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On Ritual Praxis -Structure, Roles and Responsibilities

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Up until now the majority of the On Ritual Praxis posts have been applicable to both the individual and to groups. Having started at the individual level and worked our way outward, it is time to dig into the larger spheres Heathens are within. I will start with how my Kindred and I understand the structures Heathens operate within, the structures of Heathenry, and then on to the roles and responsibilities people within them may take up. As with other posts in regards to On Ritual Praxis, these are meant to be guides rather than exhaustive, and reflective of how my Kindred and I work. Folks may have different kind of relationship based on structure, worldview, or specific home culture from which their Heathen religion springs.

Structures in Heathenry -Innangarð and Utgarð

The most basic structure in Heathenry for my Kindred and I is the innangarð and utgarð. The innangarð, meaning within the yard/enclosure, start with our Gods, Ancestors and vaettir, us as individuals, our families (chosen and blood), and our Kindred. This innangarð extends out to our allies and friends. Those who are not innangarð are utgarð, outide the yard/enclosure.

Why does this structure matter so much?

It is how we prioritize our lives. It is where we understand ourselves as fitting within, and to whom we owe obligation. It is how we understand how our ørlög and Urðr unfolds, and to whom both are tied most tightly. This does not mean that those in the utgarð are beyond consideration, that only our innangarð matters, or that we are given license to ignore the responsibilities we share with the larger communities in which we live. It means that those within our innangarð have highest priority, and it is where the bulk of our energy, attention, and work belongs.

If the basic understanding is that one’s first priorities are to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then good relationships with Them are one’s first obligation. Likewise one develops a hierarchy of relationships and obligation to one’s self, family, friends, and allies. An understanding of the structure of one’s life begins with understanding one’s cosmology. That understanding then extends into every relationship one has, whether it is with those in the innangarð or those outside it. It extends to every piece of food we eat, even to the media we consume. A cosmology exists everywhere in every moment or it exists nowhere. We do not put our cosmology on pause, we live within it.

The innangarð and utgarð are extensions of our polytheist understanding. Those Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we worship and hold relationships with are within our innangarð. Those we do not are utgarð. This does not mean that Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir that are utgarð are always bad for us or wrong to worship, merely that they are not within our primary scope of obligation. The Holy Powers in our innangarð are those we worship and have relationships with. They are who we turn to when things are rough and who we celebrate festivals and victories with. Likewise, the people in our innangarð are those we turn to when things are rough and help in turn, and celebrate our victories with.

Structures in Heathenry -Families, Hearths, and Tribes

Heathenry as an identifier is useful only insofar as it signals to ourselves and others that our worldview, religion, and culture is based in lived religion whose backgrounds are based in reconstructing/reviving ancient polytheist religions of Northern Europe which included Scandinavia, Germany, and Anglo-Saxon peoples among others. So we may say we are Scandinavian Heathen group, or an Anglo-Saxon Heathen tribe, or a Germanic Heathen hearth. Even so, this breakdown can miss the differences a given Anglo-Saxon Heathen tribe may have from one based in Texas vs Tennessee. We may share cosmological principles, and our conception of and relationships with Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir may be similar, but there will always be variations between how we relate to and understand each principle, God, Ancestor, and vaettr based in each person, family, hearth, or tribe’s relationships with these principles and Beings. Innangarð, utgarð, ørlög, and Urðr (or culture-specific names holding similar meaning) as understood through one’s Heathen worldview are the primary means for understanding and establishing webs of relationships. With this in mind, I primarily understand and refer to Heathenry as communities of tribal religions.

Some Heathen groups have not and may never make it to being a tribal group simply because they are a single person, family, or hearth that does not ‘click’ with any other ones. A Heathen whose organizing stays at the individual level has no more or less inherent value than one that is a tribe. It means the way one does ritual will change, who one is tied to in obligation changes, and the complexity of one’s relationships changes. The point of identifying structure is not to make tribe something to aim at nor solitary worship in Heathenry as something to avoid. The purpose of going through these terms, especially in how I am using words here, is to develop words with clear meaning for our communities.

Simply put, a family is a group of people related to each other by blood, marriage, or association. A hearth is the home/place in which a family or many families are gathered with a common religious outlook and practice. Tribes are associations of families and/or hearths linked by shared culture and religion. Mimisbrunnr Kindred, for instance, is a tribe made up of many hearths, each with its own family.

Divisions of Innangarð

I like to think of innangarð and utgarð as a series of circles. The first circle of the innangarð is the hearth, the second the bú (farmstead), the third the Kindred/tribe or other groups, the fourth is the Thing, and fifth are the wider associations we hold.

The hearth, as mentioned before, is in the home. These are the people closest to you, often those sharing your physical space every day. This is the level at which folks provide daily mutual support, raise their families, and live together.

I chose to use the word bú, or farmstead, to describe the second circle to connect the importance of those who are within it. As with a farmstead, those in the second circle together work together in close contact, trust each other, and mutually support one another and complete projects together that benefit each other and their communities. Why not name it something like family or the Kindred? Not everyone who is Kindred may have that kind of relationship with one another, either due to the nature of one’s relationships with a Kindred, time, or space limitations.

The third circle is the Kindred/tribe. These are members of our particular religious and culture communities, such as Mimirsbrunnr Kindred. Some folks at the Kindred level might blend back and forth between the different circles of innangarð, providing support for one another and caring for members within their Kindred/tribe as they can. A person within a hearth circle vs a Kindred circle is that they may provide less material and work support than others at the hearth or bú circle. Kindred ties are often likened to family ones, and this is also part of my experience. The emotional ties are certainly there, but the kinds of things that are expected of me at the hearth level, which includes the meeting of financial obligations and physical needs are less expected at the Kindred level. While I am fully happy to help Kindred members with meeting these needs the expectation is not there that I do that on a regular basis as it is with my hearth.

The Thing is another circle in which I took inspiration from history. A Thing was called to engage in trade, settle disputes, and make plans to work on projects. To my understanding the Thing circle is locally based, including my Kindred in relation to other co-religionists, allies to my hearth, Kindred, and tribe. The Thing circle are those our hearths, Kindreds, tribes, etc. are co-equal with who may come together for cross-community projects, conversation, conventions, or settling of disputes.

The fifth circle, associations, are the communities we have connection to but little in the ways of formal oaths or direct ties into our hearths, Kindreds, tribes, and other closer communities. The association circle we could look at as communities in which we may have mutual interests or some connection with, such as Pagan Pride groups, pan-Pagan groups and gatherings, perhaps the local brewing guild a member might be a part of, etc. These are people we have connections with and may even be important members of, but the connections we maintain with these communities stops at anything insular to our lives. The PPD communities aren’t going to be coming over to my home to help vacuum my house or make sure there’s food in the pantry; that’s a hearth through to Kindred circle thing. We might come together to celebrate Pride day or circle around to remember our Dead, but the community is not involved in one’s everyday life so much as one belongs to the community. A local brewing guild might be a source of great inspiration and camaraderie in the journey of a brewer, but aside from maybe hosting a gathering they will not be involved much in one’s day-to-day life.

Structure in Heathenry -Organizational Models

Since Heathen religions are tribal each group may organize itself differently and for different reasons. In my Kindred’s case our organization structure is hierarchical. I am a goði, filling a role as leader both as a chieftain and priest of the Kindred. As a goði I represent the Kindred as an organization to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the communities in which we live and interact. The others are, at the moment, lay members and do not hold leadership or ritual role positions though any of us might make offerings or prayers. The point of a Heathen goði insofar as we are concerned is as a leader, diviner, priest organizing and conducting rites, a representative for the group before the Holy Powers and communities, and a helpmeet to the Kindred’s members in keeping good relationships with one another and the Holy Powers.

We organize hierarchically in Mimisbrunnr Kindred for a few reasons. The Kindred started as a Rune study group with me leading it, and grew from there into a Northern Tradition/Heathen study group. From there, we grew into a working group, and from that group we grew into Mimisbrunnr Kindred. Our worldview as Heathens is hierarchical, whether we look to our Gods, our ancient Heathen Ancestors, or many of our vaettir as examples of how to organize ourselves. We work with a hierarchy model because through it we are organizing ourselves in a manner similar to our Gods, Ancestors, and many of our vaettir. We work in a hierarchy because it works for us, and we have not been told by our Holy Powers to adopt another model. Our roles in the Kindred are clearly delineated, and the work each of us has to do is supported by each of us doing our work.

Other groups may organize along different lines. I have read on groups which operate in egalitarian ways, and others that organize along strict king/subject relationships. Others organize as loose groups of people who come together to share in the occasional rite together. Each group will need to find which model works for it and the purpose it is gathering for.

Structure in Heathenry -General Roles: Laity, Leaders, and Spiritual Specialists

Laity

Laity are non-specialists in religious communities and tend to comprise the core of most religions’ members. There may be leaders in the laity, such as a head of a hearth or heading up a charity or some essential function in a family, Kindred, or Tribe. What differs laity from spiritual specialists is that lay members’ lives share the common elements of Heathen worldview and religious communities.

Just because a given Heathen is a layperson that does not mean they cannot do spiritual work or that they have any more or less value to a given Heathen community. Any Heathen, given practice and dedication to the work, can learn to divine. What differs a layperson who divines from a diviner, who is a spiritual specialist in a given community, is that the diviner does their work for the community as a respected authority or guide, and the layperson who divines may be talented but does not hold a wider communal role in doing divination.

Leaders

To lead is to “organize and direct”, to “show (someone or something) a destination by way to a destination by going in front of or beside them”, “set (a process) in motion”, to be “initiative in an action; an example for others to follow”.

A leader is someone who shows the way forward by walking it. It is someone that takes responsibility not only for one’s own actions but for anyone that follows them. A leader organize, directs, and sets those around them in motion. Leaders in Heathenry tend to be some kind of spiritual specialist whether or not they hold a formal title in a group. However, this is not a strict requirement. One can hold a leadership position in a group and still refer to spiritual specialists for things like divination or spiritual work needing to be done.

There is at least one leader for the hearth. This is someone who, whether by choice of the hearth or by default, represents that hearth before the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. They model right relationships if there are others in the hearth, tend to be the ones who makes the prayers and offerings first, and does divination to see if offerings are accepted. My wife and I share these duties in our hearth.

Spiritual Specialists

A spiritual specialist is a person who has developed skill, expertise, and works in some kind of religious role within a Heathen community. Some examples of this include goði/gyðja, priests, spiritworkers, diviners, spáworkers, seiðworkers, Runeworkers, and sacrificers, among a great many. Spiritual specialists may do one job, eg diviner or sacrificer, and otherwise hold a role in a given Heathen group like laity.

Spiritual specialists are not, by default, leaders, though many are. For example, a diviner may be consulted by a group, but the diviner may have absolutely no role in how the results of divination are acted on by the group or how a leader reacts and plans once divination has been done. Depending on the size of a hearth, Kindred, tribe, etc there may be no specialized roles like these, or one or two people may be called on to fill multiple roles.

Structure in Heathenry -Hosts and Guests

The structure around hosts and guests in Heathenry has a long history on which the home cultures have a lot to say. The Hávamál, for instance, has a great deal to say on the roles of hosts and guests. Structure of this sort extends to the holders of a hearth and visitors to the hearth itself in or out of ritual. This structure also is present in Kindred members hosting a ritual or gathering to non-members. Whether or not a visitor has religious business with a host makes little difference. As these are lived worldviews, structures like these do not end or start at our doorstep; these are lived wherever we go.

A host’s responsibilities include making sure a given guest is comfortable, free from hunger and thirst, and understands their role in the hearth, Kindred space, ritual, etc. This includes what taboos they need to observe such as “do not touch the altar or ritual items without permission” or a requirement like “make an offering to the hearth’s Holy Powers on entering”. For purposes of a ritual, a host may need to provide instruction for a newcomer to Heathenry, or to provide offerings for a given ritual so the guest can make them. The host needs to be aware as they can of everyone’s taboos, requirements, and so on, so both ritual and non-ritual situations can proceed in peace and order.

A guest’s responsibility includes being careful, humble, and not demanding too much from their host while making every effort to be firm in their own needs and requirements prior to visiting. Observing the rules of a hearth, Kindred meeting, and/or ritual is a must, as is following directions for ritual, and abiding by the host and other guests’ taboos and requirements where able. If conflict can arise it is the guest’s responsibility to inform the host. While a host needs to know everyone’s taboos, requirements, etc they do not live with a guest’s taboos or requirements, and may need reminding.

While this may all seem self-explanatory, the back and forth reciprocity of what I have written here is anything but. Many people may consider asking a person what their taboos or requirements are invasive, while others may be too shy or shrinking to state the needs their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, or personal circumstances have placed on them. Still others may simply not know how to ask or say, so having that onus on both host and guest is one that can prevent sources of problems. This same onus in regards to ritual also helps to prevent issues arising from a given host or guest’s taboos, needs, or requirements in ritual space. Far better to be notified ahead of time needing to apologize in a ritual for a slight, even if it was not meant.

Such a taboo or requirement may be quite simple. While I drink I have Kindredmates that do not. Part of the onus on me as a leader in a Kindred ritual, such as a celebratory feast, would be to ask what they can drink as a substitute, such as juice or root beer, and provide it, or to encourage them to find an alternative they are comfortable with. The Kindredmate has to be honest with me, asserting their need to have an alcohol-free choice just as I need to sensitive to that need. Likewise, being a diabetic, I may ask that there be diabetic friendly options for me in the celebration feast. The role of host and guest is reciprocal, each having a piece in determining the comfort and well-being of the other.

Structure in Heathenry -Grith and Frith

The word grith is related to sanctuary and security, while frith is related to peace and good social order. Both are to be held sacred by guest and host. A host provides an environment that is safe and secure for the guest, providing a place for grith and frith to be, while the guest does not bring things or do things that would harm grith or frith. Again, reciprocity is the rule of Heathenry.

Which Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are being worshiped are part of how one designs a ritual and influences what good conduct for it would be. Part of keeping grith, especially in ritual, is to be sure that everyone gathered observes the rules of the ritual and the sacred space. If a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or vaettr to whom the ritual is dedicated has a taboo to observe then the host needs to be sure everyone is keeping to it. Something as simple as everyone turning off their cell phones prior to a rite is keeping grith.

Keeping frith in ritual is everyone being involved in the ritual and carrying it out well, and avoiding what would interrupt the rite, or cause problems during it. This is part of why roles can be important. If there is a need to do divination then having a designated diviner who divines and interprets the divination will allow the ritual to proceed with good order and clear ways forward. Having a ritual leader allows for the leader to correct missteps or to help with folks unused to ritual, or one of its forms without folks stepping on one another’s toes or undoing the ordered space of the ritual.

Being mindful of the vé, what to or what not to place on it, and at what time, is part of grith and frith. Each hearth’s relationship with the Holy Powers, layout of their vé, what is and is not acceptable as offerings, on and on, has the potential to be different from any other hearth’s. Open and honest communication about every aspect of a ritual, and if there is to be some kind of celebration, what everyone’s taboos, allergies, etc are is a must. Nothing will spoil a ritual like having to firmly stop someone from making an offering that is taboo, or a post-ritual feast like having to rush someone to the hospital because someone did not list the ingredients in a dish!

Structure in Heathenry -Gebo, Megin, and Hamingja

The focus of Heathen ritual praxis has its feet firmly planted in the idea of gipt fa gipt, gift for a gift. In other words, reciprocity. I often refer to it on this blog as simply Gebo or living in good Gebo. The reason we do ritual is to establish, strengthen, and appreciate our relationships with the Holy Powers. Doing this allows for the good flow of megin and hamingja between the Holy Powers and us, and between those we engage with in ritual.

Megin translates to “might”, “power”, “strength”, “ability”. Hamingja translates to “luck”, “group luck”, group power”, “group spirit”, or it has to do with the guardian of one’s family line or power, often seen in a female fylgja. Where megin is more straightforward, because of the issues Lars Lönnroth states about how hamingja has come down to us, different people relate to the concept in different ways. Some view or experience it as a straightforward force, and others as a spirit. Regardless, megin and hamingja are built well in good Gebo.

Why might we care about having healthy, well cared for megin and hamingja? These are pieces of our soul. Megin is the ability to affect the world around us, to do things. Hamingja is the unfolding of our ørlög and Urðr with others, whether through the spheres of influence we can affect or how others affect us. Megin and hamingja are how we get things done, how are actions are felt through the things we do.

Gebo, megin, hamingja, and all they touch are integrated. By doing right by our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another, we allow for the good flow of Gebo, and the building of good megin and hamingja. By building good megin and hamingja we build our webs of relationships well in ørlög and Urðr. Whether we are alone or in a hearth, Kindred, tribe, or a larger community, in doing this we allow for the foundation of good relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and with one another. These good foundations are what Heathenry is built from.

On Ritual Praxis -Hearth Cultus

October 21, 2018 1 comment

In the Beginning to Worship post I asserted that polytheisms the world over are first based in the home. This is referred to as engaging in hearth cultus and are often contrasted with state or communal cultus. The word cultus itself relates to “care, labor, cultivation, culture; worship, reverence”. The root of this word in Proto-Indo European, *kwel-, relates to “revolve, move around; sojourn, dwell”. The hearth cultus and temple cultus, then, are places where culture and religion come around to live and be cultivated, and are among the centers where worship and reverence take place.

Because a hearth cultus forms the heart of polytheist religions, it must have the backing of a solid worldview as to what the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are, and what and how these Holy Powers are offered to, the hearth’s relationship with the Holy Powers, and how the hearth relates to the cosmology of the religion. Sacred space within the home is established through the acts of cleansing a hearth and setting up a vé, a sacred place for the Holy Powers, whether it is on a physical hearth such as a mantle, the only dresser in a dorm room, or in the heart of a home on an altar. Hearth cultus is engaged in the hearth in both formal and informal worship, and in engaging in divination to determine offerings, questions related to development of personal and hearth cultus, and communication between the Holy Powers and the hearth. All come together in the establishment, carrying out of, and passing on of a hearth cultus.

The center of the home has switched a bit for modern America. In the interim since actual hearths and their fires were the center of the home, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually, the role of the hearth has been split in most modern American homes between the living room and the kitchen/dining room. The living room tends to be where we enjoy one another’s company, socialize, engage in festivities like Yule gift-giving or New Year’s celebrations, and play. The kitchen/dining room is where we prepare our daily meals and eat, talk about our day, and spend a good deal of time together as a family. When the table is cleared sometimes we use this space to do homework, pay bills, play boardgames, or engage in feasting festivals like Thanksgiving or one of our harvest holidays, i.e. the Haustblot. It is unlikely any two hearths look alike for cultural/religious reasons or for the physical layout and needs of a given hearth. Still, most share commonalities of function for the hearth and its members.

The Microcosm and the Macrocosm

A given hearth’s sacred space is both its own space and a reflection of how a hearth relates to its cosmology. This is why a firm understanding of worldview and sacred stories is needed for any polytheist’s development, let alone any cultus. How we relate to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of our cosmologies are important questions because it forms the core of who we are and why we do what we do. The worldview of the hearth is how the hearth is formed to begin with, how the members conduct themselves within the hearth, and how the vé of a hearth are made and maintained.

In setting up a hearth some questions need to be answered. Many of these questions were asked back in the post On Ritual Praxis -Beginning to Worship and serve as guides going forward.

The first question of any hearth is: What is a hearth’s place cosmologically, both in terms of representation of the larger cosmos and in terms of on-the-ground worship, reverence, and life for those who gather around it? How do members of a hearth relate to Fire Itself? How do the members of a hearth relate to Gods of the hearth? All of these are powerful questions, as each is intimately related to the kind of place the hearth itself occupies in the heart of a given home.

What Holy Powers are worshiped, revered, and called to in a hearth and how its cultus is shaped depends on how these questions are answered:

What are the Holy Powers and how do we relate to Them? Are there certain directions that are sacred to a given Holy Power, and if so, what are they? What Holy Powers belong in or to the hearth vé? How does the religion relate to Fire and Holy Powers of Fire? Are there established ways to light Sacred Fires within the religion? Are there Holy Powers that should not occupy the same spaces or be close to one another? Should some Holy Powers occupy certain places in a hearth not on the vé at the heart of a hearth, but in some other place such as above the stove, near the front door, near a source of running water, etc.? Are there specific ways each family member relates to the hearth and its keeping?

How the hearth and any vé besides the hearth itself are made and maintained depends on these:

What are the vé or equivalent sacred spaces in the religion? Are there traditional methods in existing sources as to how they are erected, or will new traditions around constructing one need to be made? Does the making of a vé differ whether it is an altar, shrine, hearthfire, and/or mantle? What are the right ways to treat the places where vé are kept? What offerings are good for making in vé? If a vé is at the heart of a hearth, such as above a fireplace or stove, or in the living room or kitchen, does it hold a special place for the family and in the culture/religion of the hearth? If so, what role does a given hearth member take on in relation to the vé?

These are how my own hearth answers these questions.

What a Hearth Is

The hearth is the heart of a family, or writ larger, a Kindred, tribe, or other similarly organized community group. It is where cleansing and purification begins, whether through Fire Itself or through the lives of sacred herbs such as Großmutter Una. It is where sacrifice takes place such as through the offering of Grandmother Mugwort or other burnt offerings, offerings of food which are consumed by the hearth fire or made outside, or where sacrifices and/or tools to make sacrifices are made sacred for their work.

The hearth is placed in an enclosure of Earth, whether it is outside in my family’s sacred grove firepit or in my Kindred main meeting home in a fireplace. The lighting of the Fire brings to mind the sparks that melted Nifelheim, and so, made our lives possible by allowing Ymir and Auðhumla to move about. The lighting of the Fire is also one made in honor of our Ancestors. Once kindled, the hearthfire is the boundless energy of Fire given bounds by Ice, in this case the entropy that occurs as heat and light is given off in the burning of fuel, and contained by Earth in which the Fire is housed and whose fuel Fire burns. Water results from the Ice melted and pushes to the surface of the burning log/Tree, and wisps of smoke from the log and any offered herbs continue the sacred burning of Fire Itself and Air from the smoke of the log and/or herbs. Each Fire is related to Muspelheim and each log to every tree, so we engage in the cycle of Fire that burns the Earth from which we come so that heat and light can warm us and shine on us, take in our offerings, and take up our prayers to the Holy Powers, including Fire Itself and each individual Firevaettr that comes to rest in our hearth.

So, each hearth made and each hearthfire lit is a living recreation of the Creation Story. Each hearthfire lit is itself connected with the First Fire and is a vaettr, a spirit, unto Itself. Each log burned is itself an offering of the Earth and we give offerings to Fire, Earth, and every other element involved in its lighting. In the midst of all this, a hearthfire is also a signal of cleansed, holy space to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and an invitation for all of us to come closer.

Personal and Sacred

Hearth cults are diverse, whether due to personal relationships a hearth has with its Holy Powers, the land one lives on, or any number of personal factors. A hearth cultus for a lone college student living on campus will look utterly different from that of a family on several acres of land. This diversity should be embraced.

Having been on both sides of this, restrictions can abound for college students that don’t exist for folks in a home. A prohibition against candles will mean that, instead of turning to a lighter or matches, one will probably turn to LED candles to represent the glow of a hearthfire. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; after all, electricity is a form of Fire. Some folks live in homes where size restrictions means that at most LED or tea lights will be the only sources of fire beyond, perhaps, the stove. Whatever the location of a hearth’s vé, the place will need to be undisturbed by animals and respected by those who will be in its presence. If the vé needs to be temporary, only pulled out when actual ritual is going on, then its holding place should be one held in sacred regard.

What matters for a vé is not the size of it, but that it is a place of good and sacred contact between a Heathen and their Gods. Even if the container for one’s hearthfire is a small tin, containing only an image of the Holy Power(s), a tea light, some matches and a small bowl for offerings, this will be enough so long as the Holy Powers are pleased and the cultus can be carried out with reverence. When I first became a Pagan I had a vial with five salt crystals to represent the Five Elements in my rituals. My altars grew from these small beginnings into the altars over time seen here, here and here. My mobile vé for conventions tends to be my collection of prayer cards, an offering vessel, and maybe a few representations of the Holy Powers otherwise. What matters it that you have the means to cleanse the vé, make some kind of offering, and have a container for the vé itself. This is where the map of lore meets the territory of being for Heathens. We bring forward as much as we can, learn as much as we can, and it is here, in hearth cultus, where we put all of this into lived relationship with our Holy Powers.

Making a Hearth

Cosmology, including what directions are sacred and why, what Beings related to the hearth, Fire, etc., need to be known in order for a hearth to become established. A hearth is the culmination of the macro and the micro of a cosmology, the welcoming in of Holy Powers, and establishment of sacred space. Without understanding why it is important to establish a hearth, what establishing a hearth itself means, or the importance of cosmology, myth, and how we relate to the Holy Powers, especially Fire Itself in the creation of a hearth, there is no structure for establishing a hearth nor how to do it. Without these bones there is no point to a hearth, no sacred direction to place it or space one may make it. Without the foundation there is no point to making a hearth. Without meaning behind it, then, there is no hearth.

A hearth is the central sacred space of a home.  For many of us, having a physical hearth is an impossibility.  So how do we bring in the hearth for hearth cultus without a fireplace?  Candles are one way, whether they are burnable or LED.

Are there traditional methods we can see in how to erect a hearth? We can look at how the ancient cultures Heathens erected their homes, and what information remains to us from how their own hearths were established. Most of the information useful to this goal will not be blatantly stated. Given that most of what is available to us in lore is relevant to rulers, not the average ancient Norse, Anglo-Saxon, etc, and given the sources are mostly for skalds and poets to read aloud or for instruction, much of the establishment of modern hearth culture will need to be derived from what we can find for the hints at mindset and worldview in the sources, and from there our own intuition and interactions with the Holy Powers.  A simple example is the centrality of the hearth from lore and archaeology. What remains to us is acknowledgement that the path of the Sun was sacred, and so East is a good candidate for a vé to face or be placed in.

As with a great many things, where lore and archaeology tell us little or hint at things, modern Heathens will need to make our best guesses, do divination, and be willing to correct ourselves when new information rises.  Likewise, the practical needs of any given space will need to be taken into account as well.  Even though the East is a good candidate for a vé to face in, my family’s Gods’ altar stands in the North before the only window in the room.  This table has the best space so our Gods’ representations and offerings are not crowding one another and best fits in front of the window.

Since we do not own the home we are living in and our altars are all upstairs, our vé hold primary places for us in the family, namely our bedrooms.  Were we to be living on our own I imagine the different vé we worship at would be spread over the home.  The Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we hold the closest cultus to might be in a central vé, such as above a literal hearth on a mantle, or on an altar in the center of the living room.  The making of a vé does differ, as a literal hearth at the center of our home would invite variations of ritual that our current set up does not.  If our vé were on a mantle we might not have an altar cloth, or if we did it might be made of very different materials such as pelts/fur and/or heavier cloths.  Our current Gods’ vé is adorned with different colored cotton cloths marking the different seasons.  Sometimes we change our Ancestor vé cloth colors as well to mark the seasons.  We have small heat-resistant stands for when we burn candles, incense, reykr, or offerings.  Given we are in bedrooms and the smoke alarms are very touchy we do not tend to light candles or burn much in the way of offerings or reykr.   This would this change with having a hearthfire, and so would the care of the ashes.  Living on our own, we might collect the ashes of the hearthfire to use in crafting sacred things, such as soaps for cleansing or in leatherwork for fur removal.

Our hearth cultus centers around the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir we are closest to.  For each of us that differs with our individual relationships, but for both our family and our Kindred it is Oðin, Frigg, Freya, Freyr, Gerða, Loki, Angrboða, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Mimir, and Hela for the Heathen/Northern Tradition Gods.  Other Gods of our family hearth are Brighid, Bres, Lykeios, Lupa, Bast, and Anubis.  For our Ancestors we give cultus not only to our blood Ancestors, but also to the Ancestors of our lineages, such as the spiritworkers who came before me, and to those who have inspired me over the years such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Among the vaettir we hold cultus for are the landvaettir and housevaettir.  Each of us also tends our own personal vé to different Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  We engage in our hearth cultus daily, including night prayers and offerings at the hearth, and at the dinner table with meal prayers.  We also occasionally share in ritual celebration of different holy days around our hearth, or with the Kindred around its hearth.

An Example of Daily Hearth Cultus

My family’s daily hearth cultus tends to be quite simple. Most of our hearth rites are some variation on this:

  1. Begin by cleansing.
    1. Most nights we do this by deep breathing three times, expelling the dross of the day out of ourselves and away from the vé, and breathing in good, clean air so we concentrate on the prayers and offerings we are going to make. If we have had a particularly hard day, if we are in a time of powerful transition (such as after a funeral or during a holy tide), if a ritual calls for it, or if it just seems time to, I make a Sacred Fire with Großmutter Una, making reykr over all of us, and the vé. We may pass a lit candle in a similar fashion to working with Grandmother Mugwort, or work with both Fire and Großmutter Una together, passing them over the vé once or three times in a clockwise fashion around the altar. The number 3 is one we recognize as holy, and clockwise works with the turning of Sunna’s journey and the seasons She helps to bring.
    2. Cleansing by Reykr
      1. Make a prayer thanking the Fire, a simple one such as “Hail Eldest Ancestor!” or, a more elaborate one like “Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Hail Firevaettir! Hail Eldest Ancestor! Ves ðu heil!”
      2. Lay down the herb to be burned, in this case Mugwort. Make a prayer of thanks, simple like “Hail Großmutter Una!” or “Thank You for Your gift, Großmutter Una, that cleanses us and brings our prayers to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir!”
      3. Light the match, lighter, or strike the flint and steel. Waft the smoke around once, or three time around yourself, any attendants, and the altar and its contents. If there are items you would like the Holy Powers to bless, waft Them through the smoke before doing this so the item comes into the vé cleansed.
  2. Make prayers.
    1. Most of our prayers are fairly short and to the point. We have a Night Prayer we follow, which is a rote prayer my wife and I developed for our many Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It serves two purposes, the first being is a unifying prayer of thanks for all the gifts our Holy Powers give us throughout our lives, and it also helps our children to come to know the Gods through at least one attribute that They gift to us, and to be thankful for it. We take this time to give any other prayers, whether thanks to Thor for protecting us in the latest thunderstorm, or to Frigg for peace in our home.
    2. Prayers at the Vé
      1. Following the format of our Night Prayers, you could use the simple formula of “Thank You <Holy Power> for <Blessing/Gift/Function>! Hail <Holy Power!>”, for example “Thank You Freyr and Gerða for the World around us!” Another form of prayer would be to gather at least three heiti for a Holy Power you are close to, have fondness for, or are trying to get to know, and pray in a format like this: “Hail Oðinn, the Inspirer! Hail Alföðr, the All-Father! Hail Rúnatýr, God of the Runes! I seek to know You better!”
  3. Make offerings.
    1. It is not enough for us to only pray. We exist in a flowing relationship with our Holy Powers, receiving and giving good Gebo, gipt fa gipt, or gift for a gift. Given we have several altars we dedicate one day to each group of Holy Powers, the first to our Gods, the next to our Ancestors, and the third to our vaettir. Each God has some kind of vessel in front of Them. Our mainstay offering is water. We also make special offerings, such as whiskey, mead, coffee, or food. If we make a special offering that could spoil before our next round of offerings, we respectfully dispose of it in the sink if it is liquid, giving a prayer to the God it is for and a thanks for Their blessings. If the offering is food or herbs we do not burn at the altar, we place it outside in our sacred grove’s Yggdrasil representation, or wait until a Sacred Fire to burn it. We count food offerings among our special ones because we live on the second floor of a shared home and respectfully disposing of the food offerings as described above once the Holy Powers are done with them is harder to do, especially since most of our offerings are made and disposed of at night.
    2. Making Offerings
      1. As our usual offerings are water, herbs, and on occasion stick incense, I will use these as examples.
    3. For Water Offerings
      1. Since our worldview is polytheist steeped in animism, we recognize the Elements Themselves as part of our Ancestry. In recognizing this we thank the Elements Themselves and the vaettir Who we are offering to the Holy Powers. We might offer a prayer like “Hail Water, Elder Ancestor! Hail Watervaettr! We thank You for the gift of Your body, that we offer to the Holy Powers!” Good offerings to give in turn to Water and the watervaettir would be care for our sources of water, prayers of thanks and recognition of all that these Holy Powers bless. Honoring Water and the watervaettir are other sources of good Gebo in our daily conduct with water, including conserving and care for water sources we rely on and/or come across.
    4. For Burnt Herb and Incense Offerings
      1. Follow the structure above in the Cleansing by Reykr section 1, and in 2, change the language to reflect an offering is being given. Something like “Hail Grandmother Una! Thank You for the gift of Your body in offering to our Holy Powers!” or “Hail Mugwort! Hail to You for being our offering! Holy Powers, we offer this Gebo to You!” or “Hail Holy Powers, we make this offering of Mugwort in gipt fa gipt with You!” When addressing the Holy Powers directly, simply saying “Hail <Holy Power>!” or “This offering is for You, <Holy Power>!” or “I make this offering for You, <Holy Power>!” can be enough.
  4. Divination and Follow Up Work
    1. If divination has been called for, whether due to some accident like dropping an offering or knocking over an idol, divination having been requested earlier, or just a prompting from intuition, we usually do it here after prayers and offerings. Some folks regularly practice divination as part of their daily work in heart cultus. I generally do not, since much of our daily cultus takes place at night not long before I have to go to work and I haven’t gotten the message or intuition to incorporate this. Your needs as a hearth and your ability for/access to divination will be the best guide here.

Maintaining Hearth Cultus

The first step to maintaining a hearth cultus once it has been established is to care for the vé physically and spiritually. Cleaning the space regularly, including the disposal of offerings and changing out cloths, and keeping the icons of the Holy Powers clean promotes mindfulness and reverence for the place it holds in a hearth. The next step is to make prayers, offerings, and to do whatever other daily work needs doing at the hearth regularly.

If the vé is in a fireplace then the cleaning of it serves a practical function in keeping the chimney clear of debris and in good working order. This idea is equally true whether the vé is a fireplace, a mantle, a desk, or even a mini altar-tin.  Since the practical is part of the spiritual work, understanding the hearth and the process of cleaning the hearth from a cosmological standpoint makes the work take on deeper meaning. In setting up the vé you are asking the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to help you make an ordered Sacred Space.

The fireplace is no longer just a fireplace; it becomes the hearth, the spiritual heart of the home. The mantle, the desk, the tin is no longer just a mantle, desk, or tin.  In cleaning the vé, the hearth being the micro to the cosmos’ macro, you are helping to bring cleansing and order to this cosmos. It is the where you develop contact with the Holy Powers, worshiping Them and making offerings. As your hearth cultus goes on it may grow or shrink, (or in the case of tins maybe you will make/collect more) and so may the qualities it comes to represent and the meaning the place holds in your home and religious life. No matter your source of Fire for the vé, whatever you put into the Fire or set with It needs to be safely burnt.  Treating the Fire with utmost care is paramount. Every Fire is connected in our understanding, whether the smallest match, the electricity in an LED, or the largest star, and as the hearthfire itself represents Fire Itself, the care each Firevaettr is given should reflect on that relationship.

Whether it is five minutes a day, a half an hour or longer, many times a day, or as we do, cycling prayers and offerings different days of the week, the point here is to maintain a regular practice of devotional work and care for the hearth. Integrating the hearth into one’s life and keep it at the heart may be a struggle for many folks who have never grown up with this. Regular engagement with the hearth physically and spiritually will help this become part of one’s life. Keeping it front and center in one’s home centers the Holy Powers around which the hearth is based, and right along with it, the cosmology and its worldview.

The hearth is one’s cosmos in miniature even if one doesn’t have all the representations of the Holy Powers yet. As I wrote earlier, there was a time when all I had was five salt crystals no bigger than my pinky nail. Now, my family has statues for some Gods and representations for others. Some folks may find they cannot get or afford statues of the Gods. We have statues of Odin, Frigg, Freya, Freyr, and Thor by Paul Borda of Dryad Designs that we bought from different Pagan/Pagan-friendly stores. For Gerða we have a corn dolly with a rake in Her hand we found at a thrift store. Loki, Angrboda, and Sigyn’s representations are a slat of red fox skin for Loki, a badger claw for Sigyn, and wolf fur for Angrboda, each representation gifted to us. Sometimes the Holy Powers are looking for different ways for us to come into Their representations because the representation has something to say or it exposes us to worshiping Them in a new way. Sometimes a representation is what we happen to have at the time; during Many Gods West I had to leave a lot of representations and spiritual tools at home and ended up printing off pictures of the Gods for the event altar and my own.  At the end of the day, use what works to connect your hearth with the Gods.

If one’s hearth cultus is mainly in the kitchen your relationship with the cultus may change, and the Holy Powers one worships there, calls to first, or maintains the boundaries during prayer, offerings, and ritual. One might start a ritual in the fireplace by first calling on the Gods of Fire and then Gods of the Hearth, Hearthkeeping, and/or the Home. A ritual in a hearth’s vé located in the kitchen may do it the other way around, first calling on Gods of the Home and then Fire Gods, as the set up and priorities for the hearth may differ from a fireplace’s hearth.  One’s way of offering might change from Fire being the primary element into which offerings are made to Water.  One’s focus of the hearth cultus might be on the Wells rather than Fire, since the main tools one practically uses in this space shifts from containing and maintaining Fire centrally to containing and maintaining Water.  It does not mean that Fire’s importance is lost, only that the focus of the hearth cultus shifts.

For our family, our relationships with the Gods of family, social order come ahead of Fire given we generally do not work with Fire as much in our daily rites.  We involve Fire when we light candles, turn on the light for night prayers, or sit down to a meal, but the centrality that would be there were our vé on a hearthfire or on a mantle is not present.  Something that was suggested to me by my dear friend and Brother, Jim, is that since the namesake of our Kindred comes from Mimir and the Well of Wisdom, and that so many of our offerings and work involve water and water-based offerings, that while Fire Itself is still recognized as the First Ancestor, that Water, the Well, and honoring Mimir takes priority.  Our family is still working this out with our Holy Powers.

Understanding the role of Fire as central to the hearth does not change, nor does it shift the cosmological importance of Fire.  Without Fire we do not see, our altars are not illuminated, our food goes uncooked, our reykr cannot smoke.  What does change is how we relate to these Holy Powers and how these relationships unfold in our vé.  The cosmogenic unfolding from Fire and Ice meeting still is a powerful source of understanding, one that informs how the Waters that are more central to our familial hearth come about.  The Gods of our home will still be central to our hearth cultus even if Mimir and the Well of Wisdom are honored ahead of Them.  The fixed points of cosmogeny and cosmology do not change, only our points of relating to Them and the place they hold in our rites with the Holy Powers.

Differentiating Hearth Cultus Rites from Other Rites

What differentiates hearth cultus rites from many other polytheist and Pagan rituals is the general lack of altered states of consciousness and its focus on devotional worship and reverence. There is no ulterior goal or motive in daily hearth cultus. You’re worshiping and revering the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of your hearth. That is its goal and its focus.

When I was doing the #30DaysofMagick challenges I set the times I did my work with the Runes apart from my hearth cultus work. Not only did this keep my focus on the rites at hand, it also kept my family’s focus since we do hearth ritual as a family and I am the only one among us that does Runework. In keeping the rites separate I kept the kind of ritual focus needed for good hearth cultus in its place, and Rune work in its own. I do have a daily devotional rite I do with Runatyr and the Runevaettir, but again, that is separate from my hearth cultus because that is personal cultus and work I hold with Runatyr and the Runevaettir. Because neither my wife nor our children have initiated into doing Runework that buffer also protects them from collecting obligation or entanglement with Them beyond my family’s already existing ties.

I differentiate hearth cultus from other rites in the use of altered states since, broadly speaking, the focus of the rites which use altered states are generally to another end beyond devotion, worship, offering, and prayer. Altered states like deep trance work tend to operate as uncontrolled liminal spaces even if they are guided. Unlike a hearth rite, in which there are very clear steps, a focus, and end steps in a methodical way, once one enters into even an altered state, let alone contact with a Holy Power in an altered state, the directions one can go with it are many. There may be spiritual work one needs to do, initiation work to prepare for, or, the raw and intense experience of just being in a Holy Power’s Presence among the possibilities.

Gathering Around the Hearth

Hearth cultus can be engaged in by anyone regardless of aptitude for altered states, magical work, initiation, or experience. Its focus, steps, goals, and means to achieve them are clear and accessible to everyone. Many other rites require some kind of ongoing study and/or engagement with Holy Powers and spiritual forces, such as one’s hamr or önd. Some rites will require initiation and others will require exclusive focus on a goal other than worship or reverence.

The heart of polytheism is in hearth cultus. Through hearth cultus we come to worship, pray to, offer to, and know our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping hearth cultus accessible to everyone keeps our religions, traditions, and communities alive, vibrant, and engaged. Through hearth cultus anyone can begin, continue, and deepen relationships with the Holy Powers. We bring our traditions from the maps of lore, linguistics, and archaeology into the lived experience of worship, reverence, and engagement. Our worldview is lived through hearth cultus. Through it, our relationships with the Holy Powers is strengthened and enlivened individually and communally. With hearth cultus our religions are not mere abstractions, a collection of holidays or ideas. Through hearth cultus we pass on these ways of life to each generation. With hearth cultus being at the heart of our cultures and our religions, they are part of our lives, immanent for each of us and connective between us. Here, in each of our hearths, our ways of life are made and lived in good relationships with the Holy Powers and ourselves.

On Ritual Praxis -What and Why?

March 3, 2018 1 comment

In tackling the subject of ritual praxis I think it is most useful to tackle head-on what ritual and ritual praxis is, why we have ritual praxis, and then, how and why we develop it.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of a ritual is:

1. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.

and praxis:

1. Practice, as distinguished from theory.
2. Accepted practice or custom.

The purpose of ritual praxis is that it is an established body of beliefs and actions rooted in serving a specific end. In devotional work this is fostering right relationship with the Holy Powers, that is, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. In magic, ritual praxis is established so that enactment of the ritual ends in the aims of the magic being attained. Generally, we will be talking about the former: devotional ritual praxis. If devotional ritual praxis is how we establish and reestablish right relationship with the Holy Powers it makes sense not to have to consistently reinvent the proverbial wheel with each new polytheist.

A refrain I heard a lot when I became a Heathen was that Heathenry is “the religion with homework”. What this ends up meaning is that folks will often throw a book list at people and say “Go read and then when you’re ready to talk I’ll be here.” This approach may be keeping out a lot of folks who could be good community members if the barrier to entry was not there.

Do not mistake me, I actually employ a variation on this approach. However, the diference is that I give people interested in the Northern Tradition, especially those interested in joining Mimirsrbrunnr Kindred a book list with a mix of academic and spiritual work-oriented books rather than merely academic texts. The reason for this is to establish that the person is willing to put in work, is willing to adopt and adapt to a Heathen mindset, and to show that they are willing to put time and effort into the Kindred. In other words, show they are worthy of our time.

This is not where I have seen folks direct the “religion with homework” idea. Often, the would-be Heathen is given an exhaustive scholarly book list with little-to-no instruction on how to be a Heathen. The question is not how useful these resources are to a Heathen, but whether or not their use is to the right end. The ‘right end’ in this case being the teaching of, and eventual integration of a Heathen worldview into a Heathen newcomer’s life. It is worth reflecting on what sources we recommend to those showing interest in Heathenry. It is worth reflecting how useful our sources are to the stark newcomer so that we are not merely flinging books at people or building in an assumption that books are the best and/or only way to learn how to be a good Heathen.

I put far more emphasis in my instructions on working through the reading materials, on the doing aspect of the materials, than I do on the academics. The reason is twofold. First, I need to see that the person is actually willing to join the religion not only in mind but also in heart and conduct. Second, I know that some of the material can be damned challenging if not near-impossible to navigate. I found Culture of the Teutons to be a very useful book, one of the best exploring luck, honor, hamingja, outlawry and the like in ancient Heathen cultures. I do not assign this book in the reading list. I had a hard time working through it, and while useful, many of the concepts within it can be effectively condensed into a talk, lecture, or workshop.

The difference between doing the homework vs consistently engaging in what amounts to amateur debates is part of what I see holds Heathenry back. We have experts within our communities both academic and religious. Rather than have each and every Heathen engage in what amounts to lifetime research projects, I would rather see Heathens and polytheists in general develop materials for children and adults who are becoming polytheists. In ancient times intensive studies would have been for ritual specialists alone. Ritual praxis, meanwhile, was on everyone. Everyone knew their roles, and there was little question as to who did what because traditions, including beliefs and ritual praxis among them, had been passed down the generations. If we are to be lived religions, then this approach is the one to aim for. My long-term hope is that the approach I take to prospective members of the Kindred becomes obsolete primarily through oral teaching and intergenerational transmission of the worldview, Kindred traditions, including the Kindred’s Heathen religion and culture.

Where to Start?

The start of right ritual praxis, aka orthopraxy, is in right belief, aka orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy form the ground from which polytheism grows and matures. The two concepts are not in opposition, but rather, affect and inform one another. Some very basic orthodox beliefs in regards to polytheist orthopraxy are:

  • That the Holy Powers deserve to be worshiped and honored.
  • That ritual is a good way to worship and honor the Holy Powers.
  • That well-done ritual foments right relationship with the Holy Powers.
  • That there are ways of doing ritual correctly and incorrectly.

Basic orthodox beliefs of polytheism includes the baseline of polytheism itself: the belief in and worship of many Gods, and that of animism: that all of Creation is, or potentially is, ensouled. Other beliefs would includes the foundational Sacred Stories of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir as we have them and/or are taught them. The Sacred Stories we pass on help to inform the content of our worldview and from this, our rituals.

Right belief is vitally important. Without it ritual is rendered without meaning. Likewise, right action is important. Without it, right belief is rendered without root in the world.

This does not mean that one’s belief in the Holy Powers must forever be ironclad. One’s belief in the Holy Powers may not be very strong or well defined. What needs to be strong is the belief that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits), the Holy Powers, are real and deserving of good rites. In regards to offerings, the belief that the Holy Powers are real and worthy of offerings is all one truly needs to begin, or begin again, to have a strong connection with the Holy Powers. It is why I recommend making offerings and developing devotional relationships to absolute beginners fresh to polytheism. It is not that the academic background knowledge of the Holy Powers are unimportant, but a matter of prioritizing the development of relationship with the Holy Powers over the development of the person’s collection of books and book-knowledge. Ideally, I would have the two develop hand-in-hand.

Developing Rituals

So if we understand that right ritual praxis is conducted from right belief, then, how do we develop rituals? Baked into polytheism’s cake is the assumption that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are real and that They are active agents in relationship with one another, the world, and with us. How do They respond to us? Through divination such as sortilege and the reading of Runes, and through spontaneous forms of communication, such as omens or direct communion.

If we accept that the ways the Gods can communicate with us are many and active then it stands that some of the ways They may choose for us to develop rites will differ greatly from one another. With that said, what I lay out here are guidelines for the development of ritual.

Step 1: Determine the basic purpose of the ritual.
What is the basic purpose of a given ritual? Is it celebratory, offeratory, or a magical operation? Is it a very formal prayer, or one given to a Holy Power extemporaneously?

Step 2: Determine what the ritual is about.
What are the specific purposes of the ritual? Is it a celebration of a cyclical harvest festival? Is it a weekly offering to one’s household Gods? Is it a magical operation involving the Runes to a certain end, such as healing of a broken limb or protection on a long journey?

Step 3: Determine if there are special considerations for the ritual.
Are there taboos to be adhered to, special needs for spiritual specialists and/or laity, or specific requirements for the ritual to be done well? Are there to be certain offerings made, or a sacrifice to be held?

Step 4: Determine the set up of the ritual’s space, including boundaries, altar(s), and so on.
How is the space to be set up? Are there certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir who need to be present? If so, how? Is the ritual area completely inviolate during the ritual itself, or are people able to come and go as needed? If there are special methods for a person coming into/out of the ritual space, what if any means are there to mark the space and tools/instruments/people to make this so?

Step 5: Determine the order of ritual and the roles of spiritual specialists, celebrants and/or operators.
What kind(s) of purifications are to be done? How are the celebrant(s)/operator(s) to be prepared for the rite? How is the ritual to be blocked, if it involves certain prescribed ritual steps or dramatic enactors? How is the space to be held, i.e. festive, solemn, silence?

Be a Good Host, Be a Good Guest

If a rite is to be more contemplative, such as a meditation space, the ritual space may be more permissive in celebrants coming into and out of space. It may need more seating space, and different kinds of seating arrangements for folks with different mobilities, and potential body restrictions. If the rite is to be festive and wild, then the considerations of places that will be accepting of louder noise, places for celebrants to catch their breath, the provisioning of food and/or water will need to be considered. It may be that some celebrants or operators wish to be part of a rite, and have need of special consideration.

Not all celebrants/operators may be able to handle hours of dancing, but may still wish to participate in a wild, festive rite. Consider this in setting up the ritual that folks with mobility issues may need areas designated for them to be safe such as space for a seat and/or mobility aid, walkways, and so on. Consider that some folks have dietary requirements or restrictions, such as needing to eat at certain times or not eat certain foods, so be sure that everything food and drink wise that you have a list of ingredients for these things on hand so all your participants may be informed and safe. Most of these seem to be common sense, yet simple set up for seating in an especially long rite can be overlooked in the early planning stages and later bring great distraction to an otherwise well-planned ritual.

Clearly laying out the expectations for the spiritual specialist(s), celebrant(s)/operator(s), and/or guests is a must. It may not prevent a disruption in ritual, yet it can help mitigate issues as they come up in a ritual. Letting people know who to turn to if they forget a step, or how to say certain ritual phrases will make the ritualists jobs’ easier and make the rite flow smoother. That said, if people become disruptive or antagonistic to the rite, it is far better to eject a person than it is to try to keep soldiering on. Ignoring a disruptive or rude person may be directly insulting to the Holy Powers, or lessen the usefulness of the working at hand. At the end of the day, for the people involved being a good host to and a good guest is key to ritual going well.

The Small Details of Ritual

If a ritual is a a ceremonial act done in a prescribed order, then it follows that as many great details to figure out, there are small details to consider a ritual ought to go. Should cleansing be done with the right or left hand? Should one enter into ritual space on a certain foot? Should an idol be approached only by an initiated priest? Are there exceptions to these rules, where an idol which is usually only approached by a priest is shown to the laity?

Notice I said these details may be small -not unimportant. Especially as polytheists develop their own traditions of worship with Holy Powers the disposition of small details may become more important to the completion of a good ritual. There may be good reasons related to cosmology for offerings to be laid down a certain way. For instance, in offering to Gods of Muspelheim one may be directed to lay them down in a southerly direction, as in lore it is said that is where Muspelheim may be located. For Gods of the Underworld, or for those spirits who are located beneath the Earth, such as the Dvergar, placing offerings for Them in an elevated place may be insulting, so you place offerings on or in the ground for Them. Rivers may be seen as running throughout the Nine Worlds, and so, disposing of offerings into running water may be seen as near-universal for the disposal of offerings, or only for certain Holy Powers, depending on one’s view and relationships with the Holy Powers. Since all the Nine Worlds hang on or are within Yggdrasil, making offerings at a special tree serving as Yggdrasil’s proxy may be a good place for offering to any of the Holy Powers.

The consideration of the small things may be the entire point of a given ritual or magical operation. If the small things are unattended to, the rite may be spoiled or the operation fouled. Something as seemingly small as not setting down an offering in an exact order, or circumambulating with a censer or blessed water may seem minor to us. If our point is to worship and honor the Holy Powers, then even our small things need to be oriented towards this.

It is worth remembering that in many of our rites we are reenacting cosmological principles in even the small gestures we make. Going sunwise, then, is not just something we do in many of our Heathen rights because it is something we brought in from Wicca. The Sun, through Sunna’s chariot, brings the blessings of warmth, growth, and life through Her cycles. By not following Her rhythm in a ritual, say, to bless a garden, we may be bringing in other cosmological influences that are not in accordance with the rite. In this instance, by passing our hand over the garden against the sun or counterclockwise, we may be asking for Mani and the Moon’s blessing or Nott’s influence in darkness to vegetables that need a great deal of sunlight. The symbolism we employ, whether or not we realize it, is alive with meaning and import to each ritual, even, and sometimes especially in these small gestures.

The Roles of Divination

Divination and other forms of spiritual communication are a good part of how the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy is kept in polytheist religions. It provides direct communion and feedback with and from the Holy Powers. The methods of divination available to a diviner are likewise hooked unto orthodoxy and orthopraxy. On a basic level, the orthodoxy of divination, and divine communication in general, is that the Holy Powers are real, and can and do commune with us. The basic orthopraxy, then, is that in the act of divination we are open to change as well as reaffirmation of what has come before, both in terms of our orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Divination serves a number of functions in the creation and execution of ritual. Among the uses for the creation of ritual itself are:

  • The creation of a ritual calendar/cycle.
  • For whom a given rite may be dedicated.
  • The timing of a ritual/series of rites.
  • Determining the proper order of a rite.
  • Determining the sacrifice(s) for a rite.
  • Who should be doing what before, during, and after the rite.

Among the reasons one may wish to divine during a ritual are:

  • That the set up for a ritual is good and acceptable to the Holy Powers, that things are in order for the rite to begin.
  • Checking in when an incident or accident occurs during the rite, such as someone being burnt during the rite to see that it is merely an error/accident and not a response by the Holy Powers to the occurence.
  • That the offering laid down are accepted.
  • That any messages the Holy Powers have for those gathered are received.

Divination itself is beyond the scope of this post. Like ritual craft, divination is a craft unto itself. Like ritual craft, divination requires you to do it to learn how to do it better.

Bringing the Rites Home

Generally speaking, a good chunk of ancient polytheist religion was lived in the home every day. It makes sense that the majority of polytheists today are in a similar boat. While folks may read everything above and think of it in terms of larger group ritual, such as a Kindred or similar group getting together, it matters just as much, if not more so, to the people in their homes. After all, if the majority of polytheist religion is practiced in the home, thinking about why and how we approach ritual has immediate impact on how we relate to our home cultus.

So why do rituals in our home? It’s where we live when we’re not working or running errands. It’s where our roots are set. Our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then, should be where the roots of our lives are set. Many of us live in places where going outside to do ritual is impractical, lack an outdoor space which would be undisturbed and kept sacred to the Holy Powers, and/or lack a temple space outside the home. By necessity then, the home is where most modern polytheists do ritual.

For my family the rituals we do as a family the most often are prayers to our Gods each day, each meal, and each night. We have rote prayers we have memorized for these, both because when we started to do them it was far easier to teach than how to do extemporaneous prayers. Doing things this way provided a set of common prayers for how to address our Holy Powers, a common well that we draw from in all our home rites. We do weekly offering rites which incorporate prayers, gestures, and the giving of physical offerings, usually water, food, and/or alcohol. We may celebrate the seasons and holy days doing much the same.

The beautiful thing about polytheism is that no one’s home cultus has to look like another’s. The how of how we do ritual in our home’s is individual. While my Kindred and I share similarities in home cultus, it is unique to each of our families. For instance, our altar setups are different. We use resin statues from Paul Borda of Dryad Design for many of our Gods, whereas another family uses statues from Unicorn Studio. Many of our offering vessels are clay, wood, or glass from garage sales and thrift shops. Our representation of Gerda is a corn dolly that came from a thrift shop with a wooden rake in her hand.

We also place different emphasis on different Gods depending on the household. In our home Odin and Frigga are the head Gods we worship and offer to, and then we offer to the others. Thor and Freyr may be the first Gods in other Kindredmates’ homes. Even between members of our family we have different emphasis on different Gods, even though we collectively worship the same Gods. Our son, for instance, has an altar to Thor and the housevaettir in his room that he takes care of on his own, while I emphasize Odin in my own practice and time where we do not worship as a family.

What unites us as a family and a Kindred is a shared worldview where the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are to be honored and worshiped, and shared ritual structures. What each of our Kindredmates does in our own home will have variations from each other depending on some combination of our relationships with the Holy Powers, what we have to carry out our rites with, and what we are able to do.

The Unfolding is Ongoing

As Heathenry and the Northern Tradition Pagan religions are lived through, rather than merely being set down in a book or series of books, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are continuously unfolding. Sometimes certain orthodoxy are held throughout one’s life and continue on through the generations, such as the Holy Powers being real and worthy of worship. Likewise, orthopraxy such as the giving of offerings for the Holy Powers are held right along with them. Some orthodoxy, such as the belief it is wrong to offer certain things may come to fall away with orthopraxy of divination to determine what are good and right offerings.

In the polytheist understanding of orthodoxy and expression of orthopraxy is that we are in living relationships with our Holy Powers. There is reciprocity consistently between ourselves and Them, lived in every thought we give to why and how we do what we do, and in the doing of the thing itself. There is reciprocity in the asking of “what should we do and how?” and following up on those questions. Why we do this is to live in good relationship with our Holy Powers. How do we do this? Eventually, all comes down to our relationships with the Holy Powers and Their impact on and in the lives of our communities, our families, and ourselves. As our relationships unfold with the Holy Powers, so too will our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and along with these, our worldview and ritual praxis unfold.

We will explore how one can start to worshiping the Holy Powers in the next post.

A New Series of Posts on Ritual Praxis

February 10, 2018 5 comments

I was inspired by a conversation with two Heathens I speak with to begin writing on ritual praxis. For me, this project will take place along similar lines as Lārhūs Fyrnsida, especially in regards to their Ritual Format page. Before we get into types of ritual praxis, it is my firm belief that explaining why we develop a ritual praxis is more important, so that will be the first post in the series. Then, we can dig into how we develop a ritual praxis.

The reason I decided to write a series of posts on ritual praxis is because I have seen a lack of understanding about what ritual praxis is and why it is important in my local Pagan and polytheist communities, especially from a general Heathen perspective. My aim is to provide context for our home and communal rites, giving people a place to reference or jump off of in developing their own.

A few things to note:

  1. While I do not take a single ancient Heathen perspective my references are primarily Norse and Icelandic with bits of German and Anglo-Saxon. My use of language and the specific words I use reflects this view. I see nothing wrong with being eclectic. I respect that, for a great many people they find more use in sticking to one culture as their worldview. For me and mine, our worldview is primarily based primarily in Norse and Icelandic culture with appreciation for crosscurrents between other ancient Heathen religions as we find them.
  2. This will be a series of posts describing why then how Heathens without a particular cultural focus should and can build a ritual praxis. It will focus first on hearth cultus, religious life and rituals centered in the home. We can move out from there.
  3. This series of posts is meant to spur people to not merely think about their religion and religious activities, duties, and so on, but actively to do them. What this means is that if you are doing rituals and you are doing divination to check on things like “Is this ritual correct for us? Are the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir happy with this?” I fully expect you to act in accordance with your own results.
  4. The power and beauty of tribal Heathenry is that presumably the reader and I are not in the same tribe, and just because we may approach the very same Gods does not mean They will have the same responses to our offerings, rituals, and so on. I fully expect folks may get completely different responses from the Holy Powers, and the needs of a given community may differ such that ritual format, protocols, taboos, offerings, etc. may need to change. In other words, none of what I am writing should be taken to be set in stone. These posts are guidelines, not instructions.
  5. Down the road I may move these posts and future posts down the line into a format similar to the Lārhūs Fyrnsida because of ease of access and solid structure.
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