An accessible yet in-depth guide to this increasingly popular pre-Christian religious tradition of Northern Europe
Heathenry, is one of the fastest growing polytheistic religious movements in the United States today. This book explores the cosmology, values, ethics, and rituals practiced by modern heathens.
In A Modern Guide to Heathenry readers will have the opportunity to explore the sacred stories of the various heathen gods like Odin, Frigga, Freya, and Thor and will be granted a look into the devotional practices of modern votaries. Blóts, the most common devotional rites, are examined in rich detail with examples given for personal use. Additionally, readers are introduced to the concept of wyrd, or fate, so integral to the heathen worldview.
Unlike many books on heathenry, this one is not denomination-specific, nor does it seek to overwhelm the reader with unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon or Norse terminology. For Pagans who wish to learn more about the Norse deities or those who are new to heathenry or who are simply interested in learning about this unique religion, A Modern Guide to Heathenry is the perfect introduction. Those who wish to deepen their own devotional practice will find this book helpful in their own work as well.
“Synir Bors drápu Ymi jötun, en er hann féll, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans, at með því drekkðu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa…” (Gylfaginning, 7) (1)
Yesterday in the Hudson valley we had such a great storm that it seemed as though the end of the world were here. Trees came crashing down, property was destroyed, live electrical wires lay crackling in the streets. There are tremendous power outages and coming home, it took me five hours to go less than eight miles. One news report said it was a tornado, but I’m not sure I believe that (I think the damage would be worse). That leaves us today being the only house in the neighborhood with power (thanks to my mother and her foresight in gifting me with a generator as a housewarming present) and since it really isn’t all that safe to go out and about, it also gives me plenty of time to catch up on some of my writing. Thanks to something my husband was watching when I came downstairs this morning, I was inspired, with almost a creative frenzy, to write about our creation story. I’ve written about this before, so now I’m just going to dive in.
Oðinn with his two brothers Vili and Vé slew the first being, the proto-giant Ymir and from his corpse fashioned not only the world of man, Midgard, but the scaffolding of the cosmos. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by violence. It’s a compelling moment in our mythology. These three Gods (Oðinn, Vili (Hoenir), and Vé (Loður/Loki) (2) slaughtered, violently hacking to bits, their eldest ancestor. The narrative in the Gylfaginning tells us this in only one or two lines and then moves on to the structure of the cosmos, why we have seasons, the movements of the Sun and Moon, and other cosmological structures. I think, however, that this one moment defines our cosmology and repeats itself again and again throughout the corpus of our cosmological stories. It is the defining moment, the defining act within our cosmology, itself re-enacting the dynamic of Muspelheim and Niflheim coming together in the moment of creation. It’s a synergy that is repeated again and again and again throughout our mythology, one in which we too participate as we work to restore our traditions. Likewise, given that the entire scaffolding of our world and in fact all the worlds was created from Ymir, their very being-ness partakes of the primordial potentiality.
A bit of comparison might be useful here. In Genesis, Yahweh moves over the waters, creates and sees that it is ‘good.’ Our Gods, however, look out across the primordial landscape of meta-creation and see potentiality and then They bring that potentiality into concrete being by violently smashing the old paradigm. (3) It is Ragnarok in microcosm: destruction of old structures in order to bring about renewal and restoration, to restart, reorient, re-create. (4) In Genesis, creation stops once Yahweh pronounces everything to be ‘good.’ In our creation story, it is forever ongoing and we are constantly participating in it.
At that moment when the three Brothers destroy Ymir, we have a moment of chaotic potential (a world filled with Ymir and hrímþursar and not much else) reshaped, brought into order by means of tri-partite divine will, that will made manifest through violent action. Oðinn with His brothers becomes an ‘agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential’ and by this act of conscious will, They elevate Themselves, separate Themselves from the other þursar and become Aesir.(5) They become divinity, lifting Themselves out of the primordial chaos of undifferentiated being. They make Themselves something more through the conscious enacting of their will yoked to mindful forethought, yoked to an awareness of the inherent potential in chaos (and a ruthlessness to bring it into being).(6) This means, by extension, that chaos is important. Order cannot exist save in relationship with something. It must, by its very nature, be defined by its purpose: transforming chaos into something else. Quite often in contemporary Heathenry, we find chaos being viewed as something inherently negative, and moreover, ranked in opposition to divine order. In reality, divine order is formed from chaos and cannot exist without it. That chaos is a necessary building block for all the work that the Gods then do. It is Their primary tool that allows itself to be transformed into anything that can be imagined and willed. It is the chaos that gives order meaning.(7)
Likewise, we see frenzy, will, and holiness (the etymological meanings of Oðinn, Vili, and Vé respectively) working together. The capacity to transform chaos into meaning is a sacred act, but will or frenzy unyoked to holiness (which for humans includes devotion, humility before the Gods, piety) is dangerous and damaging. The three must work together for something ‘Good’ to result. It’s a type of divine homeostasis and where that balance is lacking, ultimately destructive chaos ensues.(8)
Oðinn is the driving force behind this creation through destruction. Immediately before the slaughter of Ymir is discussed, the Gylfaginning notes that “ok þat er mín trúa, at sá Óðinn ok hans bræðr munu vera stýrandi himins ok jarðar.”(9) [And this is my belief, that he Oðinn and his brothers must be ruler/controller of heaven and earth]. Oðinn mentioned first and specifically is given sovereignty over everything that is created. His will to order holds the parsed bits of chaos together in a complex, functioning whole. This is why He cannot afford entropy and is constantly, throughout the mythic cycle, pursuing greater knowledge, greater power, greater ability to transform and transmute reality.
Our creation story contains within itself the underlying telos of our entire mythology. It is a complex and coherent system, re-enacted again and again by our Gods and heroes. I’ll be revisiting this again over the next few months, because not only does this provide insight into our creation story, but also into Oðinn’s nature as well. We can learn a lot about our Gods, Their natures, and the cohesive nature of our cosmology through ongoing examination of these stories.
1. “The sons of Bor slew Ymir the jotun; and where he fell there spurted forth so much blood from out of his wounds, that by means of it they drowned all the tribe of the Rim-thurs…”(translations mine unless otherwise noted).
2. While the identification of Loki as Loður is not universally accepted, there is skaldic evidence for this attribution both in Völuspá 18 and Þrymlur I-III 21. See this site and his article on “Loki’s Roads” for more information.
3. I’m quoting a phrase from Jordan Peterson’s interview (my husband was watching this interview when I came downstairs this morning and agree or disagree with him, Peterson is brilliant and I rather admire the way he can think through an idea or argument, even when I seriously disagree with some of his conclusions).
4. Perhaps this is one of the real cosmological meanings behind Ragnarok before Christians got their hands on it. This conception of Ragnarok also allows for the Gods to recreate and restore Themselves.
5. Again, I am taking a phrase from Peterson here, for my own purposes. His video actually annoyed me a bit. In it, Peterson talks about working toward the Good, and ascribes this to Christianity when in reality what he was saying was very basic Platonism. Let’s give credit where credit is due. This idea of the Gods as Good and reaching/returning to the Good was not something invented by Christians. Polytheistic philosophers developed it long before Jesus was a blip on the historical map.
6. Of course, the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jötnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jötnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás,’ unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order, and there is enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumézil certainly thought so, then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable, all Aesir having begun as Jötnar perhaps? We likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, whose cosmological focus is different. Perhaps it is such cosmological foci, however enduring or transitory, that ultimately determine membership in these divine clans.(quoted from my forthcoming paper “The Demonization of Loki in Modern Norse Paganism” which will be appearing in the Summer 2018 issue of Walking the Worlds).
7. This of course makes the Jötnar in general and Loki (whom scholar Dumézil, in his work Loki, describes as the ‘unquiet thought,’) in particular absolutely essential to the proper functioning of divine order. And if we accept, as the skalds did, that Loki and Loður are the same being, then it is Loki who forms the bridge between these two states of being: undifferentiated potentiality/chaos and divinely crafted order. Perhaps this is why it is Loður who gives good hue…which implies a healthy circulatory system, the pumping of the heart, the flow of blood, warmth, and what the Greeks would call βίος. It is from the God who is able to move between both states that we are invested with potentiality (i.e. chaos), carefully contained in ordered flesh. Unordered bodily chaos for us, brings death. Like Ymir, we bleed out, but contained within the order the Gods have decreed, it brings health and ongoing life and the potential to affect our world and to remake it at times according to our will.
8. Just as excluding Loki may lead to entropy and rigidity.
9. Gylfaginning, 6.
Not too long ago, a reader contacted me with the following:
I have a friend who honors Odin and was part of a group where it came up about the story of the rape of Rindr. This friend of mine merely mentioned that the story existed and that gods aren’t all about sweetness and light and to love Them is to understand that.
This friend was then shamed in every way. She was called brosatru; she was called pro rape and pro rape culture – and her intelligence and knowledge were insulted in the process. She was told even mentioning this was unacceptable and that clearly, she has no real connection to Odin whatsoever. As you can probably imagine, she was disgusted, deeply hurt and ended up leaving the group and understandably, is quite shaken by the whole affair.
I was just hoping on your insight with how to best respond to such people in a way that might actually get them to stop and think, or is it better to just stay as far away as possible?
Well, I think getting our communities to actually think is a greater task than even the Gods can manage. As Schiller said, “Gegen Dummheit Kämpfen die Götter selbst vorgebens.”(1) Moreover, our communities will look for any excuse to drag our Gods down to the worst human level.
That being said, I think that on a human level, the issue of rape is so brutal and horrifying that it’s difficult to sit with such an act being ascribed to our Gods. It’s difficult to get into the headspace where we can look further. It’s crucial, however, that we DO look beyond our immediate sense of betrayal and disgust.
There are several issues at hand here, the first being how exactly are we meant to interpret the stories of our Gods that have come down to us? Are we meant to take them literally, allegorically, philosophically, or some other way? Should we consider cultural factors, language, and the shifting meaning of words? (2) Do we assume our Gods are unchanging, as static as characters in a story, or do we – as the ancient philosophers did – look for hidden meanings in these tales? Do we see the tales as mystery plays in which our Gods perform specific parts to impart something of Their Mystery, or some other way of equal significance?
I look at the story of Rindr and Odin as showing us something quite innate and important to Odin’s character: He is ruthless and will do anything necessary to achieve His goals. In this case, the goal involved turning the tide of Ragnarok. Odin is as brutal and demanding of Himself most of all and it is exactly that level of brutality depicted in the story of Rindr to which He exposes Himself to as well.
Secondly, your friend is correct: our Gods are not always sweetness and light. They will not always adhere to our sense of situational ethics. They are quite often not ‘nice’ and if we are devout, we deal with that. I am often asked if I “trust” Odin and my answer is this: I trust Odin to be Odin. To expect anything less or more of a Deity is to elevate our human frailty above the Gods. The stories that we have, however imperfect their transmission may be (and with the Eddas it is quite problematic), exist in part to give us insight into the nature of our Gods. What can we learn from Them about the stories in which They take part? Now some may say “well, we learn that Odin is a bastard.” Yep. And why is that? What is His function, His timai, His sphere of influence within our cosmology? Why is He willing to be so incredibly brutal? What is at stake. That’s the real question: what is at stake if He wavers? We know from the stories we have, that the stakes are incredibly high: the order of the cosmos and all creation that the Gods have wrought, its sustainability and ongoing existence. For that, yes, He will violate any boundary and count it an easy price to pay. Those who don’t understand that, don’t understand Him.
I would take that a bit further: Divine politics are not for us. I also think it is a spiritual fallacy to project modern ideals and values onto these stories, which reflect the time in which they were written or received. Odin generally surrounds Himself with powerful women: Frigga, Freya, He consults the Seeress in the Voluspa, He speaks highly of the wisdom and knowledge of Gunnlod, those who work His will are the Valkyries, and in our modern world, He certainly has a penchant for claiming women as His own in one form or another. I would go so far as to say Odin likes women quite specifically and respects them. (3) He even put Himself in a female role more than once to learn seidhr. I don’t think that gender, sexuality or anything else is particularly important to Him if by ignoring it He can gain power and knowledge. This story however, has greater cosmological (and even eschatological) significance.
When I see the story of Odin and Rindr, I see two Holy Powers re-enacting the moment of cosmic creation. Contained within Them and Their antagonism is an echo of the tension of Muspelheim and Niflheim, a reordering of the worlds, and through Their very antagonism, They tap into and re-center Themselves in that moment when Being and Matter were created. The violence inherent in that story is a necessary part of that engagement. By this continual re-enactment of that moment, the fabric of Being is reset, at least a little, and our Gods given greater purchase. The antagonism that we see in the story of Odin and Rindr echoes throughout our cosmological structures. From the moment Muspelheim and Niflheim grind together in production of Being, the Northern world is structured around opposing forces and the productivity that comes from Their engagement.(4) In this, Rindr becomes an equal player, and in fact a powerful contributor to the restoration of the worlds. She can only hold that position, vis a vis the cosmological model above, by embracing continued resistance to Him.
It is right and proper to condemn rape in all its forms in our world. When we are talking about our Gods, however, I likewise think it’s important to understand that there’s more going on than the obvious.
In the end, I would urge your friend to cultivate her relationships with her Gods, and seek out those who are likewise devotionally minded. I have never found the overarching Heathen community to be much use in developing devotion or nourishing spirituality. In fact, I find they tend to do exactly the opposite. Like all things miasmic and polluted, they’re best engaged with in small doses. Bathe afterwards.
- “Against stupidity even the Gods struggle in vain.”
- In the story of the ‘rape’ of Persephone by Hades, for instance, (which inevitably comes up in discussions of Gods and rape) was not technically rape. Hades behaved quite properly according to Greek custom. He went to Zeus, received Persephone’s Father’s permission to marry and then went to collect His bride. There was no rape either linguistically or culturally (Zeus maybe should have informed Demeter that He’d arranged a marriage for Their daughter but that’s a whole other can of worms). The word in Latin usually translated as ‘rape’ is ‘raptus,’ which likewise doesn’t mean sexual violation. It means to seize or carry off, strive for, hasten, but also to be carried away with passion. Later Christian mystics used it at times to describe the direct experience of their God. So, one could interpret the story of Hades and Persephone as Hades contracting a proper and lawful marriage with Her and then hastening to take Her to His home. She becomes Queen of the Underworld and later stories show Her as a powerful and occasionally implacable figure. To assume victimization here is to elide both Her agency and power.
- While He does caution in the Havamal that women are inconstant, His very next stanza talks about the equal failures of men. As an aside, in Skaldskaparmal, Freyr’s retainer Skirnir lays some pretty heavy and vile curses on Gerda to compel Her to marry Freyr and I rarely see Heathens getting upset about that. Skirnir was acting on Freyr’s behalf therefore anything He did in that capacity can and should be laid at the feet of the Golden God. (For a very thought-provoking piece on just this story, I recommend Margaret Clunies Ross “Prolonged Echoes.” Odense University Press, 1994).
- One could look at Váli then, as re-enacting the moment Odin and His brothers slaughtered Their primal ancestor Ymir. He is stepping into Their role, birthed as was Ymir of opposing forces, it is a child of opposing forces that will journey forth to reset the worlds once again during Ragnarok. As such, His parentage had to encompass that antagonism. He had to carry within Himself the twin and violent forces of the original creation to rework and restore that original cosmic balance again.
I was thinking about the ‘Lay of Hyndla’ today. There’s a beautiful, haunting passage where Freya talks about the piety of Her servant Ottar, whom She has transformed into the boar, Hildsvini — apologies to Old Norse readers. I’m typing this directly into WordPress and can’t figure out how to do the accent marks. In Stanza 10, She tells Hyndla about Ottar, indicating why, perhaps, She is willing to help him on his quest. She’s arguing with Hyndla, who is basically a Goddess of genealogy,(1) so that the latter will recite Ottar’s ancestry, enabling the hero to tap into his ancestral blessings. It really shows how important it is to have proper relationships with the Gods and ancestors, and that if you have one, They’ll help with the other.
10. “For me a shrine | of stones he made,–
And now to glass | the rock has grown;–
Oft with the blood | of beasts was it red;
In the goddesses ever | did Ottar trust.
In other words, Ottar made so many sacrifices, and committed those sacrifices to immolation on Her altar, that the heat of the fires turned the stones to glass. Note that it’s his piety that wins Freya over, not some great heroic deed. May we take him as an example of good, religious behavior.(2)
- Not everyone in the Northern Tradition views Hyndla as a Goddess, but my particular tradition does.
- * sarcasm* I guess that makes Ottar one of the original members of the Piety Posse.
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I make my students and apprentices study the lore and this sometimes seems rather ironic given how I feel about the way ‘the lore’ is utilized in mainstream Heathenry. Here is the thing though: the lore is not in and of itself holy. It contains clues and keys to that which is holy. It’s a bit more than a map, but far, far less than revelation. I think this is an important distinction. Those texts that we consider ‘lore’ were never intended to be used in any religious capacity. They were not, for the most part, written by polytheists. They were not intended to be used as scripture and many of them, having been recorded by Christians, are in fact, somewhat problematic. However, they contain keys to the holy. We study lore to learn about our cosmology, to learn how our ancestors ordered their world, to gain a glimpse into the paths that lead to mystery. it’s a tool, nothing more.
All of this has made me ponder the damage that having a reified ‘scripture’ can do to a tradition. I think it turns “god” into an idea instead of a living, terrifying Presence. It makes religion an intellectual exercise, especially if one culls out the experiential, mystical, or embodied devotional practices as the Protestant Reformation did to Christianity. Religion isn’t an intellectual exercise. There are protocols and practices to be learned because it is necessary to meet the Holy on properly prepared ground, especially the ‘ground’ of our hearts and minds. At its core though, religion encompasses all those things, those structures and practices, patterns that pattern and infuse us with the experience of our Gods. It is a thing that reaches into our guts, tears open our hearts, brings us to our knees before the Powers and changes everything. It is not neat and sanitized. It is dark and bloody, terrifying, and glorious. It is not a thing of civilization, it is a thing that connects us back to our earliest ancestors and the Gods that brought them the gifts to create civilization. It is a thing the practice of which reaffirms and recreates our cosmology every single time we engage. It is that through which our world and experiences are properly filtered.
When ‘god’ is an idea and not an experienced, shattering Presence, the mystery is stripped from one’s religion and it becomes a game, an intellectual exercise, it becomes a brittle carapace. With so many of us having converted from monotheisms, from religions centered around a deeply reified sacred text or texts, it’s important to challenge and push ourselves out of our comfort zones. We prioritize the written word in a way that our ancestors never, ever did. We look to the written word to define our experiences instead of allowing our experiences to inspire our written word.
Moreover, we should be getting the interpretation of our lore not from scholars but from our shamans, spirit workers, clergy, and specialists, from those stepped in the deepest mysteries of our traditions, not from those who would analyze the holy out of those traditions. Doing the latter damages not only the community and those devoted to their Gods, but sterilizes the tradition as a whole. If one is properly stepped in one’s tradition, there are numerous illusions that the lore can lead one to. For instance the story of Thor killing his goats so a peasant family that was offering the gods hospitality might eat well, and then restoring those goats the next day provides a trail that can be followed when one is contemplating how to do proper sacrifice. The story of Odin hanging on the tree and winning the runes provides a blueprint for one of our esoteric traditions. The story of Freya winning brisingamen points to connections, deep and powerful, between the Duergar and the Vanir and the connection between creativity and abundance only otherwise hinted at in our stories. It’s not enough to read the lore or to memorize it. One must steep oneself deeply and fully in the cosmology so that one has the necessary keys to decode and interpret. General lore thumping is all the more frustrating because it’s a further corruption of the holy. To be blunt, these people don’t know what the fuck those stories are about. Yes, the stories are fundamental but *not* the text itself, rather what is important is what the text alludes to.
Story is always alive. Reifying lore is no different than Christians mistaking the Bible for the Word. It’s the Word that creates not the book. Of course, this is also a symptom of our converts having been raised in a monotheistic, modern culture that wants quick, carefully organized, boxed in, rigid answers. Mystery is never, ever easy and simple. It’s painful, often bloody, confusing, messy and bigger than we can ever imagine. Most importantly of all, it has to be experienced to be understood, otherwise it’s just useless trivia. I think there’s a difficulty in Heathenry, and in our world in general with mistaking the knowledge of the lore for experience. I also think wanting those rigid categories becomes a dangerous crutch. It further conditions the mind to keep the holy terror at bay but the holy terror is what mystery is made of. It is the essential conduit to our Gods. Keeping it at bay, sanitizing it as I wrote above, keeps Them at bay too. Essentially, the lore are accounts of the holy so they contain the holy even if in imperfect form. They’re doors into that world that underlies this one. Truly comprehending our sacred stories prepares one for being dropped into Mystery.
As an example of how important that mental lens is, a spirit-working colleague told me he has a new taboo: he can’t talk about mystery stuff in his tradition, not even with initiates unless he is in the proper headspace. This trumps even being in clean, unpolluted space for him. Now I don’t have that, but it’s an interesting example for me at least, of why understanding cosmology and headspace is so important and so, as much as I shake my head to say it, because I never thought I would, all of us need to be steeped in our cosmology, starting with he Poetic Edda. This means, not just having read them, but having meditated upon, discussed, and analyzed them. That cosmology needs to shape the fabric of our minds.
Now, to reiterate, the Eddas were written down two hundred years after conversion by a Christian. They’re not in themselves sacred writ, but they are what we have of the stories of our Gods and they invite us into the cosmology and contain within themselves even such as they are, hints at our mysteries. This all came up when I was teaching my apprentices the basics of our fire mysteries. In my tradition (and this much I can say publicly), that starts with learning how to make fire from flint and steel. Part of this connects us to our ancestors, but part of being a good fire worker isn’t just being able to pull off the technique, but rather consciously reenacting the cosmological moment of creation, when the world of fire and ice met. One reaffirms and recreates that via the headspace the one is in while doing the technique. Everything started with fire and ice.
Everything before everything came from the interplay of the world of fire and the world of ice. Then there is the breath of Odin that brought us to life, the fire given by Lodur (Loki), the spark of intelligence by Hoenir. everything resolves back to fire, ice, breath, and force. When you’re making fire with flint and steel, you’re bringing together opposing forces. It perfectly recreates that moment of creation. Flint hits steel and sparks and BOOM it’s the action not either of the tools themselves. It is what you are doing and the headspace and mindfulness in which you do it. In Anfang wer der tot…I think of the beginning of Goethe’s Faust : in the beginning was the deed.” (if I have my German right) So much repeated in our cosmology as a theme is the interplay of opposing forces. This in turn is a necessary consequence of polytheism: multiple Forces with different desires,, agendas, preferences and They’re going to be in conflict and crash into each other and that’s not a bad thing but on the contrary, a tremendously, terrifyingly creative thing. These are in many ways, mysteries. Our whole cosmology is contained in starting a fire, which is why it’s the first mystery.
Going into our spiritual work, our devotion, our practices with an awareness that unites the stories we have read, with an understanding of the sacral interplay of forces (and Forces) in our world, is the point of the lore. I always suggest to my students that they think of the “lore” as Cliff notes, bullet points, truncated thoughts but that they never, ever mistake it for experience of the Mysteries, nor for the Gods Themselves.
(I know that this is going to be a challenging topic for some of you. If you are bothered by frank discussions of religion and animal sacrifice, stop reading and go watch this cat video. Here’s some pussies for you to play with. For everyone else, let’s have an adult conversation).
Years and years ago (at least fifteen if not longer) when I was still Theodish, I remember many heated discussions over the proper way to perform sacrifice. Those among us who were trained to perform this ritual were split about the proper way to dispatch the chosen animals. Some favored shooting the animal in the head first (as a mercy) and others using a clean cut at the throat. One of the reasons given for preferring the traditional method (the cut of the knife) was the story of the Thor and His goats.
Thor’s chariot is driven by two goats: Tanngrisnir (snarler, one who bears his teeth) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder). When necessary, Thor is able to kill, cook, and consume these goats who will then be restored to life with His hammer provided their bones are left intact. The prose Edda tells the story of Thor’s visit to a farmer. He and Loki stop for rest, and Thor (perhaps knowing that hosting two Gods is a bit much for a poor farmer) offers up His two goats in sacrifice to provide the evening’s meal. There’s one caveat: the bones must not be cracked for their marrow. They must remain intact. The farmer’s son Thjalfi can’t resist and cracks one leg bone to suck a bit of the marrow. When Thor restores the goats to life, one of them is lame. In reparation for this, the peasant offers his children Thjalfi and Roskva to Thor as servants. It’s an entertaining tale and Loki, Thor, and the children go off to have adventures. For our purposes, however, the important point is the emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the bones.
In the Theod, we solved the initial debate by choosing to sacrifice in the traditional way (and in retrospect I’m very, very glad we did so). At the time, I didn’t see the problem with shooting the animal first. It seemed merciful and kind but over the years I’ve completely changed my position. Partly, I’ve had so much more experience with proper sacrifice and I’ve become far more confident in making sacrifice myself, and I’ve had far more exposure to other traditions where this is likewise common. I learned several things, not the least of which was that if a cut is done cleanly and correctly, it is actually all but painless for the animal. I’ve also come to realize how crucially important this story is to the ritual scaffolding in which sacrifice must take place.
When we do these ritual actions, like sacrifice, we’re re-enacting our cosmology. We’re bringing to life the communal mysteries of our tradition. A living tradition exists in those currents and it is the obligation of those practicing it to renew them regularly.
This is also largely why I no longer believe it appropriate to shoot the animal before cutting its throat. A) it’s far more humane to cut properly and B) any other method is a violation of ritual protocol. The bones must remain intact. I went back and forth on this for years and I used to come down on the side of shooting the animal first if one felt one must but now, I think that is incorrect. As we learn better, we do better. A sacrifice is more than just a collection of mechanical techniques. It is the living expression of a tradition. It is a sacrament.
For the blotere,(1) there are three parts to any sacrifice that must be carefully learned and understood: the mechanics (how to make the cut and to do it painlessly for the animal, and effectively), how to do the divination to determine how to dispose of the sacrifice and whether or not it was accepted, and the ritual itself, in other words, how to infuse the entire procedure with the holy, how to make the conscious connections between the cosmic structures in which we’re working, the ritual being done, the living tradition, and the Gods Themselves. This is a ritual process. It’s not enough to simply cut an animal’s throat, or kill it in some other way, and give it to the Gods. There is a proper ritual scaffolding for the act, an act that is our holiest and most important of sacraments.
It’s not just that you’re giving a life to the Gods; the act of sacrifice is an imitation of primordial creation: Odin, Lodhur, and Hoenir create the world out of the slaughter of Ymir. Sacrifice is tapping into that, recreating that act, everything that it encompasses, bringing our traditions into being again and again and again and that’s potent magic.(2) It must be approached in a proper way, with purity and focus, and attention to every detail. It’s not enough just to slaughter. We must understand what we’re tapping into and why.
This all came up recently within my lineage when one of my apprentices received inspiration for a sacrificial song. We had long felt that there should be some sort of song sung when the animal is being sacrificed.(3) In fact, it’s rather odd for our traditions not to have one; after all, the ATR have a special song that is sung when an animal is given and so did many Greek and Roman traditions. It was part of the procedure in many IE traditions and it always seemed rather odd to find the Norse and Germanic ones lacking. I was delighted when L. came to me with his song and when I did divination to confirm its appropriateness, the sense of it was overwhelming. Our tradition regained one of its songs. Think about how profound that is for a moment. When our traditions were destroyed by Christianity, our songs fell silent. Our procedures were lost. The scaffolding that supported our traditions was broken. This is one step back to full restoration and that is incredible.
It brings home the necessity, the crucial necessity of re-sacralizing our ritual procedures. It’s not enough to do, rather we must understand how to invest these actions with the sacred and why – otherwise, it’s pointless. (4) We must open ourselves up once again to awareness of the Holy. Our Gods are counting on us. Our traditions demand it.
The next time I take up the sacrificial knife and prepare myself for this ritual, I will think on this: Thor had two goats given over to nourish both Gods and man. Their bones must always remain unbroken and they will be restored to life. As I take up the blotere’s blade, with each offering, I am calling our traditions back to life again, and again, and again. May they flourish.
1. sacrificial priest
2. this article is about ritual sacrifice to the Gods only. Sacrifice for magical purposes is a different matter all together, not covered here.
3. It doesn’t matter to which Deity the animal is being given, or how the animal is disposed of afterwards: the act of sacrifice itself taps into certain cosmic grooves within the tradition.
4. and a mockery of our ancestral ways.
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Those of you who are familiar with Heathenry will assuredly be familiar with the fixation some (most) Heathens have on lore. With a demographic drawn largely from Protestant Christianity, and working in an over-culture that is doggedly Protestant Christian in its attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that there is deep suspicion and even hostility toward anything not immediately and apparently mediated by the written word. Given that the majority Heathen demographic is also largely working class, there is also a noticeable insecurity and ambivalence toward mysticism (i.e. direct experience often dismissed in Heathen circles as “U.P.G” or the dreaded unverified personal gnosis) and you have, well, a mess.
Before going further, let me clarify what passes for ‘lore’ in Heathenry. When one of us speaks of “lore,” we’re referring to written texts. That includes the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon texts, and contemporary historical, archaeological, linguistic, as well as any other relevant scholarly work. None of these texts may be considered ‘revealed’ texts, nor were they ever intended to serve the purpose of “scripture’ in the way we are accustomed to think of that term. This is the context in which most Heathens frame their religion, and in many cases, it’s also the context by which their experiences is consciously limited. I find that unfortunate. It is not however to be unexpected.
Let’s unpack that a bit. One of the dominant features of Protestant Christianity is a liturgical focus on Scripture. This was, historically, one of its criticisms of Catholicism: that the latter’s praxis and liturgy veered too far away from Scripture. Bible study, memorizing and quoting scripture, the emphasis (here shared with Catholicism) on reading and of Christ as the embodiment of the “Word” are all key facets of this approach to faith. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is referred to as a ‘religion of the book.’ Even before the Protestant Reformation, in the medieval period with the early Christian fathers, there was this emphasis on text.
Essentially for religions of the book, there is holy writ, and it has tremendous authority in guiding practice and approach to faith. Since Vatican II, unfortunately, Catholicism has also been — all in the spirit of “modernism” and “ecumenism” of course –doing its best to cull its more mystical elements, including devotion to Mary on the grounds that it’s not textually authentic. I find it depressing and sad that a rich, complex, mystical theology would be exchanged for a pseudo-rational, unemotional, modern, scripture based approach. But that’s just me. When this was restricted to the Christians, it wouldn’t be something I felt the need to address, but it’s been a struggle over the past twenty years to avoid having this same reductionist approach dominate Heathenry. We are raised surrounded by the cultural and social trappings of Protestant Christianity. That is the dominant voice of American culture, even amongst our intellectual “elite” — even if one is not Christian. One of the unspoken facets of this is that we assume religious experience to have a textual base. We look for “Scripture” to tell us what to do, what to believe, and whether or not we’re doing our religion right. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to examine our religious expectations, to drag all our unspoken, ingrained assumptions about how a tradition works and how we ought to engage out into the light. There will be parts useful and parts not, but it’s important to see it all clearly. (1)
So with Heathenry, we have a contemporary religion trying to restore what is a conglomeration of ancestral traditions. That’s awesome. What we need to take into account, however, is the influence of our over-culture, birth religion, and the fetish we seem to have for “progress,” and “modernity.” Sometimes it isn’t and sometimes, what we are expected to trade for the trappings of “modernity,” is too high a price to pay for what we get. I don’t think we’ve quite all figured that out yet. It’s so much easier after all when humanity is at the top of the hierarchy, the center of the world, the apex of experience and we don’t have to worry about pesky Gods. It’s so much easier when engaging with the Gods as individual Powers is viewed as déclassé. It’s so much easier when our only obligations are social ones, oh, and reading an authorized text of course.
I’m being more sarcastic with the above statements than I initially intended, but this is the lay of the land in Heathenry. It’s ironic, given that such an attitude would have been utterly incomprehensible to our Heathen ancestors, who knew the wisdom of piety and reverence, and when to go on their knees in the dirt before their Gods out of awe, and when to sacrifice without bitching about giving too much, and that the Gods were Powers capable of impacting our world and us.
In a way, we’re having to do now, what the very early Christians had to do in order to grow their faith. It’s ironic, this role reversal, but it struck me during my reading the other day: early Christians developed their monastic traditions and powerful traditions of interiority and prayer because they had to worship in secret, or at best in small groups away from the public eye. It wasn’t until later, once they’d gained political power that they were able to effect large churches and public spheres of worship (and oppression). First, there were small groups, and individual prayer. This made the hunger for texts, I would think, all the more powerful. If i can’t be celebrating my God with a group of my co-religionists, then allow me to summon that community, and the presence of my God to my memory by reading stories and accounts that we all share in common. Let the absence be filled by memory evoked by engagement with the text. Let me engage with my community –spread out and hidden–in a unity through that very absence as it were. Now, Christians are everywhere (everywhere *sigh*) and it is the polytheist contingent that meets in small groups, often quite spread out, and perhaps — i’m speculating here–we also find ourselves deferring to written texts for prayer and meditation more than our polytheistic ancestors may have done, ancestors for whom the core beliefs of religion were contained and transmitted via intergenerational household and social practice. They could see their religion and veneration for the Gods reinforced all around them. We who don’t have that, depend much more on written media. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Christians engaged with their texts every bit as assiduously as the best (worst — i suspect it depends on your pov) Heathen lore thumper. They didn’t just read and take pride in their ability to memorize and regurgitate (as many a Heathen lore-hound has been known to do). They engaged in a certain amount of exegesis. Each reading opened the door to meditation and prayer, and that in turn opened the door to the potential at least — with the grace of God–for direct experience. Each text, led one on a meditative journey with the goal of drawing closer to one’s God.(2)
This really came home for me when I had to read an article about how small prayer books were used for personal devotion in the medieval period (c. 11-12 Centuries) when there was a shift in focus from communal liturgical devotion to private, personal prayer. I won’t quote the description of the process one would go through when using a Christian breviary for private use, but I am going to re-contextualize that process for a Heathen audience. (3)
Firstly, and this is something Rachel Fulton notes in her article, to own a book was to participate in privilege. Now, I realize that may not be quite the same with us today, especially not with the proliferations of e-readers, but there are parts of the world where reading and writing are a gift, and a privilege. Also, there’s magic there. Think about the first of our ancestors who realized that potential in making marks on the surface of a rock or bit of bark or clay. Think about the work that went into the book you hold or read, it was first formed in the mind of its creator, brought into being, translated to text, and pushed through the publishing process, disseminated online or to bookstores and finally ended up in your hands. This process was much more laborious in the medieval period, but each book is still a miracle, still an act of creation and craft. There is something very special in text that ties us to each and every reader who may likewise be influenced and inspired. This is all the more true of religious texts where the readers share a common cosmology and devotional approach.
So drawing upon and expanding upon the description offered in Fulton’s article, here is how — were I as a Heathen to engage in lectio divina–engaging with the lore might look.
Many medieval prayer books, like prayer books today were drawn off of scriptural readings, as well as set prayers. So using that as my paradigm, I’ll choose a section from the Poetic Edda focusing on one of Odin’s mysteries, the Runatal section of the Havamal. (I should note, the same process that I shall uncover below might be used with a prayer too, to equal effect). Here’s the text for those who might be unfamiliar with it:
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.(4)
First, I might read it quietly aloud in Norse and English. There is a rhythm after all, to the Norse verse that the English translation, however well done, lacks. Certain of the Norse phrases I might have (in fact personally do have) committed to memory. These I might linger over, letting the tones of my words resonate through my body. Odin is, after all, a God of empowered speech, of galdr, of poetry, of incantation. I would strive in my private prayer to make of these phrases, whichever I choose, an incantation that reverberates through the memory hall of my heart, that strikes at the core of my soul, kindling devotion, opening me up, bolstering a desire to connect, to reach outward to Him.
Perhaps I have recently read academic commentary on this section that brought some insight applicable to my spiritual life to light. I might mull that over for a time. My mind might segue to an image of a Tree that calls to mind Yggdrasil. Perhaps I’ll parse that word out: “Steed of the Terrible One.” What does that mean about this Tree. What does it mean about its agency and awareness? When I think of Odin hanging, there are a thousand images that come to my mind. Perhaps I have included one, a prayer card, or even a photocopy of the image in my Edda where I can look at it as I read and pray. Or perhaps I have an image on my altar or shrine, and I am praying and reading with this in my sight.
In my case, part of my ordeal cycle was a hook suspension in imitatio of this exact experience. It is Odin’s greatest mystery and the point of most powerful (for me at any rate) connection to Him. When I read about the windy tree, I think of the november night that I underwent this ordeal. I think about how cold and damp it was, what effect that had on my skin and my muscles, how I watched the sun set with growing dread. I wonder what it was like for Odin approaching the Tree, what preparations He might have made, and what it must be like to be a God and still be afraid.
I have a chant that I use for Him that recounts His time on the Tree and perhaps that will come to mind and if I am alone, I might even offer it to Him aloud. We don’t yet have the tradition of devotional images to which medieval Christians could turn in illuminating their psalters and prayer books, but we do have some. Many, particularly older images show Him in armor on the Tree, or at least a helmet. I wonder why when it was the moment of His greatest power but also His greatest self-chosen vulnerability. What does it say about a God who would choose that? I think about all the images I’ve seen of Him on the Tree—does He have both eyes, or has the artist portrayed Him as already having made His offering to the Well? What do I think of that? What does my own experience tell me there about the variations of mythic time?
maybe I cross-reference this with articles or passages about the sacrifice of His eye. Was this presaged by His encounters with specific runes? Had He been trained for this? What about the fact that Mimir is His maternal uncle? That was a powerful role in many cultures including the early Germanic. What do I know of Mimir? What do I know of the wells that sit at the base of the Tree? Are they all one well, or many? Why are they located with the Tree? What does that mean? What came first: offering to the well or offering to the Tree and does it matter?
When I read the line about Him being wounded by His own spear, I think about sitting beneath my tree, the hooks going into my flesh: how that felt, what it did to me, where it allowed me to go. I remember the disorientation of swinging beneath the branches of the tree, watching the world fall away as I was lifted off the ground. What did He see when He rose into its boughs. I recall other experiences with Him in the woods, and the sound of His body falling sharply down through the boughs.
I remember some of His heiti, his praise names, particularly one’s having to do with the Tree. I think about how the Tree is always nourished in blood, and what such an initiation would mean. I think about the runes and why it took this type of ordeal and sacrifice to win them. I might call to mind the rune poems and see how they too are connected to the Old Man. Maybe, if I am in a mood to do so and if, in the flow of my contemplation, it feels correct, I galdr the rune itself with the goal of being given insight into that moment, that time, that experience.
I read and think on Odin, and think about all the parts that went into suspending me in my tree. How was He suspended? Did the Tree itself grasp Him up? Did the branches pierce HIs flesh and hold Him true until He was empty of screaming and could be filled by something else? Or was that process too an ordeal to be surmounted, a tactical challenge to be met?
I might turn to prayers that I have written or collected that tie to that experience in some way, that bring to my heart’s mind and senses, Odin on the Tree. I might say them, and then return to the Edda passage going over those lines again, rooting out connections to other things, all so I can find my way to Him. If emotion comes, I will sit with it and allow it its voice. That too can be a connection to Him.
The passage talks about the roots of the Tree. Images of ancient Trees with huge, gnarled, tangled roots come to mind and I let them. I think about how when I was lowered to the ground again after my ordeal, after however long I hung suspended in the tree, my feet touched the ground and there was relief, release, and pain, such pain as the muscles in my lower back went into full, several days long spasm. (The angle of the body when hanging in the type of suspension is not the best for those with bad backs. I knew this going in). I wonder if it hurt Odin just as much when He was released from the Tree as when He ascended it to be taken up. I think about all the things that can never be remotely comprehended save by initiatory experience and how it breaks one’s world into a before and an after and how there’s never any going back. I wonder what regrets He left at the Tree, or whether He didn’t have them until later, or whether He had them at all. I wonder how He contextualized the experience that of necessity must have changed Him so in its aftermath.
I pray to be opened up to understanding, to greater connection to Him knowing that it will change my life and I contemplate how far I might go in my devotions to ready myself and make this possible. I think about how far He went. I return to some of my personal prayers, that I’ve written for Him at various times as well as my extempore utterances in the moment and I offer these up to Him again, moving away from the Runatal text and back again and again and again.
I happen to have this particular text memorized, which adds another layer to the experience of engaging physically with a written text. The text is already present in my memory, but I involve my sensorium (sight, touch, sound if I choose to read aloud) when I’m looking at a book and that ads another layer of both engagement and meaning. Being a language person with more than a smattering of Old Norse, I might also ponder both meaning and syntax and grammar of the original to see what can be gleaned there. We all bring different experiences and skills to the table in our devotional life and I think it’s good to use what you have to begin these practices.
I could go on from here, line by line with the Edda, or with any other text, but I think the process is relatively clear. The important thing isn’t being well-read in lore, the important thing is to read lore — if it’s a tool you find helpful–always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: veneration of the Gods, developing a devotional relationship with the Gods, calling Them into the seat of the heart, developing greater understanding of that place in which one dances in relationship with Them. If you’re going to use lore, understand that it is not an end in itself. It’s a map and as with any map, there is a goal external to the process.
1. For more discussion of the Protestant attitudes dominant in American secular culture see “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobsen and also “Secularisms” by the same authors. For information on the impact of Vatican II on the devotional life of the Church, and the absence of Mary see “”Missing Mary” by C. Spretnak, “Alone of all Her Sex” by M. Warner, and for the focus of the Protestant Reformation I highly recommend E. Duffy’s “THe Stripping of the Altars.”
2. Guigo II “Ladder of Monks and the Twelve Meditations” Cistercian Press. See also the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, works of John Cassian, Anselm of Canturbury, even Origen if you can stomach it.
3. Praying with Anselm at Admont: A meditation on practice by Rachel Fulton. First published in Speculum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul, 2006), pp. 700-733, published by Medieval Academy of America.
4. Taken from Carolyn Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda.