How do we begin to worship our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits? What are the bare bones needed to start a Northern Tradition or Heathen ritual practice?
While I will be going over things like roles and responsibilities in later posts, I wanted to go over how to begin to worship. Often, folks just starting out new to polytheism or Heathenry itself want some bare bones on which to base their religious life. Perhaps they are just starting to come to understand themselves as polytheists, or they have attended a workshop and found they want to dig into Heathenry. Looking in from the outside many find “the religion with homework” has a barrier to entry they do not have the ability, resources, and/or time to handle. It is my hope these posts ease folks into engaging with the religion.
Polytheisms around the world are based in the home, generally referred to as hearth cultures or as holding a hearth cultus. Hearth culture historically was where the bulk of polytheist religious life was lived, and still is the majority of where polytheist religion is expressed. This post will provide the necessary ground before we address the subject of hearth culture and cultus itself, which will be in a following post.
From here on, for those looking to this post for some guidance, I will assume an agreement to the basic orthodoxies of polytheism:
That the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits (collectively the Holy Powers) are real, worthy of worship, worthy of good ritual, and worthy of good offerings. That there are right and wrong ways to do ritual for Them and to offer to Them. That what constitutes a good ritual or offering may be cultural in scope and/or individual to each God, Ancestor, and spirit. That divination is done to establish and/or confirm that rituals, offerings, and so on are done well in accordance with the Holy Powers.
The Beginning of the Beginning: Preparing Sacred Space
The making of a Sacred Space is the first step to inviting the Holy Powers into our lives. Part and parcel of making that Sacred Space is making ourselves ready for it. By cleansing ourselves we become clean for, receptive to, and ready for interaction with the Holy Powers in a good state of being. Cleansing serves to bring oneself into alignment with the Sacred space, drive out unwelcome spirits, removing/releasing the dross we have accumulated over the day, and being a good host/guest. The reason I use the term host/guest is because we physically host the Holy Powers in our home during a ritual and/or on an altar, but once the space is made Sacred it is Theirs.
Once we are ready for the Holy Powers we can make the space ready for Them. There might be some physical preparation, such as cleaning, setting up the space prior to a rite, crafting/buying/harvesting sacred items for the Sacred Space, or if erecting an altar, putting it together. Without getting too far afield, each of these things themselves could involve or be a ritual unto themselves. Once any physical preparation is done, we can then purify ourselves and the area, and then make the Sacred Space.
A Sample Purification Rite
Either start with the Sacred Space clear of all but the essentials for the purification rite or with the Sacred Space populated by all things needing to be purified. All that is needed is a fire-proof container, something to set the container on that can safely absorb heat, matches, and some mugwort. Mugwort is the Eldest herb in the Northern Tradition, and a cleansing one, among Her many attributes. This is not called smudging. We recan (Old English) or reykr (Old Norse), purifying a place with smoke. This can also be adapted to Mugwort in water, called hreinsa (rinse in Old Norse) or wæsc (wash in Old English), modifying the Fire Prayer to one addressing Water.
I begin with a prayer to Mugwort, Grossmutter (Grandmother) Una:
“Hail Grossmutter Una, thank you for the gift of Your body that we may cleanse ourselves and this place, that our prayers may reach the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.” With each pinch, generally three or nine, I say “Hail Grossmutter Una.”
Before lighting the match I begin with the Fire Prayer:
“Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail to Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Ves ðu heil!” I then light the match and encourage Grossmutter Una to smolder, usually adding at least three to nine breaths as an offering of myself to Her and to encourage the smoke.
I then thank Grossmutter Una and the Eldest Ancestor for cleansing myself and anyone else present, wafting the smoke over me/us from the top of the head to the feet, passing my/our feet through the smoke and then back up to the top of the head.
If I had the Sacred Space set up previous to lighting the Fire, I then pass the smoke over the assembled items, and for those items that can be passed through the smoke I then do so. If the Sacred Space is clear of all icons, sacred tools, etc. then I pass them through the smoke and place them where they need to go.
Making Sacred Space
A Sacred Space is one set apart from the usual, a place of contact between the Holy Powers and Their worshipers. A Sacred Space can be as old as a mountain or as new as a space you just set up for the Holy Powers on a halved log. What matters is that it is a place that is set apart, for however long, for the Holy Powers. When we talk about making Sacred Space a lot of folks are talking about temporary places in the grand scheme of things. Until we start passing along hofs (temples) and bu (farmsteads/farmhouses) to our children and/or Kindreds/groups, most of us are not setting up intergenerational structures.
I will generally follow the format below for most of my rituals, in this case when setting up a ve, regardless of where it is. Unless fire and/or smoke are forbidden, or would be a problem for an attedant’s health, I will generally work with the Fire Cleansing as above.
Step 1: Cleanse the space and the people as in the example above.
Step 2: Prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to help make and inhabit the ve.
Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.
Step 4: Do the ritual.
Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.
An Example of Creating Sacred Space
The example I lay out here can be used for any vé (sacred place), whether it is one’s home altars, a hörgr (outdoor shrine made of, or on, rocks/boulders), or the creation of Sacred Space for divination. Like all of the examples here, it is intended to be adapted to one’s needs, especially if tradition requires it or divination has brought up considerations to be mindful of. In this example we are asking a tree that has given its blessing through divination to become a place of offering and ritual, a physical representation of Yggdrasil.
What is needed for this rite is the same equipment for the cleansing rite above, and in addition a horn or cup for an offering of mead, water, juice, etc. and any other offerings as appropriate to the rite. Perhaps the tree wants to be adorned with some kind of ornamentation indicating its holy status, such as ribbons or representations of the Nine Worlds to hang on its branches. Whatever the ornamentation it needs to not harm the tree and be able to withstand the local weather.
First we cleanse using the example above. Once ourselves and the tree are cleansed with mugwort, we approach the tree. A prayer of invitation is said:
“Hail landvaettir! Thank you for letting us be here in this place. Hail treevaettr! We are here to ask you to become a ve, a holy place where we may give our offerings. A place where we may give worship and honor to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Become our Yggdrasil, become our holy tree, and we will honor you and give you offerings. Hail to you!”
The offerings are then laid, usually at or on the roots of the tree. I will generally bow after the offerings are laid down.
Any ornamentation to be put on the tree is brought forward. In this example we will say the tree will be adorned with representations of the Nine Worlds.
“Hail holy Tree! We mark you as Yggdrasil, placing these Nine Worlds in your branches as Yggdrasil carries the Nine Worlds! Carry Them in strength and power! Ves heil!”
Once the Worlds are attached to the new World Tree, nine offerings symbolizing the Worlds are laid down with three draught of the mead offered at the roots of the Tree. Divination may be done at this point in time to double check the offerings are well received, and to make more if needed. If everything is cleared, continue on.
“Hail holy Tree! Thank you for your Presence, for becoming our Yggdrassil! Thank you for allowing us to offer at your roots, to do ritual beneath your branches. Ves heil!”
On Ritual, Mindset, and Expression of Worldview
So far I have dedicated most of this post to writing on the setting up and care of space than I have to actual worship. This is because setting up a space to worship and beginning to worship is more than merely setting the right mood, making the right prayers, and laying down the right offerings. It is about the entire mindset that goes into doing ritual right and well.
When we engage in ritual we are engaging in some very basic understanding and expression of how existence itself works. We cleanse because coming to ritual physically and spiritually clean to the Holy Powers is both respectful and in keeping with our place as host to Them. We set up our ve as separate, holy, apart from mundane existence because treating our holy places as we would some place mundane is contrary to what our ve are, and the place they are to keep in our lives. To treat a holy place as a mundane one is disrespectful and wrong. In the case of the Tree representing Yggdrasil how we treat it is how we treat Yggdrasil. In this case, it is the place where we make offerings, do ritual, and come to interact with our Holy Powers. It is where the Nine Worlds and us can come together in a holy place to meet, grow, experience once another, and more.
Setting up a ve right and well is ordering the cosmos in miniature. When we light a fire, whether from flint and steel, a match, lighter, we are reaching back to the First Fire, the Eldest Ancestor, and through those ties we bring It forward into our present while still understanding that each individual Fire is a vaettr unto Itself. When a tree becomes a World Tree, it is the anchor point of that part of the cosmos both in terms of our rituals and in terms of our mythopoetic reality. So, each Fire lit, each tree that becomes Yggdrasil is both a Being unto Itself, a point we reach back to and which is brought forth that also, in the same way, brings us to It and back to It. The tree is a tree, of course, and simultaneously it is Yggdrasil! The Sacred Fire is a fire, of course, and simultaenously it is the Eldest Ancestor. We are us ourselves, and yet, we are the Ancestors and an Ancestor in the making, ourselves.
We exist together in these holy places, these between places, and what we do here reverberates through Wyrd with more force because we are not merely interacting with our world in mundane ways. When we go into ritual we are interacting with our understanding of reality, the Holy Powers, and all the rest behind it, at present, and before it. Our holy places stand apart from the mundane not because mundane reality is horrible or less-than. They stand apart because not every place can or should hold this important place for our Holy Powers, our religion, our communities, and ourselves. We need to give space so our mindset is right, so that what follows from that mindset is right. We need to give space s that what is marked, understood, and is holy remains holy.
Worship and Some of Its Forms
Worship is an act of reverence and/or devotion to a God, Goddess, Ancestors, and/or vaettr, a spirit. Acts of worship can be prayers, offerings, sacrifice, celebration, festivals, devotional service, and praise.
How we worship takes a number of forms, some relating back to ancient practice. Some of the best detailed rites of worship are the practice of blot, blood sacrifice. These are well attested to in the old sources, and tended to occur in the context of festivals and periods of celebration, though they also occured during times of crisis, conflict, and war. During the ritual, the sacrificial animal is generally butchered for consumption by the community with some offerings of flesh and blood to the Holy Powers are made. The blood having been hallowed by the Holy Powers and the sacrifice, is sprinkled on the ve and those assembled with a hlaut-tein (blood twig) as a blessing and/or cleansing, depending on the context of the rite.
Another term has come into use in modern Heathenry, that of faining (related to Old English fægan and Old Norse feginn), words which all relate to glad and gladness. Faining, then, is the act of pleasing the Holy Powers or making Them glad. Faining, then, is any rite in which the offerings are any other than blood sacrifice. So, a ritual in which an offering of bread is made to one’s landvaettir is a faining just as a ritual in which an offering of first fruits from one’s garden or orchard is.
Symbel or sumbel is another well-attested form of ritual in which drinks are shared between a gathered people, usually in anticipation of a conflict or in celebration of victory. Toasts, oaths, boasts, and honorings are made over the drink and the drink is passed around to be drunk by the attendants, making it a powerful ritual that ties the celebrants together while also making the toasts, oaths, boasts and honorings public. Worship that occurs in the context of a sumbel can be as simple as “Hail Thor!” or as complex as telling a story of how one gained a victory by the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir and thanking Them. The sumbel tends to be done in at least three rounds, with the Gods’ round going first, the Ancestors next, and then any boasts, oaths, and so on in the third and following rounds.
Depending on the context the worship is taking place in, it may be very structured, or informal. Blot, faining, and sumbel tend to be very formal because there are clear steps involved for a good ritual as well as roles for people to take up that require training and active mindulness of ritual protocol, such as the sacrificial priest in a blot, the cup bearer in a sumbel, or a diviner in any rite. These rites have requirements within them for ritual cleanliness, tend to be communal events with roles and responsibilities for the ritual specialists and laypeople alike, with consequences for the whole community whether it goes right or wrong. Blot can be done strictly within a family context or even an individual one should the need be there. Yet, the need for training and ability to do blot right and well remains.
Regardless of formal or informal worship, the ties of a community matter in terms of each household performing their rituals rightly by the Holy Powers, honoring their oaths, and doing right by the community. Many, if not most forms of worship are not very formal at all. Addressing of the Gods, even as simple as “Hail Freya!” over a poured cup of water is a form of worship as it is both reverential towards Her and is a good offering. What makes it worship rather than a saying of words and pouring of water into a cup is the attitude and mindset of reverence and devotion that precedes, and comes into actualization, through the act of worship.
An Example of Worship in a Faining Ritual
These are the steps I follow in making a faining ritual:
Step 1: Cleanse the space and the people.
Step 2: Prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to the ve and ritual.
Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.
Step 4: Do the ritual, in this case a ritual of prayer and offering.
Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.
In this example the faining ritual is one wholly dedicated to Thor. The altar will have a hammer on it consecrated to Thor, and a carved statue depicting Him, with a representation of a cart and two goats as they are symbols of His. For offerings there will be a horn for Him full of good beer and a plate of bread, cooked meat, and vegetables.
The space and people will be cleansed using the previous Fire Cleansing example above. To invite Thor a prayer like this may be used:
“Great Thor, Who wields Mjolnir, Who brings the blessed rains! Who teaches us the value of our hands and protects us! Hail to You! Please, come to us and be here as we offer and pray to You.”
Each of the offerings are lifted up, circling the horn sunwise over His statue three times, placing the plate before His statue, and putting any other offerings before Him. Bowing, genuflecting, and showing similar kinds of reverence are as each offering is laid down as one’s body and space allows.
At this point praise for Thor’s blessings in one’s life might come to mind, like a tornado passing by one’s home. The praise prayer may go like this:
“Thank You Thor, for protecting my family and I yesterday. Thank You for shielding me with Your Hammer and driving the tornado from my home. Thank You for protecting all of us who share this home, and who offer to You in it.” At this point the horn is lifted and a hearty “Hail Thor!” offered.
If anyone else has prayers, praise, or offerings to make, this is the time to make it. Otherwise, do divination, be sure the prayers, offerings, and praise were well-received, and should everything be well, continue on to the end of the ritual.
I usually take care of any offerings prior to the end of ritual, incorporating the final offerings and prayers at the offering site. Once the offerings are laid down in the ve, a prayer like this may be made:
“Thank You, Thor, for seeing us, for coming to us as we honor and praise You. Thank You Thor, for Your blessings upon us. Ves heil! Hail Thor!”
Informal worship does not necessarily mean without ritual or without structure. For most of my informal worship I will have made some kind of cleansing during the day, even if it was just a shower with some meditation work. Informal worship may follow a ritual format but be more easy-going or conversational, such as a shared mug of coffee in the morning and a conversation with a Holy Power. Something like:
“Hail Disir! Hail Vater! Hail Ancestors! I bring this coffee to share and speak with you.” The rest of ritual may be conversational, but the formal invitation is made with a cup of coffee (or more) laid down for these Ancestors as an offering of worship, praise, and thanks for Them.
The point of informal worship is it does not have to be deeply structured or done at one’s ve, and more than anything it is connective with the Holy Powers. It may take place only in one’s heart and mind, such as with meditation on a particular God or Ancestor. It may take place at the gym as an offering to the Holy Powers one honors with the sweat of one’s work. It may take place in a park in silence or a full-throated song. Informal worship can take place with spontaneous inspiration to leave an offering while on a walk, a prayer while in the hospital with a friend, or doing a craft. While formal rituals and worship occupy certain parts of our lives, informal rituals and worship can occupy any part of our lives.
Most of the prayers and poetry I have written are informal worship. Some were inspired after an some event in my life, others were inspired by reading a passage in a book, others I was asked to write by a Holy Power, others were part of a request or exchange from other polytheists, and others I wrote as an offering just because I wanted to. What matters is that the mindset I was in was geared toward doing poetry that honored the Holy Powers and that what was produced did that.
Taking this approach to our world at large most any action can become a form of worship, a form of connection with our Holy Powers. I offer upkeep of the home to Frigga as She is the Keeper of the Keys and keeping our space as clean and tidy as we can is an offering to Her. I offer time in the gym to my Ancestors because that work honors the body They gifted me with. I offer cleaning up the parks I visit to the landvaettir of those places.
These actions do not replace giving phyiscal offerings. Offerings of service are one of many expressions of worship and devotion to the Holy Powers. Offerings of physical things, offerings of service, and sacrificial offerings are different to one another, and a given God, Ancestor, or vaettr may be more receptive or desiring of one form of offering to the other. Figuring that out comes down to doing divination and listening to the Holy Powers when we are doing the work of worship and offering.
The work of worship then, is found in doing it. One can do all the divination one wants, but unless one is offering then nothing is being offered, and unless one is doing the service, nothing is being done. The expression of our religion is not merely in thinking about things, but in the doing of things.
With this foundation laid we can dig into divination and hearth culture.