Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Ancestors

Thoughts occasioned by a funeral

This weekend I had the unhappy duty to attend the funeral of the mother of one of my longest-standing Heathen friends. His mother, of course, was not Heathen, but Catholic, and so there was a Catholic service (not a full mass), and the priest made the usual statements about her being in Heaven, and waiting for the rest of us, and so forth. He seemed a likable enough sort, and I’m sure it never occurred to him that there were people in the room who diametrically opposed his religious opinions, despite the number of Thor’s Hammer pendants in evidence.

It did get me thinking about the nature of the afterlife and the nature of subjective reality. There are also substantive implications for the subject of ancestor worship. If I may…

Regarding the afterlife, there are several possibilities:

  1. We’re right, and the Christians are wrong. When they die, they end up in Hel or Náströnd, or in Asgard (in one or another of the Gods’ halls), or dwell in the ground, or one of the various permutations of the Germanic afterlife. It’s a complex thing, and doubtless a surprise to them.
  2. The Christians are right. Everyone ends up either in Heaven or Hell, and it sucks to be us. Obviously, this is the Christian position (and the relevant variation applies to the Muslims as well).
  3. We’re both right. Heathens end up in the Heathen afterlife, and Christians end up in the Christian afterlife. It follows that Muslims end up in the Muslim afterlife, Hindus end up reincarnated, Khemetic Orthodox end up in the Egyptian afterlife, and so on and so on. 
  4. We’re both wrong. Either something else happens when we die (didn’t expect to end up in Yima’s Kingdom of the Dead, did you???), or nothing does; it’s just oblivion. Nobody will be complaining, in that case.
Just from my personal experience, most Heathens tend to settle on choice #3, making the afterlife a subjective thing, based on one’s expectations and religious choices in life. I tend to land here as well. But this has its own implication…
One of the cornerstones of Heathen religion is the veneration of our ancestors, in the same way that we venerate the Gods. There are traditions that link ancestors to the land-spirits, alfar, and house-spirits as well. Is it appropriate to honor a Christian ancestor in a Heathen manner? Would that be insulting? Is it even possible? The Christian afterlife would seem to preclude any interaction with the material world (except in the case of Saints), because the dead are too busy basking in the glory of their God’s presence. Does burning grain in their honor have any impact, in that case, given that they don’t even know it’s being done, and/or can’t do anything to reciprocate?

I don’t pretend to have definitive answers to these questions, but I welcome your speculations.

Book Review: Path to the Ancestors

I recently had the pleasure of ordering Swain Wodening’s book Path to the Ancestors: Exploring Ancestor Worship within Modern Germanic Heathenry from Lulu.com. At 62 pages (not counting the glossary and bibliography) it’s a quick read, but that should not be mistaken for being light on information. Rather, it is succinct and narrowly focused.

Although it’s written from an Anglo-Saxon Theodish perspective, Asatruar and other Heathens will be able to make full use of this book. There are five chapters:

  • Why worship the ancestors?
  • Ancestor worship in the lore
  • Our ancestors
  • The ancestral altar
  • Rites to the ancestors
Perhaps the biggest departure from “standard” Asatru practice will be Swain’s argument in the first chapter that, since offerings to the Gods are best made on a family or group level, it makes more sense for individuals to focus their own personal practice on their ancestors. This is a defining attitude of Theodish Belief (and is held by some Asatru groups as well), and while many Asatruar may disagree with the premise, doing so in no way invalidates the concept of incorporating ancestor-worship into one’s routine of personal practices.
The second chapter necessarily concentrates (although not exclusively, of course) on the cult of the Matronae (“mothers”) that flourished during the Migration Age in those lands where Roman and Germanic cultures intermingled. There is ample archaeological evidence, and no small amount of textual evidence, for this sub-cult, and he (in my opinion properly) argues that it represents, if not cast-iron evidence, at least a model, for historical ancestor worship.
Matronae altars

If anything, I think this represents the weakest chapter in the book, as he misses an excellent opportunity to delve into the evidence around the cult of the Matronae, that could have provided a much-needed historical framework upon which to build the rest of the book. The evidence from inscriptions on Matronae altars alone would be enormously helpful in this regard. Alex Garman’s The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence is notably missing from the bibliography (although to its credit, the bibliography does include Philip Shaw’s excellent Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons).

Swain does supplement his information from Germanic-based sources with practices from other Indo-European sources such as the Roman cult of the Lares and Hindu ancestor-worship practices.

The remaining two chapters deal with the practical side of ancestor worship, and leans heavily on Swain’s own practice developed over the course of many years. This is good stuff, but a few more examples of variations on the themes presented would doubtless have been helpful for some readers.

There is one question that the book does not address that I wish it had, as to my mind it is central to the question of ancestor worship, and its omission is a serious enough lacuna for me to take a star away from my review. This is the question of Christian ancestors.

Especially in the modern world, it is entirely likely that the overwhelming majority of our ancestors, going back many generations, were Christian (or at the very least, non-Heathen). A discussion of the appropriateness of offering what are essentially Heathen rites to non-Heathen ancestors would have been welcome. There are serious questions, both philosophical and theological, that are raised by the idea. Is your devoutly Catholic great-grandmother going to appreciate being the center of pagan worship? Is she even capable of responding, or is she removed from the world in a Christian Heaven (or Hell)? Is doing so disrespectful?

But noting this omission shouldn’t be taken as knocking the content that is there. Path to the Ancestors is a wonderful book, and explores a side of Heathen worship that in my opinion is largely overlooked in contemporary Heathen practice. I heartily recommend this book for any Heathen who’s interested in adding this forgotten, but vital, aspect of pre-Christian religion to their regular worship. I give it four out of five stars. 

The Question of Ancestor Worship

One of the most vexing problems (to me, anyway) is the question of the place of “ancestor worship” in modern Heathenry.

To be sure, the

A toast to HrólfR the Dane

Son of Jarl Rognvald Eyesteinnson!
Follower of Sigfred, harrower of Paris, scourge of Burgundy!
Karl’s man, who would not stoop a foot to kiss, a duke self-won!
Strode he on the banks of the Vire, the boundaries of Normandy did spread!
O! HrólfR, O! Rollo, O! Robert! O! First Duke of Normandy!
Your kin removed by many years remembers you and drinks your good memory!
Hail Rollo!

Just a note on this one; I recently discovered that Rollo, the viking raider who forced the Frankish king Charles the Simple to make him the first Duke of Normandy, is an ancestor of mine. Thus I was inspired to compose a little something in praise of such an illustrious ancestor.

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.

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