break out at a weekend gathering to liven things up.
I’m a big believer in using music and dance and drama in ritual, and using drama as ritual, and have been for years. In the (now-defunct) Arfstoll Theod, we did a big May Day celebration a few years ago that included a Maypole dance (with live music) and a sacral drama called the Return of Odin (part of a three-part cycle of ritual dramas dealing with Odin being deposed as king of Asgard, Ullr taking over temporarily during the Yuletide, and then Odin’s return to power in the spring):
And, more recently, at this year’s Yule celebration, the Skylands Asatru Fellowship started our Yuleblót with traditional animal guising, punctuated by a Wild Hunt, which picked off the various animals, saving the Yulebok (Yule Goat) for last, who offered himself as a sacrifice to the Gods. After the offering was completed, we danced around the fire-pit to the Thirty Year Jig.
Dancing ’round the fire
But I am very pleased to say that I’m not the only person out there who sees the value of this sort of “joyous” or “performance-based” ritual.
Eirik Westcoat has written a ritual drama around the theft of Idun’s apples. I don’t know if it’s ever been performed, but it seems like a perfect thing to do for a fall celebration. UPDATE: Several of Eirik’s ritual dramas have been performed by the Hearth of Yggdrasil, near Pittsburgh, PA, including that one. Pics of one event with such a performance can be found here. Another work of his was done as a dramatic reading (rather than a staged performance) at Winternights in the Poconos 2012. A print edition of his three ritual dramas is in the works – when it is released, I’ll be sure to announce it.
I know that AFA Winternights and East Coast Thing usually have a couple of music groups performing, but not as part of ritual; more like a separate part of the event. Which is fine, but not quite what I’m looking for.
There are a ton of Heathen musicians out there; it would be impossible to list them all. But with all that music out there, I’m hard pressed to think of any examples in my experience where the music was integrated into the ritual experience itself (other than some drumming, occasionally).
So I put out the call – anyone know any other examples of song, or dance, or ritual drama being used as part of ritual in a Heathen context? If so, let us know in the comments. This is a long-underserved area of Heathen ritual, and one I’m eager to see get more exposure.
Over at Polytheist.com, Dagulf Loptson has written a terrific and important article, entitled “What is Heathenry Missing?” In it, he makes the point that:
Heathenry possesses a huge empty space within it, creating a vacuum that has to be filled by something. …many modern Heathens have unconsciously filled it with the only kind of spiritual technology most post-conversion Europeans/European-descendants are familiar with: that of spontaneous, personal prayer and the study of holy scriptures (which Heathens have replaced with the surviving lore and the works of modern scholars). Incidentally, these are the only two pieces of spiritual technology one is likely to be introduced to in a Christian upbringing, and the two most prevalent practices in modern Heathenry.
The overall point being that Heathenry in general is rather… sterile. As he puts it:
The only other forms of spiritual technology I see much in modern Heathenry are the act of standing (rather rigidly) in a circle to honor the gods, and sometimes using what is known as the Hammer Rite; the circle and the hallowing of four corners being directly derived from ceremonial magic.
Now, I might quibble with Loptson’s rather antagonistic and judgmental choices of words, such as Heathenry’s “xenophobic streak”, and his rather dour assessment of the quantity of material left to us (more on that below), but his essential points are rock-solid. He’s entirely correct, and it’s something I myself have written about on manyoccasions. We need to fill in the gaps with material from other places and times. If that means filling in with Roman pagan elements, or more modern Vedic Hindu elements, then that’s what we need to do. (Some of my most moving and best-received toasts to Thor in hall have been rewritten prayers to Indra from the Rig Veda.)
Heathenry in general, and Asatru in particular, are lacking in the details and everyday rhythms that give something like Hinduism or Zoroastrianism (two unbroken polytheistic religions which Loptson cites as models) the sort of meaning, and texture, that Asatru finds wanting in itself. Until and unless we’re willing to look beyond the models of practice that were laid down in the 1970’s and crystalized in the 80’s (with books like “Teutonic Religion” and the online Ravensbok), that’s not going to change.
Now, one place where I diverge from Loptson’s analysis is that where he seems to think that it’s our sources that are lacking, I believe that we simply haven’t delved into the sources enough, and applied what we find there. I’ve made a study in recent years of the evidence for Heathen belief and practice among the Christian penitentials, sermons, ecclesiastical letters, Saint’s lives, and law code sources, and there is a wealth of material there, almost none of which has been absorbed into the broader Heathen community in any but the most superficial manner.
I also disagree with him when he says there’s no unbroken tradition. There is, right there, to this very day, albeit in a highly (and in some places, not so highly) Christianized manner, but it’s still there. That’s the living tradition of folklore and folk-belief in Scandinavia, England, Germany, the Baltic States, and parts of France, Italy, and even Spain. But so much of that material is kept close, and what studies there are, aren’t available in English, that the American Heathen community remains ignorant of it. At its core it’s the folklore of the countryside; elves and nixies, tomten and trolls. It’s the basis of the Scandinavian Forn Sed branch of Heathenry, which is unfortunately almost unknown here in the U.S. (and more than slightly tainted by an attempt to coin the phrase in support of a very politically activist form of Heathenry back in the 1990’s).
Take, for example, the practice of Trolldomr in Scandinavia. That’s a living tradition that has endured since the Conversion, and remains in practice to this day, and goes hand in hand with the Nordic grimoire (“black book” or “Ciprianus”) tradition. Has it undergone a certain level of Christianization? Absolutely. But that can be stripped away (in the same manner that certain elements of the Pennsylvania German magical tradition of Braucherei and associated religious traditions are being “de-Christianized” by certain groups here in the U.S.), and the underlying core is very, very Heathen. Don’t tell me a tradition that still holds taboos around Thursday (Thor’s Day), just like we see in Christian penitentials from fifteen hundred years ago, doesn’t have a Heathen core.
I’ve come to describe my own practice (and the practices that I’m introducing to the tribe of which I have the honor to be goði) as a mix of Asatru, Forn Sed, and Theodish Belief. From Asatru comes renewed attention to the Aesir, and an understanding of, and attempt to reinstate, the pre-Christian Germanic mind-set. From Forn Sed comes all that wonderful Germanic folklore and folk-practices, many of which are dismissed as “mere superstition” in our modern materialistic world. And from Theodish Belief comes an appreciation for the sort of pomp and ceremony, and the sense of religious awe, that our ancestors knew could be so transformative in a religious context.
I think modern (American) Heathenry’s problem isn’t that it has become hidebound by reconstructionists who have run out of Eddas to thump. I think the problem is that we have, for various historical reasons over the last forty years, drawn a circle around certain elements of the lore (mostly the Eddas, Sagas, and occasionally some other written sources) and simply not pursued the vast trove of material that exists outside of that circle. At least on a large-scale and consistent basis. Folks seem to be content with their monthly blot where they get together in someone’s back yard, stand in a circle, and pass a horn around, like the books from the 90’s told them to do. That’s the block we need to overcome, and if there are still gaps once all that material has been incorporated and embraced, if there are still gaps (and there absolutely will be, especially in the specifics), then we apply the bulls-eye approach and fill them in. We didn’t run out of lore. We just stopped looking.
Guising at Yule. Better than some dumb ol’ wedding, eh?
In fairness, there are some exceptions out there. Some Heathen groups have done great stuff with Morris Dancing, for instance. The Rune Gild is as functioning an initiatory school within Heathenry as you’re going to find. And, to blow my own horn, our tribe recently incorporated animal guising, music, and dance for our Yule celebration, but such things are few and far between.
That’s why I have, and will continue to, advocate for a much more robust and textured American Heathenry. Rituals that are so very much more than standing around in a rigid circle; ones that include dance, and song, and ritual drama, and which evoke real emotion. Everyday beliefs that do more than pay lip-service to the truth that the Germanic mindset is a magical mindset, and that Heathenry encompasses the belief that the world is alive with land-wights, elves, and house-wights. And community processions, and Mystery Traditions, and scores of simple everyday household rituals that are done almost unconsciously, because they’re just How Things Are Done. But always a knowledge that the Gods are real, the Gods are our ancestors, and the Gods deserve our worship.