Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Theodism 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.

Theodism as Mystery Religion

I was chatting with a good Theodish friend of mine, and the subject of hold oaths came up. Specifically, the reality that too many people who take (or even hear) hold oaths simply aren’t ready to do so, or don’t fully comprehend what it means, and yet do so anyway. The result is usually disaster, broken oaths, and a whole lot of misery on both sides.

It occurs to me that that’s a phenomenon we see not only when it comes to hold oaths in Theodism, but many other aspects as well. The whole concept of thralldom and rank, and of course sacral leadership, seems to be glossed over and accepted at face value, rather than truly being understood and internalized.

The specific causes for this sort of phenomenon are many, but I think ultimately it comes down to an attempt to teach Theodism as if it were a subject to be studied, rather than a truth to be realized.

This is where the concept of the mystery religion comes into play, in the context of Theodish Belief. The Greco-Roman mysteries are usually thought of in connection with initiatory rituals, and there are certainly initiatory rites in Theodism (the whole process of thralldom and freedom is, essentially, one long initiation ritual). But I’m thinking here of the way information is transmitted in a mystery religion.

Rather than rote lessons, or even intellectual understanding, in a mystery religion the initiate is exposed to knowledge using gnomic forms and allegory. Eventually, the initiate forms a critical mass of wisdom, and understands the mystery. Doing so internalizes the mystery in a way that merely reading it in a book, or even being taught it by someone mouth-to-ear, cannot. It is not merely knowledge, it is truth, and it is known to be so because the initiate has come to its realization on his own. All that needed to be done was to give him (or her) the proper groundwork, and let him put the pieces together themselves.

Of course, that doesn’t do any good unless the person(s) doing the initiation can recognize when this A-HA! moment happens and the student is really ready to be initiated. In the particular case at hand, that would be recognizing when the thrall is really ready to be freed. If the initiator/owner isn’t willing to have the combination of hard love and patience necessary, then the thrall is going to be freed too early, and end up taking a hold oath too early, with the result mentioned at the top of this article.

It’s also worth remembering that sometimes the student never achieves the realizations needed to become an initiate. Sometimes one remains a thrall forever, or drops out. That’s a necessary part of the process, too. That’s why thralls have no luck, and cannot pollute the luck of the tribe or the lord. If they “fail to launch”, no harm has been done.

One never does a favor to a thrall by freeing them early. One should never free a thrall merely to boost numbers. Thralldom is an important part — an argument might even be made for it being the most important part — of the Theodish experience. By reminding ourselves that thralldom should only be left once we recognize the thrall has finally come to the essential truths of Theodism on his or her own (i.e., has encountered the Mystery of Theodish Belief by being exposed to its practice), we go a long way towards ensuring that Theodsmen in general maintain the highest standard.

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.

On Sacral Leadership

Over at Pathetic Pagan, there is actually a good article by Kiya Nicoll entitled A Defense of Sacred Kingship. It’s from the Khemetic (Egyptian recon) point of view, but it’s aimed squarely at the current debate sparked by you-know-who concerning leadership and egalitarianism. And it has a lot of relevance for Heathens.

One of the things that struck me about Ms. Nicoll’s article was the way she framed the institution of sacral leadership (she uses the phrase sacral kingship, but I contend that the role isn’t necessarily limited to the title of “king”). The sacral leader isn’t someone who is better at everything, and thus has the reigns of leadership. He is the individual who is simply the best at being the sacral leader, in the same way that the blacksmith is simply the best at blacksmithing, the warriors are the ones who are best at being warriors, and so forth.

As I commented over at her blog post, from my own experience as a Theodsman, the trouble is that the person in the role of sacral leader tend to either let it go to their heads, or get overwhelmed by it and crash and burn. I’ve seen it happen a half-dozen times (including one particular example that has been in the news lately), and I can only think of one Theodish sacral lord who’s been in the role long enough to count, to whom it hasn’t happened, even if they returned to the role later on.

I think the selection process is crucial if the institution is to actually work on a practical level, and yet that’s something that is often left out, or done as an afterthought. It’s usually, “I started the group, so I’m the king”, but too often starting the group, or even coming up with the concept, isn’t the same “at what” as actually being the sacral leader on a daily basis. Historically, this was done at thing, where the assembly chose the sacral leader from a pool of available candidates. It didn’t necessarily go to the eldest son of the previous king, but to someone who the assembly felt had the best qualities to fulfill the function. Of course they weren’t always right, and naturally sometimes the king was just the guy who had the biggest army, but on a theoretical level, our ancestors had a pretty good process in place.

And what are those “best at” qualities when it comes to Germanic kingship? Prowess as a warrior, to be sure. But there are other qualities too. Cunning. Reverence for the gods (as Tacitus tells us, the king acts as the ultimate high priest for the tribe/nation, just as the head of the family does at the family or clan level). The ability to gather around him a retinue not only of great warriors, but wise counselors. Generosity, which includes the willingness to let those below the king do their jobs; let the magician do his magic, let the thulr do his teaching, and so forth.

In a Theodish context, there is also a direct requirement that the sacral leader be able to be the conduit for the luck of the tribe from the gods. That’s not a passive role; it requires constant and active work on behalf of the sacral leader to make all that happen. Those are the “mysteries” of sacral leadership.

I think that arrangement works within Asatru, as well. Naturally, most Asatru groups don’t have the sort of strict social hierarchy that we see in Theodism, but in the vast majority of cases there is a leader of some sort. I think if more Asatru goðar placed more emphasis on the sacral nature of the role, and undertook the behind-the-scenes sort of luck or soul work that we see in Theodism, it might add to the success of their group. It does imply, though, a separation between the sacral role of the goði and the organizational needs of a group. Which might not be a bad thing; after all, someone who’s good at soul or luck work isn’t necessarily the best at organization and logistics.

More on the cracks

Helsen’s blog header. Spooky, but cool!

Lucius Helsen continued his series of responses to the “What is Heathenry Missing?” post that I myself responded to not too long ago. I made this comment on Helsen’s blog, but it ended up being long enough that it seemed to warrant a post of its own. I suppose that makes it a response to a response to something I already responded to. 🙂

Here’s a case where I find myself in agreement with both sides.

On the one hand, Helsen is entirely correct when he says that Germanic Heathenry is much more well-attested than most people realize. There’s so much information that goes so far beyond what most Asatruar incorporate into their practice, it’s a shame. My own kick right now is post-conversion folklore and conversion-era Christian sources, and it’s a gold mine.

But everyone seems content to stand in a circle, passing a horn around, saying “Hail Thor!” a dozen times and call it a blót, because that’s sort of crystalized as “standard Asatru practice” since the early 1990’s (the Internet’s influence there cannot be over-estimated). Heck, even holding a separate sumbel is a relatively new innovation, and that came in because of Theodism’s influence.

On the other hand, even with that wealth of material, we still have precious few details. We know there were chants and songs and dances done during ritual, but we don’t have any idea what they were like. We know they must’ve said prayers during ritual, but we have no idea what they were, with precious few exceptions, and those are just informed guesses. And the household cults of the tomten and the alfar? There’s a huge wealth of information, but a lot of it’s still in Scandinavian languages, and in dire need of de-Christianizing, after a millennium of being practiced “close to the vest”. Not to mention the folk-magical practices (and I love it when I see fragments come together; just today I was reading an account of Appalachian folk-magic done to read the calls of crows, written a couple of years ago, that is exactly the same as an account from the 6th century condemning the very same thing).

That’s where the “filling in the cracks” part comes in, as far as I’m concerned. There still are a ton of details to be filled in; the words used, the dances and songs, the details about which phase of the moon is best for this or that, or the parts of the blót that come before sprinkling everyone with the hlaut (sacrificial blood). That’s where we need to look farther afield.

But I am firmly in agreement with him that those cracks are much fewer than most Asatruar seem to realize, despite all the “homework” they claim to do. Perhaps we need a couple fewer deep analyses of Viking-era graveyards and yet another paper on the Havamal, and a few more of Scandinavian, Germanic, and English folk-customs and Medieval pagan survivals.

Heathenry’s “Missing” Parts

Over at, 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 many occasions. 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.

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 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. 

On Oaths

Now that the folk of a certain prominent Theod of which I was a member until very recently have voted to separate ourselves from our lord because of his actions (essentially dissolving the Theod in all but name), and I am no longer bound by the oath that I swore to said lord because of his actions, I think the time has come to write on the general topic of oaths.

The Theodish model relies on what are known as “hold oaths” to create a “web of oaths” that ultimately lead to the lord at the center of the tribe, and thence to the Gods. Metaphysically, it is through this web of oaths that the Luck of the Gods is transmitted to the members of the tribe. On a more mundane level, the hold oaths that are sworn bind one person of higher rank to one of lower rank, and vice versa. They share mutual obligations, and the higher-ranked person is actually expected to come to the aid of his oathed man (and “speed his Theodish career”) just as much as that oathed man is expected to support and assist the higher-ranked person.

Now, given the totality of the history of Theodism over the last four decades or so, it’s apparent that this arrangement just doesn’t work (among other elements of Theodism which lead me to conclude that it simply doesn’t work as a model, but that’s a post for another day). People on both ends of the oath structure simply walk away from their obligations despite the existence of the hold-oath, and hard feelings result all around, and broken oaths left in their wake.

Asatru is obviously much more flexible regarding the oath structure. I’m not aware of any Asatru group that has something analogous to the Theodish hold oath, but one hears much more frequently of oaths that are sworn between members of a kindred (or tribe) not to specific members of that kindred, but to the kindred as a whole.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Asatru kindreds out there that don’t have any such oath requirement at all, whether to the group or to an individual. If you’re a member, you’re a member (no matter what the criteria for membership are) and no formal oath is required to solemnize that relationship.

Judging just on the historical record, Asatru seems to have prospered with that much looser arrangement, which has led to relatively stable kindreds that have lasted for many years in many cases.

But, speaking of history, the whole concept of swearing an oath to become a member of a tribe is a completely modern invention. As a rule, tribe membership was based on birth or marriage, not conscious choice, and a Goth was a Goth because he was born a Goth, not because he swore an oath to the Goths, or to someone who swore an oath to the lord of the Goths. Oaths might be sworn to enter into the immediate service of a chieftain (his comitatus, or warband), but outside that special case of specially cohesive warriors, the general folk were just under whatever chieftain or king they were under. No special oaths required, even when that chieftain changed because of war or some other event.

Can you imagine the spectacle of the entire Alemanni nation swearing an oath to one another at the death of some king? It’s ludicrous on the face of it.

Now, obviously in modern times we are still in the process of establishing new tribes, new clans, and new kindreds. We’re at least several generations away from the point where “you’re born into your tribe” is the norm. But I think we as Asatruar can look beyond the idea of some formal oath structure being the basis for membership in a kindred or tribe. Perhaps a simple statement of intent, and the acceptance of the existing members of the tribe, might be enough.

Just thinking out loud, as it were. But I’m leaning strongly away from oaths as the basis of association. Recent history shows they just don’t work, and ancient history shows they just weren’t needed.

The Ins and Outs of Heathenry

One of the basic principles of Heathenry is the concept of the innangarðs and the útangarðs. Literally, these two Old Norse terms mean “inside the enclosure” and “outside the enclosure”. The concept is applied more broadly to kinship and kithship. There are those who are “in the group”, and those who are “outside the group”.

The distinction between that which is within the boundary – that which is civilized and known and safe – and that which lies outside the boundary – that which is wild and (potentially) dangerous, penetrates into the very conception of the Heathenry cosmos. As Swain Wodening puts it:

The innangarðs (ON) is all that is within the nine worlds. Outside is the útangarðs (ON), the wilds where man has no control. Thus you have the nine worlds, and then Útgard; that outside the sphere of both Man and the Gods (as well as the giants, elves, and dwarves). It is a place where creatures such as Útgard Loki dwell.(1)

This is most obviously seen in more tribalist forms of Heathenry such as Théodish Belief, where the distinction between a member of the tribe and an outsider is sharply defined and has implications for both ritual and social interactions. It is also seen, however, in most other forms of Heathenry, where the basic group, the “kindred”, is very specifically defined. Whether membership in the kindred is formalized by the taking of an oath, or by the consensus of the other members of the group, or some other formula, we see a drawing of the boundary. One is in the group, or one is not. To once more quote Swain Wodening on the subject:

The ancient Heathens applied this reasoning to their social units as well as Mankind as a whole. They viewed the world of man as a farmstead with its enclosing fences. All inside the world of Man was inside the fences. This applied to tribes, who were viewed as their own enclosures. The law of Mercia did not apply to someone from Northumbria even if the crime was committed in Mercia. Each tribe was its own innangarðs.(2)

This is not to say that there is a velvet rope around every Heathen group. The major international groups have a membership that is obtained by paying dues. But where it counts, in the everyday local groups, there is almost always a standard that must be met in order to become a “member”. More than just showing up to a ritual.

Too, it should be remembered that the distinction between the innangarðs and the útangarðs does not mean that guests are unwelcome at Heathen events. Far from it. Théodish groups, generally considered to be on the more exclusive end of the spectrum, specifically have “goodfolk”; friends and guests of the tribe who, while not members, are treated with great respect and goodwill when they attend a gathering of the tribe.

The situation is somewhat analogous to initiatory faiths such as Wicca, but relies more on social cues than initiatory rites. The thought is generally less “you have worked hard and earned the right to participate in our rituals” and more “we like you, you fit in well with our group, and we are ready and willing to take our social bond to the next level.”

As might be inferred, the line between innangarðs and útangarðs is a permeable one. The lore is replete with examples of individuals who were adopted into a tribe, raised as a foster-child in a tribe, or married into a new tribe. But even so, the differences between the in-group and the out-group are best thought of not as a single line, but as a bulls-eye. In the center of the bulls-eye is you and your immediate family. The next ring is your extended family. Then your tribe. And so forth. This is one reason (among many) that the majority of Heathens don’t tend to associate with or identify with neo-Pagans. They are simply way too far out in the rings of the bulls-eye to warrant a lot of attention. There are a lot of folks who will be closer to the center of the bulls-eye, regardless of faith. The relationship is both subtle and situational, but the distinctions between the “in” and the “out” are very real.

(1) Wodening, Swain. Þéodisc Geléafa “The Belief of the Tribe”, p. 80. Miercinga Theod, TX, 2007

(2) Ibid, p. 81

It’s Not Always About the Gods

(Cross-posted at

One of the things that Théodish Belief stresses is that the Gods– the Aesir– are much more interested in human beings on a corporate level. That is, They hear us much more clearly when we join together in a chorus, rather than sending our voices up to Asgard singularly. This is the basis of the Théodish tribal structure, which allows us to worship the Aesir as a group, and have the Luck of the Aesir flow through the tribe via the tribal leader to the individual members of the tribe, through the “web of oaths”.

That said, such tribe-wide gatherings and rituals are relatively few and far between. Individual tribal custom (thew) differs, but as a rule such large rituals– called fainings— are done three or four times a year.

Needless to say, that leaves a lot of time that can and should be filled with religious activity. But if the Aesir are mostly honored at the group level, where does that leave the Théodish individual or family? (Bearing in mind that this advice can apply to someone of just about any Pagan or Heathen faith.)

Certain individuals, of course, have special relationships with one or more Aesir, and are known as “friends of” a particular God or Goddess. This is well attested to in the written lore, and we see it in modern times as well. So even though in the Théodish model, the Aesir prefer to deal with humans in groups, They do make exceptions.

But such true exceptions are few and far between, which leaves a great many people wanting between major holy tides. As Théodish Belief leans towards the historical reconstructionist end of the Heathen spectrum, fortunately the written lore gives us plenty of examples. Most specifically, the worship of the land spirits (Old Norse landvættir, house gods (Swedish tomte, Norwegian nisse, English brownie), and other more specific spirits of place.

In my house, for example, we keep a stone by the hearth as a home for the house-god, and offer him a bowl of porridge every Yule. As head of the household, I make weekly offerings of “meat from my table and bread from my board” to the land-wights and elves.

Since these beings are closer to us, They are much more inclined to hear us individually and familially, and it is thus easier to enter into a good and fruitful relationship with Them. Establishing such a good relationship, and maintaining it throughout the year through simple and heartfelt rituals– generally speaking simple is better, and you should have the attitude of maintaining a good relationship with friends and neighbors– is an excellent way to maintain a connection with the divine, without the sometimes inappropriate pomp and circumstance of dealing with the Gods Themselves.

Personally, I find folklore to be an excellent guide. Stories of dealing with elves, brownies, trolls, and tomten are treasure-troves of practical advice, and have aided me immensely even though I am literally an ocean away from the land of their origin*. And, given that the goodwill of such beings can’t always be taken for granted, warnings.


* I am reminded of an newspaper advertisement that appeared in a late 19th century midwestern journal noted for its Scandinavian readership, seeking a house-spirit to keep company the house-spirit that had accompanied the family to the New World. Apparently, it was lonely and wanted companionship, and the family thought it would be quite likely that some other immigrant family would be able to oblige. I know of no record as to whether or not the request ever bore fruit.

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