Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: ritual Page 1 of 2

Mummer’s Plays and Morris Dancing!

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.

Forn Sed Sweden Vårblot

The YouTube channel Let’s Talk Religion posted a nice little video highlighting the Assembly of Forn Sed Sweden’s Vårblot ritual. The Vårblot celebrates the beginning of spring. Here’s the video, and I’ll provide some running commentary below, focusing on the ritual itself, rather than their theology or the commentary that accompanies it.

2:15 – Nice processional accompanied by music. They’re bearing the god-post with them, and I see a mix of modern clothing and ritual garb.

2:30 – When they get to the circle, I notice they move deosil (clockwise) to form a circle.

3:20 – Elder Futhark on the necklace.

4:45 – Sprinkling the assembled folk with water (?) using a flowering branch. Again with live music; I think it really brings the ritual alive. I’ve been to far too many where it’s just a bunch of people standing around in a field waiting for something to happen to them.

5:00 – A singing bowl? Neat sound, but is it an import from Tibet, or a Scandinavian thing?

5:29 – A good look at the altar. I’m actually a little surprised it’s just a metal folding table.

5:45 – Call and response, but again with the music that elevates it.

5:55 – He’s reading from a script, which surprises me again. I thought he would have memorized the ritual, or be speaking extemporaneously.

6:40 – Is this ritual drama? I do believe it is! (And, laudably, not using a script.) The guy in the blue tunic with the fur hat is the embodiment of Winter, and he’s being chased away/banished by Freyr, who serves as the embodiment of spring. And then he’s crowned with flowers and meets Gerd, with whom he dances. Love it.

9:20 – Ah, an explanation of the elements of their ritual. But oh, dear. They start off by talking about “readying” the ritual site with a hammer; the dreaded “Hammer Hallowing Ritual”. I wish we could have seen their version; maybe it wasn’t so awful as those I’ve seen in the US. Then, inviting the gods, in this case Frey and Gerd (which makes sense for a Spring ritual). Then the ritual drama, as noted above.

10:35 – Then the actual blot, or offering. The assembled folk make offerings of food, etc. to the gods. Then something called the “Sending” which is basically the passing of the horn, as seen in bumbles* here in the US. I note he admits it takes a very long time, because everyone wants to make a toast, and often ends up with not everyone having a chance, because there are so many people (a nice problem to have, of course!). So now they only do six toasts. I wonder why six? Then the ceremony ends, and they give thanks and dance.

11:25 – More of that wonderful live music as people make their offerings directly to the god-posts. I see drink being poured on the posts themselves, and vegetables placed at the base.

13:45 – Here you see the six toasts mentioned above.

14:55 – I can’t help but laugh. Someone has leaned their bicycle against the big rock that the Pope erected to mark the victory of Christianity over the Pagans. Heh.

15:17 – And now the assembly dances. Note that they’re going widdershins (counter-clockwise). Not sure if this is done with intent, but magically that would be to undo the energy that was raised when they entered deosil.

All in all, a terrific looking ritual. I might quibble with a few things like the hammer hallowing rite, but all in all this would be a ritual I’d be happy to be a part of.

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* My tongue-in-cheek term for this style of ritual that combines elements of the blot and sumbel.

Snorri and the Ember Days

In light of some recent discussions about holidays and the calendar held over on the Facebook Reconstructionist Heathenry page (which I highly recommend for quality and erudite discussion on matters of historicity), I’ve been thinking about the origin of the three sacrifices Snorri attributes to Odin in Ynglinga Saga. Here’s the ON (via heimskringla.no):

Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.

The three times we are given are “í móti vetri” (at the start of winter), “at miðjum vetri” (in the middle of winter”), and “at sumri” (at [the beginning of] summer).

Now, Yule (presumably the “middle of winter” celebration mentioned) is well-attested prior to Snorri writing in the first part of the 13th century. But what about the other two? Is there any attestation for a sacrificial holiday at the start of winter or at the start of summer?

Bede is well worth mentioning, as he was writing in the early 8th century. In his De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”) he includes a chapter on the English months, which are based on the Anglo-Saxon calendar, and which he explicitly states are lunar in nature. It is important to note that Bede doesn’t speak of specific celebrations, but attempts to link the names of the English months with the significance in the pre-Christian calendar among the Anglo-Saxons.

Of the harvest celebration, Bede merely says:

Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name ‘‘winter-full’’. 

He essentially admits defeat when it comes to the meaning of the name of the month. And it doesn’t seem to have any significance beyond “winter is coming.”

Of the spring celebration (marking the transition between the Germanic winter and summer; they didn’t have spring and autumn as such) which Snorri says is a “victory sacrifice”, he says:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. 

The question is, is Bede’s Eosturmonath connected to Snorri’s start-of-summer sigrblót? Since the calculation of the proper time of Easter was of paramount importance to the medieval church, this particular passage has received a lot of attention. None of which has anything to do with “victory”, unless one counts Jesus’ “victory” on the cross. But if that’s the connection, then it leads to other problems with Snorri; specifically that he is drawing his own ideas from Christian sources. More on that below.

As an aside, I will leave that particular conundrum – explaining how being nailed to a piece of wood to die horribly while your lungs slowly fail and you linger in an agonizing death for days counts as “victory” – to other minds. Fortunately that is not my problem to explain.

So I must say I don’t see any concrete evidence that connects Bede’s account of the English months with the “beginning of winter” and “end of winter” accounts we see in Snorri.

So where do they come from?

The obvious answer is that Snorri is reporting accurately, and these were genuine Heathen traditions that go back into the depths of antiquity. But if that were the case, I would expect to see some evidence of them in some other source. Anything. But the evidence for these two celebrations before the 13th century is, as far as I can tell, nil (I welcome folks to point out sources that I am forgetting here, please point me to sources in the comments!).

So, if Snorri isn’t talking about genuine Heathen traditions, where might he have gotten the idea from?

That brings us back to the Ember Days, which we have discussed before. First introduced as early as  220 CE by Pope Callixtus I, it was adopted in fits and starts across the West, first in Britain, then Gaul, then Spain, then Italy. They take place three (four, later on) times a year; Advent (December), Lent (March/April), Pentecost (May/June), and September, thus approximating the solstices and equinoxes.

It’s worth noting that the Lent (Spring) Ember Day was added no later than the late 5th century. So originally there were three (although a different three than Snorri reports).

Without any earlier source than Snorri that specifically mention religious significance to those days outside of a Christian (or Roman pagan) context, I have to wonder. Is he inventing the “Heathen” sacrifices in the transitions between the Germanic seasons, based on the Christian Ember Days? Is this a common Indo-European thing, since the Ember Days were originally based on the pagan Roman ritual calendar? Or is this a genuinely unique Heathen concept that was independent of both the Romans and the Christians, and Snorri is relating a new fact that went unreported for 1300 years?

I don’t claim to have an answer. I’m just asking questions at this point, and gathering data. But it would indeed be significant if Snorri was simply mapping already-extant ideas of when “pagan” sacrifices happened, based on when the Church said religiously significant things were supposed to happen. What I would love to see is irrefutable evidence that the Germanic people made sacrifices in what we today call spring and autumn. Something without contamination by either pagan Roman or Christian sources.

Until that happens, I must question whether Snorri got the ideas for his dates from the Ember Days, or whether those just happened to line up with ancient Germanic sacrificial holidays. I welcome additional sources to plug into the equation.

The Heron of Forgetfulness: Drink and Moderation in Germanic Religion

The ale of the sons of men 
is not as good, 
as they say; 
since about his own mind 
a man knows less, 
the more he drinks.
That is called the heron of forgetfulness, 
which hovers over ale-parties, 
it robs a man of his mind; 
with this bird’s feathers 
I was fettered 
in Gunnlath’s garden.
-Hávamál, verses 12 & 13

The stereotypical scene of the Viking feast is one of drunken revelry. Influenced, perhaps, by the iconic scene in the 1958 film The Vikings, we picture in our mind’s eye a wild and raucous scene with food being flung about, beautiful blonde women serving mead in enormous drinking-horns drawn from even more enormous vats, both songs and fights breaking out, and Ernest Borgnine-like figures bellowing loud toasts to “ODINNNNN!!”

The reality was (and is) somewhat different.

As quoted at the beginning of this article, the Hávamál– one of the poems of the Poetic Edda that concerns itself, among other things, with offering down-to-earth bits of wisdom– councils against over-indulging in alcohol. This may be contrasted with the importance of ritualized drinking in Germanic religion. In fact, one of the most significant ceremonies in modern Heathen practice is the sumbel (AS symbel), which is built around the ritualized drinking of toasts. How to reconcile these two extremes?

The answer lies in the nature of the sumbel itself.

Sumbel is a ritual wherein a sacramental beverage (usually mead, but cider, wine, beer, or non-alcoholic beverages are often used in modern practice) is used to make toasts of several different kinds. The ritual is described in great detail in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (lines 607-641), where Queen Wealhtheow herself serves the holy mead, “through the hall… to younger and older everywhere.” That Wealhtheow was a woman is in itself significant in the context of the offered drink, as many modern Heathens, particularly those of Theodish stripe, believe that it is unlucky to take a drink in sumbel from a man. That she is of high rank is also significant, as the serving of the mead at sumbel is not drudgery to be left to servants, but a high honor, jealously guarded. It is also recalled in the tradition of the valkyries in Odin’s hall Valhalla bearing cups of mead to the assembled heroes who dwell there.

Once begun, the participants of the sumbel are taken, metaphorically and metaphysically, to another place. The words spoken and actions performed during sumbel are of critical significance, as the horn is a symbolic representation of the Well of Wyrd, and words spoken into the Well impact the fate of both speaker and listeners in a very real and literal sense. Oaths, for example, sworn over a horn during sumbel are of particular import. It is not simply the case that, having sworn an oath, one should do one’s best to fulfill it. Having done so over a horn, over the Well of Wyrd itself, means that the oath-maker has literally changed the nature of reality, setting the universe on a course leading to the fulfillment of that oath. It is possible for such an oath to be broken, of course, but doing so upsets the balance of the universe. One’s own fate is rocked by such failure, and the consequences extend to all those who were present in the hall when the oath was sworn, as well as to those whose Luck is intertwined with the oath-maker.

While there are many instances in the literature which demonstrate the ill effects that can come from over-indulgence in drink, the Saga of the Jómsvikings does so with great clarity, serving as a cautionary tale that brings the warnings of the Hávamál into sharp focus. King Sveinn of Denmark gave a great feast in honor of the dead father of several of the Jómsvikings (an independent band of mercenaries). Plying them with the strongest drink available, he goaded them into swearing dangerous and ill-advised oaths. This several of them did, swearing to attack and overthrow the powerful Jarl Hákon of Norway. The next morning, they did not even remember swearing the oaths, but that, in the Germanic conception of the sacred nature of oaths, was immaterial. They had said they would do a thing, and would do it or die trying. The expedition was a colossal defeat.

Most modern sumbels are structured with three rounds of toasts. The first is a toast to the Gods; as a rule, this is limited to Germanic Gods, but different groups have different customs on this count, and guests may or may not be permitted to offer toasts to foreign deities. Some groups place further limits on such toasts, frequently disallowing toasts in honor of Loki, Fenrir, and other figures from Norse mythology who are seen as being enemies of the Gods and humanity. Again, different groups will have different rules, and if you find yourself in a sumbel and have a question about the appropriateness of a toast you intend to make, proper etiquette says that you should ask first. In some cases the horn is passed from person to person, and each makes their own toast. Other groups will do a “group toast”, with everyone assembled drinking at once. There are few hard-and-fast universal rules as far as the details go, as long as the general outline is followed (for example, some groups have a taboo about food being present, or that the sumbel must be held indoors; other groups do not share these restrictions, but might have others of their own).

After the Gods have received their honor, the second round of toasts is usually devoted to personal heroes and ancestors. The third is usually the broadest round of toasts, as it can involve anything from a boast about an accomplishment or one’s worth and/or ancestry or an oath to do some deed in the future. Gifts are often given during this round, and those with musical ability will often take this opportunity to showcase their talents. But it is in the swearing of oaths– the béot (an Anglo-Saxon word, pronounced “beawt”)– where the deepest mysteries of the sumbel are discovered.

Because, in Germanic society, “ill luck” from an unfulfilled oath could taint not only the oath-maker, but those others assembled in the hall as well, the office of the thule was established (ON ÞulR, AS Þyle). One of the thule’s roles during sumbel is to ensure that no ill-considered oaths are sworn during the ceremony, nor any unlucky words said or actions taken. In many ways the thule acts as the “master of ceremonies”, ensuring that the sumbel flows smoothly, and that it does not degenerate into silliness or unseemliness. This should not, however, be taken to mean that the sumbel is not a joyous time; humor and wit are welcomed during the rite, as long as the general decorum is maintained.

While the examples above, from the Hávamál and the Saga of the Jómsvikings, come from Scandinavia, the imprecations against excess in drinking were not limited to the Norse. One of the riddles in the (Anglo-Saxon) Exeter Book calls mead “scourge of men”, and says that it leaves men “Flush on the ground, robbed of strength, reckless of speech.” But this is not to say that drunkenness was unknown in Germanic culture by any means! Tacitus, for example, states in his book Germania that “To pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one” and “If you indulge their love of drinking by supplying them [the Germans] with as much as they desire, they will be overcome by their own vices as easily as by the arms of an enemy.” And, perhaps most famously, when describing the Germans’ habit of discussing weighty matters while drunk, and then again while sober, “They deliberate when they have no power to dissemble; they resolve when error is impossible.” Egil Skallagrimson, perhaps the most famous character from the Icelandic Sagas, is sad to have been well drunk more than once, even to the point of throwing up on his host. Critically, this is never seen to have happened at a formal sumbel; the descriptions in the saga are of more ordinary feasts and ale-fests.

Thus we see that, while there is a great history of drunkenness as being the norm in Germanic culture, there was a tradition of moderation as an ideal. This tradition was directly expressed in the literature with which most in a Germanic culture would be familiar, such as the Hávamál and riddles, as well as in cautionary tales such as those found in the Saga of the Jómsvikings. However, in the modern context this ideal is more often expressed and enforced in the ritual of sumbel, that the feathers of the heron of forgetfulness not bind those who are speaking their words into the Well of Wyrd.

Beyond Blót and Sumbel

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.

Processions

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.

Ritual dramas

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.

Dances

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.

Conclusion

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…

Ishtarfest

The stage is set

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend Ishtarfest, a weekend-long ritual and sacral drama event put on by the Hands of Change Coven in New Jersey based on the Spring Mysteries Festival in Washington state put on by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Due to unfortunate timing, this meant that I wasn’t able to attend any Heathen Midsummer events that weekend (our own tribe is celebrating next Saturday), but “I went unto the land of the pagan” with a specific mission.

As regular readers will know, I’m very much interested in ritual, ritual drama, integrating dance and music into ritual, and the like. This event promised to have all that in spades, and I was there primarily to study the logistics to see how I could apply it to Germanic themes. Fortunately my hosts were fully aware of, and fine with, my ulterior motive, and I have to say I had a wonderful time.

Ummm… yeah

The event itself was based on the Sumerian myth of the descent of Ishtar into the underworld to rescue her lover, Tammuz. It featured opening and closing rituals, and a smattering of “mysteries” classes (one for men, women, and… other) which I found extraneous at best. There was also a kids’ track, and a large number of children were in attendance (good on them for that!). A couple of vendors were there, but they weren’t exactly what you’d find at a typical Asatru event of this same size (50 or so attendees; pretty impressive). Reiki, “fairy readings” (by a “certified fairyologist” no less!), “22-strand DNA activation”, and some hippy-dippy poetry and prints. A reminder that these are not my people, but they meant well.

But the heart of the thing was the presentation of the sacral drama, which was a ritual unto itself, and the participation of the audience in said drama and ritual. And this is where the event shined.

The cast assembles

The drama opened with a presentation of the actors, who symbolically assumed the identity of their deities’/heroes’ roles by the putting on of a representative headdress. When they had the headdresses on, they were embodying the deity or other character. I have to say, when they put the headdress on Ishtar, I felt a real jolt of energy. There was live music (drums, flutes, and bells), and the audience was chanting (lyrics were provided in the program, another nice touch). It was a powerful moment, and I think it would have been better, on a metaphysical level, to keep the actress in “Ishtar mode” throughout the day. As it was, she was flipping back and forth between herself and the goddess, and the energy level visibly declined during the day. Keeping her as Ishtar for the day, perhaps secluded behind the stage with attendants, would have maintained the energy.

The happy couple

The audience was interactive throughout, by design, and it really worked wonderfully. There were several chants and songs, a procession involving both the cast and audience leading up to the wedding ceremony, and the dinner on Saturday was also the wedding feast, with Ishtar and Tammuz up on the stage as the happy bridal couple. In a wonderful bit of improv, people would tap their glasses to get the couple to kiss, just like in a modern wedding, and it was an absolutely perfect moment (they complied, of course). It really added to the verisimilitude of the ritual.

The wedding of Ishtar and
Tammuz

The consummation of the marriage was well done, too. There was another chant/song as the happy couple was concealed behind gauzy curtains and bits of clothing were tossed over the top. It was played for laughs (with a song centered around “who will plow her” that one person in the audience thought was absolutely hilarious in a completely self-conscious and awkward way), but it was still a very powerful moment ritual-wise. I know it’s certainly not for everyone, but a genuine hieros gamos at this point could have been incredibly effective. Play up the difference in sexual morality between our modern post-Victorian mores, and those of our pagan ancestors 4,000 in the past. I have to say I think the chortling person in the audience didn’t quite “get” the inherent sexuality of actual pagan religion. But as I say, it’s not for everyone.

Ereshkigal, goddess of
the underworld

The descent into the underworld was done again with a lot of audience participation, with the audience along the journey as well, in terms of the narrative. There was call-and-response built into the ritual at this point, and some very clever and effective staging to simulate the journey through the various gates of the Sumerian underworld.

On the whole, this was a very enriching experience for me on a practical level. I got a real chance to see how a big ritual drama like this plays out, what worked, what didn’t, and was positively buzzing with ideas on how to apply what I’d learned in my own Germanic context, with an eye towards staging various Norse myths and the like in similar fashion. Some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Cue cards. There were several times where the actors missed their cues or lines. Having someone in front of the stage with lines would have been a big help, I think.
  • Audience participation. There was one point in the wedding ceremony where the audience was supposed to chime in with a rather lengthy response, but it never happened because none of us were sure that we should speak up, and we were never cued. Make sure the audience knows when it’s supposed to speak.
  • Live music. So wonderful, even if it’s limited in the instruments. I think there was a bell that rang every time a god did something, and which also filled in the empty spaces. Nice touch.
  • When there’s a break between scenes (for instance, for dinner or to make time for classes), that’s the time for large scenery changes.
  • Integrating the feast into the ritual worked really well, because it was actually part of the wedding narrative. I could see doing the same sort of thing, either with a feast or a blót.
The gates of Ur, at the entrance to
the event

On the whole, this was a terrific learning experience for me, and I’m really looking forward to trying to pull off something like this in a Heathen context. There are plenty of myths that would lend themselves to this sort of treatment, and many believe the Eddaic poems themselves were originally intended to be performed. Thanks again to Hands of Change for the opportunity to observe this wonderful ritual production.

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PHOTO CREDITS (counting from the top of this post down):

1,2,7: Taken by your humble author, copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved
3,4,5,6: Courtesy Hands of Change Coven, used with permission, copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved

Why do we do Ritual?

I’m reading Clive Tolley’s Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic, and came across the following definition of religion:

Religions may impose ethical codes on adherents, as in religions of the Book [i.e., the Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam]; they may also be primarily aimed at enlisting (or in the case of magic compelling) the aid of divine powers to further the aims of individuals or communities in an amoral fashion. Most sources indicate that Norse religion was of the latter sort… (p. 8)

I know many of my readers will likely take issue with the idea that Norse religion did not carry with it a moral code, but such is not the purpose of this article (I will probably address that question separately in a follow-on). Rather, I find the latter half of the definition particularly apropos to the discussion of ritual, particularly why we engage in ritual.

If the purpose of religion is to “enlist the aid of divine powers”, then it stands to reason that ritual is the means by which that purpose is carried out.

Certainly that seems to be the case when we speak of the ritual of blót; it is the offering of a sacrifice (whether it be an animal sacrifice or some other form of votive offering) in exchange for an expected or already-received benefit. We saw that clearly in Ibn Fadlan’s first-hand account of a blót in the lands of the Rus in the 10th century. It makes perfect sense in the context of the Germanic gift-cycle, itself encapsulated in the Eddaic formula “ever a gift demands a gain” and itself distilled even further into the gebo (X) rune.

But when we consider the other major ritual of Norse religion, the sumbl, the definition seems to break down. Where the blót is an interaction between men and the spiritual realm, sumbl is much more an interaction between men; it’s a social ritual, and most of the standard activities are geared towards social interaction; boasting, bragging, flyting, gifting, memorializing, and so forth. This is not to say that there is no metaphysical component to the sumbl, only to state that such is not the primary function of the ritual, and even when it is present, it expresses itself as a changing of one’s wyrd through direct action (the brag), rather than an exchange, as in the blót.

In terms of the strictly magical practices of the Norse – seiðʀ, galdʀ, and various divination practices – the idea of invoking divine powers is rarely, if ever, seen. It is certainly seen in later trolldomʀ practices, but the relevance to those to pre-Christian Norse magic is a study unto itself. Aside from the notion that the goddess Freyja taught seiðʀ to Odin, and he to others, there is little to indicate that the actual practice of seiðʀ required the direct or indirect intervention of a deity. The same is true with rune-based magical practices; Odin is seen as a teacher, but is not necessarily invoked as an operative requirement for the magic to be effective.

So where does this leave us? In terms of ritual being used to “enlist the aid of divine powers”, it is certainly true of the blót ritual, but seems to be lacking in any others, whether they are religious or magical in nature. I rather like that, actually. It speaks to the sophistication of Germanic (and especially Norse) religion that its rituals cannot be pigeonholed into a single category; there are different rituals for different purposes, and the “ritual technology” involved is appropriate to the task, rather than being a one-size-fits-all affair.

Visiting Traditions

I confess I was inspired when I read this post on Patheos Pagan by Terence P Ward, discussing the ancient “visiting traditions” of Europe.

Back in a time when people lived in local villages, “visiting traditions” were a part of local religion during certain times of the year. These sorts of community rituals (to use the phrase of Sarah Stockton-Arthen in the article) are a great way to build community bonds, but unfortunately in our modern society, where members of the same tribe or even the same family might live an hour or more away from one another, the practical application seems difficult.

There are, in the Germanic tradition, several opportunities for these “visiting traditions” to be restored. The most obvious is during Yule, when wassailing (associated with the tradition of caroling) was done. There are also references to “going a-Maying” in England, the “May Feast” in Sweden (where the children of the village collect all the wrens’ eggs they can find, and bear them around in a basket, collecting ingredients from the various homes, until they have enough to make an enormous pancake, of which all share in the eating), and of course the various Mumming traditions that span the Germanic world in one form or another would qualify as well.

There are two ways that such a thing could be done. The first is to bring in the whole community, as Sarah Stockton-Arthen is described as doing in the article. Of course, that will almost necessarily mean that any explicitly Heathen quality of the tradition is lost, but that could be seen as a necessary evil in the quest to revive what is a community-based tradition.

For those interested in making it a more specifically religious tradition within an area, some degree of organization is going to be needed. First, the individuals who will be going and physically doing the visiting will need to be identified; this will likely be more a question of volunteerism than anything else.

What is more important, however, is that there are actually people at home to visit!

I suggest that a night be set aside, agreed on by a number of Heathens within a given area, wherein the visited agree to be home. The visitors pile into cars (most likely needed) and go from place to place to perform their rituals (their numbers might be added to as they hit more houses – all the better!). At Yule, this would most likely consist of singing traditional (or re-Heathenized) wassailing songs, and being given food and drink by those being visited. Other similar holiday traditions could be organized along the same lines.

The same principle could also be applied to other traditions, such as the perambulation of god-idols. Rather than being taken around in a horse-drawn cart for weeks, however, it could be done in a weekend, with suitable celebratory rituals being done as each home is blessed in turn by the arrival of the god or goddess.

I’m all about bringing back folk-traditions, and this seems like a fine one. The only issue is that in our modern go-go-go society, with sports practices and late business meetings, and a thousand other distractions, it’s not always assured that folks will be home to be able to enjoy and participate in such a visiting ritual. With a little organization and planning, though, I think it could be pulled off. I might just try to do so next Yule.

Ritual analysis I: Samfundet forn Sed Sverige

As my regular readers will doubtless remember, I’m keen on ritual. I love seeing how different people do their rituals, and I love to see what works and what does not. I’d like to take some time to analyze in depth the way different groups do things, and I’d like to start with the following Vårblot (spring sacrifice) as performed by the Samfundet forn Sed Sverige (a Swedish Heathen group) in 2014. It’s in Swedish, but I don’t think you need subtitles to figure out what’s going on.

0:00 – First some general things about the start. I love the procession to the actual site of the ritual, and I love the ubiquitous music used throughout the ritual (I’ll be harping about the music throughout this analysis). 
1:03 – I note that the folk gather in a circle for the ritual itself, which seems to be just the standard default setting for any large ritual (and I daresay seems to be an import from Wicca or ceremonial magick), although I can’t say I know of anything specifically in the lore that mentions it. On a practical level, it does give everyone a good view of what’s going on, but it’s not something that is particularly historical.
1:09 – See that tarp in the foreground? That’s actually an integral part of the ritual, and one which I absolutely love. More on it, and what’s under it, later. The music continues, setting the mood as one of celebration and joy.
1:27 – I love the Freyr god-post on the left. Now THAT’s a priapic Freyr! I note that a few other people (dispersed equally around the circle?) also have similar representations of gods and goddesses.
2:31 – Sounding of the horn to call the group to attention. And it doesn’t sound like a moose stuck in quicksand. Nice.
3:15 – Note that the priest is cross-dressed, which indicates he is dedicated to Freyja. Also note the starting of the nyd-fire for the ritual. I would not be a bit surprised if there were nine types of wood used for that fire. 
3:27 – This is where we start to really take off. Rather than just let everyone stand around while the nydfire is lit, the priest starts a chant that is taken up by the assembled folk, giving them something to do rather than stand around awkwardly. It also adds a bit of religious significance to this part of the ritual. It’s a simple chant with a simple melody, so after a couple of repetitions, anyone in attendance could join in. Really nice.
4:20 – The drums have joined in, folks are clapping, and now the assembled folk are being blessed with the mead (?) by sprinkling them with a sprig of evergreen. I can’t say how much I love this. Compared to just standing around waiting while each person gets a personal blessing, this is wonderful. It’s joyous, and it’s fun, and it keeps everyone occupied until its their turn.
5:30  – I do believe this is one of the few times the altar is actually used, when she puts the cup of mead (?) on it after everyone has been blessed. The people are the focus of the ritual, not the altar. Interesting, but see also 22:25.
5:45 – He says something funny, and folks are laughing. It’s not all grim and serious. Now begins what I think is an explanation of the purpose for the rite. 
7:03 – Neat “singing bowl” technique. I think that’s Tibetan. Certainly has a haunting tone. I do like the fact that he’s singing, rather than just reciting. 
10:06 – And then the bells kick in and it keeps things interesting while he’s speaking. Again, sound to keep people from being bored. 
12:40 – Get everyone involved, this time with clapping, and then the call-and-response. Just because someone is speaking doesn’t mean everyone else needs to stand their silent and stock-still. 
15:18 – I love this bit. This is when “Spring”, who has been under the tarp in the foreground all along, wakes up. I’d characterize this bit as a sacral drama, as the assembled folk attempt to wake up Spring, who, like a teenager on the first day of school, doesn’t want to get up. And to accomplish this we have another very simple chant that anyone can join in with, supported by the drums. Beautiful.
18:30 – Spring gets flirty. We’re a sex-positive religion, after all.
22:25 – Music is in full swing while people offer grain to the god-images on the altar. Again, not just a silent and grim affair.
23:40 – Here is perhaps my only problem with the ritual – the unnecessary combination of the blot and sumble. Drinking toasts in ritual is the province of the sumble rite; they’ve already made their offerings, and it seems unnecessary.
27:00 – The horn sounds the end of the ritual, neatly bookending the same thing at 2:31.
27:35 – And a joyous “Yahoo”. Laughter, enthusiasm, and fun. And then they end up with a sort of circle dance. 
All in all, there’s a lot to love about the way this ritual was done. The music, the fun atmosphere, the dancing, the element of drama with Spring being awoken, the chants and songs giving the folk some involvement while things were being done that did not immediately affect them; there’s a lot of great ritual-craft here. 

Local and communal ritual

Some rituals are meant to be done in the company of one’s friends, neighbors, and tribesmen, and some are meant to be done in the company of one’s immediate family. Over the years, Asatru has tended to conflate the two, so that we end up celebrating rituals together as a group that don’t really make sense. When planning rituals with my tribe, I like to differentiate between those that are most appropriately celebrated together as a tribe (i.e., communally) and those that are most appropriately celebrated separately, as individuals or as families (i.e., locally).

This differentiation was most definitely known in pre-Christian times. Events like Disting which featured a blot to the Disir:

In Svithjod it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in Goe month at Upsala. Then sacrifice was offered for peace, and victory to the king; and thither came people from all parts of Svithjod. (Saga of Olaf Haraldson, part II)

The well-known national sacrifices at Uppsala fall into this category as well, as do the “big three” sacrifices that Snorri mentions in Ynglingatal, as we see in other sources that these were communal holidays at Winternights, Yule, and Summer-meal:

On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle. (Ynglingasaga 8)

It makes sense that communal holidays would be celebrated for things like the harvest (Haustblot, or Autumn sacrifice), because the bounty of the harvest can be transported to a central site for the celebration. Contrast that to a celebration of planting, however; it’s not possible for each farmer to bring the fields together so they can be blessed! And that’s where the differentiation between communal and local ritual comes in.

Where some rites lend themselves to communality, others lend themselves to locality. Rites relating to the planting of crops, for instance, such as those mentioned by Bede in relation to the plow blessing, the crop-blessing charms that have survived to us, There is also the Alfablot, which we are explicitly told was celebrated by individual households, and outsiders were not welcome:

At dark to Hof we drifted.
The door was barred; so before it
I stood, knocking, and steadfast
stuck in my nose, pluckily.
Gruffly answer they gave us:
“Get you gone!” and threatened
us all: ‘t was heathen-holy.
To hell with all those fellows!

The following evening he came to another farm. There the woman of the house stood in the door and forbade them to come in, saying they had the sacrifice to the elves inside. (Austrfararvísur, Hollander tr.)

The fact that two farms within walking distance were each performing the rite separately would seem an excellent indication that there were indeed some rites, such as the Alfablot, which were practiced individually, if at the same time. We also see this in some of the many traditions around Yule, such as giving the house-wight his fee, or offering the feast to the Mothers.

In modern Asatru, I think this has great implications. Many Asatru groups will gather communally to celebrate holiday that were originally celebrated on a household level. Part of the problem is the lack of awareness of the fact that it’s perfectly okay, indeed preferable, that some aspects of worship be done privately, between one’s immediate family and the gods or elves. Similarly with agricultural celebrations designed to increase or guarantee the fertility of the fields (such as the charming of the plow many recently celebrated), there’s nothing wrong with a family doing so on their own garden (or farm if they’re lucky enough to have something larger than a mere garden), rather than everyone getting together to do so “symbolically” for everyone, or for the land in general. There’s a time for doing so, as Snorri tells us, and that’s at Yule, communally.

One way groups can still incorporate these local rites and rituals into their communal religious experience is to agree on a day when everyone in the tribe or kindred will perform them, and perhaps come up with a ritual script (or at least ritual outline) that they all share. Communicating that information out well in advance, to let everyone coordinate and plan for the day, would be very helpful on a practical level.

I see a place for getting together for ritual, and a place for performing ritual apart (even if it is done on the same day, recognizing the sacrality of the timing communally). Too many Asatruar get caught up in the “we should be doing everything together” mindset that it’s easy to forget that there was a place for both prior to the coming of Christianity.

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