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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.

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Polytheist Relationships with the Land, Buildings, and Homes

January 1, 2019 Leave a comment

In a lecture held by James Howard Kunstler and William Fulton at the Congress for New Urbanism, both men go over in brief their experiences with and of urbanism as they grew up through it over the last 50 or so years. One of the striking things just listening to these two talk is how drastic the landscape changed in each others’ times being alive. Kunstler recalled experiencing what he called Central Park being the most lively and beautiful it has ever been after the financialization of the economy took place with the destruction of downtown NYC’s neighborhoods as a result, to the destruction wrought by urban planning in Auburn, NY in Fulton’s hometown. Throughout their lectures both men dug deep into the understanding that their relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land. What I appreciated about both is they both provided context to how each place looked historically, with Kunstler taking a detour to look at Buffalo’s progress over the last 100 years or so. The buildings that were torn down to make room for the new settlements went from places where one could walk, and as Fulton spoke, talked about how the landscape essentially went unchanged once the major highway cut Albany off from its residential zones, causing the zone to wither.

While the history of these places and their relationship to the burgeoning booms of the 40s and 50s are interesting in themselves, what it says about peoples’ relationship to the land is even more interesting to me. Kunstler roundly mocks people for the notion of building multistory food farms in city centers, and his primary reason for is that it is throwing a lot of resources at a problem while providing no long-term means for maintaining these structures. He points out that the urban areas are primarily for urban activities, and that the outskirts of cities and beyond, the rural areas, are the ones we have always historically grown the majority of our food in. That we are trying to get the cities, especially the multiplex cities to do this, is actively fighting against the point of having cities. This is not to say Kunstler is against folks growing their own food or urban gardening, but that we are ignoring the point of cities by trying to have the city do the job of rural areas by introducing ‘urban farming’ to them. For him this is no more apparent than these multimillion dollar projects of vertical farming.

Think about this for a minute. For the most part the cities’ soil is trapped under Gods-know-how-much concrete, steel, asphalt, and wood, and what soil is able to be gotten to may need quite a lot of remediation before it is ready to grow healthy food in. So this means, just on the basis of having enough soil to have enough for a multistory vertical garden, that much of that would have to be trucked in from somewhere else. The vertical gardens of the kinds that Kunstler was showing that are being proposed are massive, requiring millions of dollars in material and labor just to get built and Gods-knows how much more in maintenance. With climate change and peak oil both bearing down on us such projects are, in a word, untenable. Whether looked at from a cost perspective or a sustainability one, we have neither the treasure nor the resources to do this on the kind of scale that those who propose such techno-fixes would propose. We would be far better to retrofit rooftops to develop solar and wind energy, and retrofit the structure of the rooftops themselves to be able to be grown on and recycle water, use greywater systems, and develop top-of-building gardening and raising of animals. We have the technology available right now, the retrofits would cost the a small fraction of what it would to build wholly new vertical farming facilities, and it would have the potential of giving entire communities the ability to feed themselves far better with no space lost within them to what would probably be out-of-city/state developers.

There is another aspect to this that Kunstler did not touch on, and that is “Who is going to get displaced to make room for these? Who will benefit from this kind of development?” Just looking at the sheer amount of money such infrastructure would require I doubt, very highly, that any of the cities that could use such buildings would get them. If they did, in all likelihood it would generate one of the knock-on effects that the ‘urban farming’ initiatives are building in Detroit: gentrification. Sure, the buying up of and developing of properties is needed in the city. It keeps neighborhoods’ prices from depressing and creating a cascade effect in them. Yet, for many cities that are seeing a resurgence of affluent out-of-towners coming into the city and snatching up abandoned or especially foreclosed homes, it is pricing some folks, especially poor people of color, out of their own neighborhoods.

All these shifts, whether we look at the last 100 years in our own cities, towns, villages, and neighbrohoods, or across the board in how American living and commuting habits have changed since the introduction of the American highway system, provides insight in how we live on and with the land. There was a dynamic shift in how cities, towns, and villages were planned when we transitioned from horse, oxen, and waterways to trains for commuting and development. With the development of and later transition to the automobile these same places went through another shift, with the dominant feature being the main roadway arteries between various centers of industry at first, and more recently finance.

Just taking a look at US-12 here in Michigan shows how powerful these shifts are. The modern US-12 was part of two different and very old Native American trails, the St. Joseph Trail and the Sauk Trail. Both were footpaths for Natives here prior to European settlers arriving. It has always been a major thoroughfair for trade, and in the 1940s it was developed into expressways and freeways. Truck traffic still continues, but it has never really recovered from what expanding the highways have done to it. The aftereffects of the boomtown years can still be seen since US-12 is dotted with old, run-down tourist attractions from the 1970s and before, and the thriving antique shops throughout its run through lower Michigan.

As the train systems were demolished and automotives became our primary mode of transportation, many of the neighborhoods built up along the railroads died the same way our main outlets for shopping and commerce in suburban areas have been declinining since the 2008 financial crisis. Stores are shuttered, and entire areas that had once been full of life with residential communities growing in tandem along the railway, or in our case the main roads of cities and towns, went into foreclosure and short sales. Mom and Pop stores were replaced by larger companies or by centralizing stores in the same way that Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Meijer operates now. Those places that could not be replaced still remain as rotting husks of buildings displaying what once was a thriving place.

It is very sobering to think that automobiles have only been around since 1885, and in the time since, massive use of automobiles have only been around since the 1920s. So the main transportation method we take for granted today has only existed at most for about 133 years, and mass automotive use for 98 years. Before then we had mass transit in the form of electric streetcars, steam ferry, and trains. Before then we had horse, oxen, sailing ships, and of course, our own feet. With that in mind, what we have designed in America is an entire layout in cities, towns, and villages for a way of life that has only been with us for about a hundred years at best and is highly energy and resource intensive to create and maintain.

What does this mean for a polytheist view on these things?

We are bound up in the land we live on. Many of us worship Gods of the Earth, fertility, and local Gods. We worship our Ancestors, and the vaettir are all around us. Most of us don’t live anywhere near our Dead whether that is due to the amount of moving around automotives allow for, for personal ambitions, or the need to find steady work. For my family part of living well with our Ancestors is, where we are able, to live alongside Them. In this case this can mean something as small as an urn getting a place at an Ancestor ve, or as major a work as a burial mound being constructed so we can house our community’s Dead. The vaettir are all around us, no matter where we live. It is in our best interest to align well and live well in gipt fa gipt with all our Holy Powers.

If we are going to live well on the Earth with the Holy Powers we need to develop, revive, and encourage ways of life that align with the Earth’s ability to replenish and live well. We need to reduce or eliminate waste wherever we can, and to design our living arrangements so that we are not just extracting resources without Gebo. We have the cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods we have now. I would have us retrofit what we can in these places and replace what we need to for a sustainable future now while we have the resources to do so. Whatever we do the work we put our hands to needs to be for the best for the environment and future generations who will live there.

This approach to how we plan and maintain our cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods brings living with our Holy Powers out of abstraction and into our physical spaces, into lived everyday relationship with Them. It brings our concerns surrounding how we live in our everyday lives and asks “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision. It forces us to acknowledge that there are living relationships with Holy Powers to be had regardless of where we are, or with what part of our lives we are engaging with. Water treatment facility? Likely at least one, if not many Gods to be worked with in that, and many vaettir as well. The city square? Public life is acknowledged as having a spiritual dimension, even if not everyone appreciates that spiritual dimension. Parks and streets alike teem with spirits. Designing our living spaces with care will ultimately benefit the community and the bonds we hold together with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Planning for environmental impact, developing ways that honor our communities and making them places people want to live will help our communities thrive and grow resilient together.

Planning our living spaces does not have to be terribly jarring. We can orient future repair and maintenance projects to make everything as walkable as humanly possible in our cities. We can encourage repair and reuse where we now are encouraged to throw things away and just get a new thing. Encouraging people to live above their businesses where they could would help cut down on wasted space. Developing various districts that make use of locally harvested foods and goods, especially those closest to the our cities and towns, would bring resiliency into these places and in reciprocity, resiliency to those growing and processing these things. Developing intentional interdependent relationships in cottage industries between city, town, and villages with those in rural areas can strengthen bonds between them. Doing this will keep goods and money circulating within and between communities, strengthening bonds and the resiliency of all of those within these relationships.

Encouraging these kinds of investments in our own communities might require modifying entire swathes of building codes depending on how strict they are and the kinds of buildings and industries in a given area. It might require folks to reevaluate how we buy things, how we consume things, and from where we get the needs and wants of our lives. Looking into community efforts to not only put together recycling collections, but composting, can save a lot of space in landfills better put to use in fields and community gardens. Folks will need to decide on where it is best to put their energy. I think that creating more walkable, interconnected, and interdependent places will encourage people to be more active in their communities and develop tighter bonds with their neighbors and the spaces everyone in a community shares.

It is worth thinking about what a climate change and peak oil future looks like. Do not go for doom and gloom; give yourself room to explore the full breadth of human technology and innovation we are privileged to live with in this time. JMG noted in a recent interview he gave that we are not bound to a single time or place in terms of the technologies we can adopt to face the future, and actively encouraged folks to explore what technologies we could make best use of in an age of decline. So yes, that means at some point looking look at what it means to live with intermittent, and perhaps eventually little to no electricity. Look at what it may mean for us to live with little to no gas because much of it would be out of our price range. Once you look around yourself and really see how much work fossil fuels are doing for you, and what climate change can mean for your area, take a breath.

Think about all the technologies we put down because fossil fuels have done so much of the work for us and have taken us out of relationship with the world around us. Our food, our water, how we relate to physical work itself. How we relate to one another. Not everyone can or will farm just as not everyone can or will work metal or wood. There will still be need for writers and artists, laborers, and organizers. There will still be need for folks who know how to make infrastructure, or to design sustainable developments in the places we live. We will still have need of trade, we will still have markets, and we will still have need of means of exchange in some form. We have had cities longer than we have had fossil fuels.

If you think about it, that is damned exciting. If you work with moneyvaettir (money spirits), imagine bringing that dimension of respect for the power of exchange and the power a cultivated relationship that these spirits can bring to trade. When we no longer have our debt-based money system as the primary arbiter of relationships we give space for our relationships with one another to grow in different ways. If you worship Gods who care about governance, imagine bringing the lessons of your Gods to bear in local government work, in layout for the treatment of water, sustainable rain harvesting, or building codes. If you worship Gods who hold theaters as sacred to Them, rebuilding or encouraging a revival of local theater troupes might be a powerful form of devotion. Guilds for craftspeople can be a powerful source of devotion, whether to Gods of the craft, Ancestors (such as masters in the craft who have died), and the vaettir associated with the craft or to crafting in general. Just carrying on a craft or art in general, regardless of skill, can be a form of cultivating relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir associated with it.

When we allow ourselves to understand ourselves in relationship with our Holy Powers and one another not only in abstract ways, but concerete hand-to-mouth ways, our perspective changes. My understanding of Freyr changed when I recognized and worshiped Him as the God who blessed my asparagus with fertility. When I recognized the asparagus, each stalk a vaettr, as being in relationship with Him, it was a profound shift. Freyr could no longer abstractly be a God of fertility; His fertility was absolutely rooted in my soil and that has fed my family since we began to harvest it. Holiness is rootedness. The mead that I brew is related to many Gods and vaettir, and many of my Ancestors would have brewed their own drinks for their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and community. By taking up and engaging in the craft I have engaged in devotion with Kvasir, Gunnlodd, and in different ways, Odin. Likewise, I have worshiped different Ancestors I may not have engaged with, and the vaettir of the mead that I have developed has blossomed into a good, reciprocal relationship.

Through living our religious worldviews, in bringing these ideas of relationship, reciprocity, and wellbeing into our relationships with the lands we live on and the Beings we share this world with, we can avoid the devastating results that business-as-usual visited on Kunstler’s NYC and Fulton’s Albany. We can offer new ways forward in relationship of our societies to the lands we live on. Our neighborhoods may be more walkable, self-sustaining, and resilient. The very way we lay out these things can radically change. Our current ways of doing things are less than 150 years old. We can make our places that we live sustainable again. Arguably, it is one of the biggest shifts we could take so that our societies are in better alignment with Nature.

When it comes to peak oil and climate change we are looking at less is more. A simple example of this in action is a cob building. They can be constructed throughout most of the continental United States from local materials. Cob itself is a combination of soil, clay, and straw. The walls and ceiling are fashioned into multi-foot thick structures, often made in the footprint of the land they are built in. The placement below the frost line and thickness of their walls allows them to regulate heat effectively in most climates, with wood stoves, rocket stoves, and similar devices serving to heat them in colder climes.

Cob homes require very little in regards to fossil fuel inputs for their construction or maintenance due to being made of local all-natural materials, and can be fashioned by hand. Cob homes have lasted for hundreds of years as they were built. Contrast this with the average stick-built home not lasting well past a hundred years that requires massive inputs of fossil fuel powered machines, lumber, plastics, and so on just to build and even more to maintain. Cob homes can be built multistory, and can be built with basements as well.

Now, cob will not be useful in every situation, or even most urban situations where the layout of a city has been in place for a significant investment of time and capital. The same issues with soil quality that makes the question of whether an urban garden is a good idea applies to the fashioning of a roof and walls. Even putting aside issues of quality of the soil, the particular requirements for a home in the city may be too small for cob to be effective. Wattle and daub, made in similar fashion to cob with thinner walls due to its wooden ‘skeleton’, may be another house construction method with a long-term future. As with cob, wattle and daub can be made by hand and with local materials. As with cob, it has the ability to scale up and down for different building sizes. Unlike stick-built methods which require sizeable sums of lumber input, wattle and daub requires small amounts of timber with no need for processing pieces. Where neither cob or wattle-and-daub methods make sense, retrofitting homes and places of busines can still make dramatic impacts on energy use, repair, and development of spaces for different uses.

We could be much closer emotionally and spiritually to the places we live and work if we made them by hand, scaled them to our needs, and oriented them to maximizing our liveability in them. If we generated power locally, took care of our water and soils with an understanding that everyone in the community is part of the environment, we could not help but understand ourselves as living with the world around us. Making our communities easier to live and work in, making them more sustainable and resilient to climate change, peak oil, and other predicaments facing us, will benefit us and our descendants.

Engaging locally means our ways of doing things are much more accesible and doable at this level. Rather than fight with entrenched interests at the State and national level, we can encourage positive development where we live. We have the opportunity to be living examples to our neighbors, and encourage the spread of ideas further by showing that the things we are passionate about can be done. In regards to our polytheist religions, we can show the living our our religions and the values by embodying them. So yes, we are going to face push-back and set-backs will happen. The clear challenge to us is not that we need to reinvent the wheel but to put it to effective use.

By taking up the challenge of engaging in good relationships with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes as polytheists, we allow for our future with each to be better. By engaging with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes with respect, with devotion to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of our urban, suburban, and rural areas, we develop better working relationships with each. By asking “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision, we are mindful of our place in things, and open ourselves to the work before us. As we let the work each place asks of us to develop these relationships, this teaches us how to better to do the work.

Both Kunstler and Fulton spoke about how their ‘relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land’. It took less than 100 years for us to hit this point in our relationship with the land and all that has been built on it, much of it through fossil fuels and overextending renewable living Beings like our waters, forests, and land. By engaging with the land, air, and water in this healthier, more wholistic way, we are given the opportunity to repair our relationship to and with them. In taking up the challenge of repairing our relationships with and to land, water, and air, we can each weave threads that fundamentally change the tapestry of our society’s relationships with them for the better. Wherever you can and however you are able, start weaving your threads. There are no insignificant threads to developing better relationships with our Holy Powers.

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.

Revelation and Experience in Building Polytheist Myth

July 29, 2018 15 comments

After reviewing responses to Developing Polytheist Myths I felt a whole new post digging into the ideas I fleshed out there would be of use.

The focus of that post was to say that we need to be open to the Holy Powers revealing myths to us in a variety of ways, including as part of the natural landscape, or in experiences persuant to natural features like rivers, waterfalls, etc. I was trying to get that across in the Shining Lake Grove example and in the exploration of the idea of their being a potential Odin-of Michigan. What I am not saying is that we should make new myths for our Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir. Rather, we should be open to Their stories unfolding to or within us, whether through direct revelation, and/or in experience in relationship with Them.

Personal devotion, as well as going through the work of developing discernment for both laypeople and spiritual specialist alike is part and parcel of this work. Good devotion is rooted in orthopraxy and orthodoxy, both of which inform and work with each other in lived relationships with the Holy Powers. If, as I have put forward again and again that lore is the map and not the territory, it makes sense that for our own experiences of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bring more details to that map.

PSVL made a good number of points that I want to expand on:

Edward Butler and I have spoken a few times about another nature of myth and mythic narrative: it can in itself be theophanic, which is to say it can reveal the nature and/or character of a Deity rather than having simply explanatory power. In other words, a given myth doesn’t just say why (e.g.) Zeus is associated with this particular mountain, or how a particular cult practice emerged, or why some aspects of the natural world reflect the Deity, but instead the story itself is a revelation (I know many people in our religious communities are allergic to that term in a spiritual context, but here we are!) of the Deity.

I agree. The stories of encountering our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in a place are revelations. Each time we tell the Creation Story, or one of the stories, the myths, of our Holy Powers, it is enlivened in that the story is lived through the experience of storyteller telling the story, the listener in hearing the story, and in the reaffirmation of cosmogeny/cosmology between the storyteller, listener, and the Holy Powers from Whom the story was received. New myths that result from the revelation of our Holy Powers to us also affirm cosmology, and in these revelations our relationships with Them as part of that cosmology. New myths reaffirm how the Holy Powers may relate to individuals and to our communities as wholes. There is not an ‘overriding’ in my understanding of this, but a deepening of relationships with the Holy Powers. It takes what mythology was left to us and brings it into lived myths that inform our religions, our lives, our worldview.

PSVL went on:

It’s a subtle difference, and one that gets very tricky to discuss, because for some people that can then easily lead to an even more ossified sense of myth, and–perhaps even worse–scripture and even potential literalism and bibliolatry in the way that such has occurred in certain other religions (sometimes in a more benign form…I’d say evangelical fundamentalist biblical literalism is far more pernicious and horrific in its implications than the Sikhs regarding the Shri Guru Adi Granth Sahib as a living entity and continuous guru, or Jewish people burying old Torah scrolls and dancing with them on Simchat Torah, etc.); however, that need not be the case. If we understand that there is a separation between any given myth, or even mytheme, and a text as an instantiation of such, then there’d be less problem…

Whether generally pernicious or generally beneficent, it is important that polytheism not engage in ossifying its myths and mythologies so that experience is only ever allowed in reification of what has come before. Polytheist religions need have a firm foundation while being open to a variety of experiences and understandings, including potential divergence. There is a need to be open to new expriences, including revelations while retaining the grounds of the myths the polytheist religions are built on. This ground of myths includes how the myths unfold, and includes where they unfolded before coming into our hands. It is a call to be firmly grounded in what has come before and is part of our current relationships with the Holy Powers while also being open to these relationships taking on differing forms given where we live and the desires of our Holy Powers possibly having changed since our religious Ancestors worshiped and lived in relationship with Them.

Ossification of myth is dangerous as it limits contact and interaction with the Holy Powers to the past. Note that this is not an attack on traditions. Rather, in order for a tradition to flourish it needs to be lived. In polytheism divination and revelation are two ways in which the Holy Powers engage in active dialogue and relationship with us. To cut out revelation and/or divination and thus, the new myths that can result, denies the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir active hands in our relationship. It relegates our relationship to historicity, history being the sole arbiter of a lived relationship with the Holy Powers rather than being part of the 3-legged stool mentioned in the last post.

This goes along with PSVL’s point in regards to the difference between myth and mythology:

Something else that I’ve never heard discussed in a practical religious context, but which a limited number of academics do acknowledge, is the difference between myth and mythology–the latter is not simply the formalized study or collection of myths, but instead reflects a stage of a culture which indicates that the myth is no longer a living part of the culture which informs everyday understanding. For how many modern polytheists is the reality that we have mythology (as reflected in sources like Snorri, e.g.) rather than living myth? It’s an interesting question, and also an uncomfortable one…

In my experience many polytheists are reflecting on mythology and not engaging with myth. That is, for some polytheists what we have is not part of a lived cosmology but rather something abstract or “out there” being reflected on. If the myths are not informing lived relationships then the myths have already ossified or are ossifying into mythologies. When myths are not lived they become things to be studied and looked at, but no longer informing living, vibrant cosmologies. It leaves the realm of our lived polytheist religions and enters religious studies, history, anthropology, and so on.

Melas the Hellene had this to say:

I think it would first and foremost be necessary to distinguish decisively between divine myths and human/heroic myths. Myths that recount a Deity’s new actions, functions, etc. or directly relate to the nature of a Deity should (in my opinion) be best avoided.

The modern world as it stands is full of troublesome shifts and turns (some are not mistaken to call it also polluted to degree) that myth making about the Gods would only weaken the core and the original myths.

The modern world is full of troublesome shifts, but to see that all the modern world is polluted and somehow the past was not is engaging in some pretty fiercely rose-tinted glasses. Yes, there is much in the way to restoring and revitalizing our religious communities. However, what I think is a solid stumbling block to this is that personal devotion, experiences, and unfolding of relationships are often sidelined either for some nebulous idea of what is approved in the lore that remains to us, or that we lack capacity in some degree so we cannot or should not enter into new territory with our Holy Powers.

Seeing as how myths involve Gods, and sometimes Ancestors and spirits, i.e. The Volsunga Saga and Odin, and Athena with Heracles in His Twelve Labors, I would say that unless we are intentionally editing our myths rather than receiving them, we ought not aim for any kind of thing with our myths. Rather, we should receive our experiences that bring us to potentially new myths, and bring them fully and faithfully to our communities. From there we can work with discernment to determine if these are myths that are now part of our understanding of the Holy Powers. We live in the modern world. We ought to be able to find resonance with at least some of our Holy Powers within it.

Melas goes on:

One exception to this is mythical reconstruction, as for example with the Celtic tradition, where many myths are lacking; this task would be best left to a council of well-informed and well represented preisthood who can serve the Gods in question properly. In general, preserving and worshipping the Gods is what we need, and if there’s a desire to engage further, new hymns and festivals are safer and better than myths. Now, this precaution would not be needed with human/heroic myths, where the brave and renowned deeds of great ancestors among men and women would be remembered. Two important points in my opinion should be mentioned here: 1) these myths should not be the work of a particular individual (otherwise it becomes history) but rather the collective product of a community 2) the myth should be at first oral and unwritten for an extended period of time (perhaps at least a few generations, otherwise it becomes history again) in which case it would organically develop and then, if worthy, both Gods and men will allow it to survive and pass into myth. These two points are meant to protect the elevated status that a myth ought to have, rather than expose them to human ambition. Thus much I have to say for the time being.

While a council of spiritual specialists may be ideal, for a lot of communities that is where that notion will start and end. We have few spiritual specialists, let alone enough in community with one another that would be able to effectively make a council. There’s also questions of certain spiritual specialists having the ability or skillset to effectively serve on such a council. The encouragement of dialogue and discernment is the encouragement to working on these things within our community, as these issues are already being made manifest within our communities whether or not they are ready for them.

Melas’ point in the creation of festivals does not make sense to me. If a God reveals a new myth to me, I would dishonor Him to merely make a new festival or hymn rather than teach the new myth. Making a new festival in reaction to a revelation strikes me more as intentionally modifying myths to suit our needs than it does to communicate what the God has given to me to communicate faithfully. This holds the same to his views on how myths should be incorporated. If my God gives me a myth to share, whatever the medium that God gives me to give to others is the one I use. My desires, views, etc are secondary to faithfully carrying out the Work of sharing the myth.

Many polytheist communities need to incorporate new myths not only because there is a lack of primary/secondary sources, as Melas notes, but also because this is something already in progress in a variety of polytheist communities. We’re not getting out in front of anything. Rather, wrote the previous post and this one because these experiences are already happening to folks and to whole communities. Far better for us to develop discernment and means of incorprating these new myths than to dismiss them out of hand or relegate them to less than the experiences our forebears had.

He goes on later in the comments to say:

a) If there’s “a need to experience the Gods here and now” wouldn’t hymns and festivals (and I’ll music) best fulfil such a desire? The divine myths that I objected to forming recount a God’s actions. Who are we to say what the Gods do in particular communities? That’s a rather human centered approach than a divine centered one.

Ultimately it is a given Holy Power that tells us how to celebrate and understand Them. Otherwise we are doing things for our benefit and our comfort. It is not ours to say what the Gods do in particular communities. Rather, for those of us who are given experiences, it is on us to faithfully communicate them. When those experiences involve the communication of new myths, it is on us to share them as the God(s) would have us do so. To do otherwise is human-centric and not Gods-centric.

I am going to split up b) into sections to better tackle it.

b) To continue the point above, you give an interesting example about Odin in Michigan. I’m sorry to say that Michigan’s local/regional cultus as well as its natural landscape have nothing to do with Odin, but everything to do with the indigenous Gods that were once there, until they were supplanted by colonialism.

Michigan’s local/regional cultus as well as its natural landscape have everything to do with Odin. How we understand Him through our locally-based experiences colors our understanding and the unfolding of His relationships with us in our lives and in our community. If we understand that the Icelandic myths were influenced by the local environment, i.e. the Creation Story with Fire and Ice reflecting the landscapse of Iceland as much as the experience and understanding of the Creation Story itself, then it makes sense that our experiences of the Holy Powers and our relationships with Them are influenced by our environment as well.

There is nothing to back up the assertion Melas makes here that regional cultus has nothing to do with Odin. I am a Heathen and therefore worship Heathen Gods. When I interact with my Ancestors, I do so as a Heathen. When I worship the landvaettir I do as a Heathen. Heathenry is my primary locus. I am a polytheist worshiping many Gods from many places, and while I worship Greek Gods in Their way and Egyptian in Theirs, the way live my life is primarily carried out through being Heathen and through that Heathen worldview.

I am not a Native American of Michigan. I can firmly believe that the Manidou are as real and powerful and so on as my own Gods but I cannot approach any of these Holy Powers through, for instance, an Ojibwe or Potowatami lens. To do otherwise is colonialism. In this case, colonizing the Native peoples’ traditions and ways of relationships with their own Holy Powers. Now if, as I have been shown with some Holy Powers there are good ways of interacting, i.e. offerings, prayers, etc. by those who are Native that is one thing. However, not being Native, not raised in the Native cultures, I cannot approach things as a Native. I must approach them as a Heathen or be lying to myself and all the Holy Powers, including the Manidou and local spirits. Even in approaching the Native spirits, big or small, I come to these as a Heathen. I have to -I cannot come to these vaettir as Native. If I am taught how to interact with Them in a manner best suited to them, again, this is one thing, and where I can it is just good reciprocity to learn. That said, there’s a lot of forgotten Gods, Ancestors, and spirits for whom my approach works and works well.

I wouldn’t implicate Zeus into where I live in America in order to feel better about myself while knowing that doing so is in effect replacing and not acknowledging a God that was native here. Again, we should have a divine centered approach. Where the Gods were born and where they have always lived, that is there divine home and mythical landscape. Bringing my Zeus and your Odin arbitrarily into the local cultus of America literally makes them patrons of colonialism. The same coule be said of all intrusions on indigenous land (tribal or modern) but we all know the case is especially severe with the native Americans.

For Heathens here in Michigan understanding and relating to our Holy Powers, developing myth and understanding of Them must be done through the Heathen worldview in the environment here in Michigan. To do so is not to implicate Odin over a Manidou or spirit, but to understand that Odin is Odin and that Manidou is a Manidou, and that being distinct from one another and being a Heathen first and foremost my cultus goes to Him. If I am lucky enough to be introduced to Manidou and other Native spirits and introduced in how to respectfully engage in relationship with Them then approaching Them in the manner prescribed is important, as it is both respectful and the right thing to do.

Having a divine-centered approach means that understanding some things are not for me as much as it means respecting where I am. Some relationships with some spirits are closed to me, whether due to the Gods I worship, my Ancestors, or the vaettir with whom Iam aligned. It would be colonialist of me to assume I can or should engage with the local land spirits or the Manidou in the same was a Native. To assume that I have a right to that kind of relationship, to the sacred ways of the Native peoples, or that the Native spirits even want that kind of relationship with me is a colonialist attitude.

What kind of myth making will be used to justify Zeus or Odin intervening in non-indigenous land? The forgotten native Gods who have been torn away long for justice and for a return, and they don’t need foreign companionship or replacements to achieve that.

There’s no need to ‘justify’ our Gods being here. They are here. Perhaps we will find They have worked out agreements with the Gods and spirits here. Perhaps we will find out that we’re all together in this land with one another in these places and we need to figure out between ourselves how best to live with one another. Rather than speaking on behalf of Native Gods, forgotten or well remembered, I think it best to remember my place as a human being and not speak on Their behalf or that of my own Gods, but to do my bet to live in good relationship with my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and those of this land.

I do not see my Gods as ‘replacements’. Rather, my Gods are just that: my Gods. I am not Native, was not raised in Native ways, and rather than appropriate Native practices and religions I am doing what I am called to do: to worship my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in my community’s ways. I do not know what Native Gods need or desire until They make this known to me. I would not presume to tell Them or Their Peoples what They need, desire, or call us to do.

c) Concerning the authority of communities to make myths, I’m not very sure if we should use that term where lore is much more applicable. From what is known about ancient Greeks and their myths, myths are very old (150+ years) and the only way for communities to develop them (however the means) is after such a long period.

Whereas I think if authority is not based in the community and that authority of the community is not based in lived relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, sooner or later these cease to be lived relatioships and ossify from myth into mythology. That’s not to say the old myths should be dismissed, ignored, or not part of the ongoing relationship of people and their relationship with myth (read: living theology) and the relationship that flows from this with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If theology becomes merely academic it becomes part of the realm of religious studies. If myth becomes merely academic it becomes part of the realm of mythology, and all the academic fields connected to this.

I think there may be a point missing in this conversation in regards to the establishment of myths. Namely, in that someone had to have an experience that informed how the myth came to be. Perhaps a poet had an ecstatic experience and was given a new myth to tell from a God or family of Gods. Perhaps an ordeal was undertaken by a village of people and a unique experience of salvation or pain was inflicted on the village by a Holy Power. There is some kind of foundational story in which the Holy Powers impact a person and/or a community, and from there comes the myth.

Melas is talking specifically from his viewpoint of a Greek polytheist, as he has mentioned, what he considers a traditionalist perspective. It could be this is a key point he and I are talking past each other. Compare, for instance, the sources of Heathen lore; we don’t have the volume or the depth of primary sources or secondary ones. Consider also the archaeological finds that have been powerful in filling in a number of areas for Greek polytheists of many stripes that Heathenry yet lacks.

d) I never said that oral mythology is totally resistant to human ambition (your word “intervention” I wouldn’t use). My point was oral mythology was far more resistant because it necessitates collective participation and transmission, unlike writing.

Here Melas is correct and I agree that oral histories tend to be incredibly accurate both to the content of the story and in the integrity of the story/stories due to the various factors in communicating them, not the least including amazing feats of memorization, taboos, and respect for the sacred nature of storytelling.

e) For the reasons in (d), I would repeat the same point about individuals making myths. Orpheus is a mysterious character, but it’s possible we think of him as an individual only because he came as a stranger to a new part of Greece (he was Thracian) leaving behind his native tradition. Nevertheless, it was his followers who wrote about him, and I blame them (if he were indeed the historical character he seems to be) for elevating him to myth so suddenly. But regardless of my traditional opinion, the point remains that he didn’t make myths about himself but they collectively did of him.

I don’t understand why the need to use the word ‘blame’. If His works are correct, in keeping with good relationships with the Holy Powers, and oracles and various omens were in keeping with that (see the earlier points I have made on discernment) what would it matter if they waited five minutes after receiving his teachings or 150 years? To me this an arbitrary number that seems to pride time as an arbiter of relationships with the Holy Powers and the passing on of Their myths, teachings, stories, etc., rather than good relationships with the Holy Powers.

f) The few extant sources on the Germanic myths do not suggest that those ancient myths originally developed also out of a few individual sources. They were rather a collective tradition that had the misfortune (and good fortune) to be transmitted by a few surviving works.

My point in hammering on individuals so much is not that the collective does not matter, but that individuals at some point had to have had experiences of the Holy Powers, and had the wisdom and ability to communicate this to future generations. An entire village could have had experiences with a Holy Power and yet, the way that the story is passed on, that it becomes a living myth, is through the storyteller or storytellers. Moreover, each telling of a myth is in some way, shape, or form, reengaging that myth.

In this understanding each time I tell the Creation Story I am, with the help of the Holy Powers and my own abilities as a storyteller, bringing to life each moment of that myth. Storytelling, aka mythtelling, and relating myth to others is a powerful and sacred act. It is dangerous because, in the case of Creation Stories, you are at once telling the living myth of how the Universe and all things came to be and still operate. It is orienting the understanding of those humans listening and living in the telling our place with the Holy Powers, how we are to act rightly, what our place is in the cosmos.

These myths, these powerful and holy stories are how we come to understand and know our Gods, our Ancestors, and our spirits. To tell a myth poorly, whether to misspeak or to get something totally wrong can throw the people out of good relationship with the Holy Powers. To tell a myth well is to lay a good foundation for generations to come. If we receive myths, then we need to relate them and teach them well, that we lay a good foundation for those generations coming after us.

Developing Polytheist Myths

July 10, 2018 18 comments

I love audiobooks, particularly The Great Courses series. They get my gears turning, and sometimes provide inspiration and fodder for ideas I explore here. In listening to Great Mythologies of the World, Chapter 2, I ran across an excellent statement that got me thinking on the role of myths in modern polytheism:

We tend to think of myths as springing fully formed into specific cultures, and most of us think of the ancient Greek myths, as well, Greek. But the Greeks drew heavily from their predecessors and neighbors just as later cultures, especially the Romans, would draw from them. Because of this it is best to think of mythologies as living entities, always on the move, shapeshifting as they pass from culture to culture.

This last sentence is especially important in the context of modern polytheism. It is not enough that we have good translations of our sources for the religions we are reviving. We need new myths to carry us, and those who come after us, forward. We can build on what is there, and I firmly believe we should. The Greeks certainly did not wrap up writing myths after Homer, Hesiod, or Orpheus wrote. There is no reason for us to, either.

What I am proposing is both incredibly powerful and dangerous. Powerful, because we are making deep ties with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and likely tying these myths right into where we live as every ancient polytheist culture and tribe did. It is also incredibly dangerous because it can lead people and communities straight into territory where power playing, delusions, lies, and aggrandizement can wrench myth-making from its holy roots.

I firmly believe that consciously engaging in and acknowledging the making of myths is part and parcel of the future of polytheist religions. We know from following various Holy Powers and Their stories through history that sometimes They accrue stories through a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it is because They tell a poet to write down their stories. Other times a writer collects Their stories into a book. Other times They gain Their stories through absorbing or syncretizing with other Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits, and/or each Others’ stories. Any time someone says “I had x encounter with y God and this is what happened” they are engaging in living myth-making. We should not shy away from any of these. We need to actively embrace all of these ways of engaging with, and developing our myths with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

How do we embrace it? We engage in direct experience of the Holy Powers. We write down ours and others’ experiences. We embrace new experiences of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that are rooted in our communities, what lore we can trust, and engage the informed discernment available to us in our communities. We meet our Holy Powers where we are, and we go on pilgrimages when we are called. We involve our Holy Powers in our everyday lives, and acknowledge and thank and note when They come through for us, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. To do this, we need to develop better language across the board for doing that. To do this, we need to develop good discernment based in our communities, and not leave that responsibility up to academics unconnected to our communities. We need to be proactive in working to develop standards within our communities for what is accepted and what is rejected to become part of the mythologies.

I use the word gnosis to describe personal experience of the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits. I do not tend to use the term UPG or Unverified Personal Gnosis that frequents reconstructionist circles because the term is often used dismissively or insultingly, and I have never seen its opposite, VPG or Verified Personal Gnosis, used in online conversation. There is plenty of writing on what UPG is and virtually nothing on what is VPG. PCPG, or Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis is a term I sometimes use to get it across to folks that many people, usually in separate communities, had similar experiences with a given Holy Power. A simple example of this is offering strawberries to Freya. It is something a lot of people have offered to Her well before seeing it written down, and it still surprises some folks who do run into their gnosis written down in books today. A year or two ago, either at MI Paganfest or ConVocation, I ran into a person who had no knowledge this was a generally-accepted understanding of Freya, and was shocked that people around her were nodding their heads and saying “Sounds right.”

My dear friend and Brother Jim Stovall uses a phrase that I hope is on the mind and lips of everyone interested in developing the mythology and our relationships with the Holy Powers: spiritual accounting. He laid out the idea of spiritual accounting in an episode of the Jaguar and the Owl. Jim likens spiritual accounting to a three-legged stool, with the first leg being what stories and myths are already present, and what source writings, archaeology, linguistics, mythology, anthropology, and other sciences has to tell us. The second leg is divination. The third leg is experience accounting. He has gone so far as to set up an Excel spreadsheet of experiences he has had with given Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits for how reliable They are, what was asked, and what resulted. His discernment accounts for the understanding that spirits do lie, and we may misinterpret the meaning of a message, or it may be more or less deep than we understand it to be.

If we are to have spiritual accounting for our living mythology, then our first leg needs to first be grounded in what we do know. We need to understand what it is the lore, archaeology, and other academic fields we have available to us have to say, and what the limits of those fields are. We also need a solid foundation in our religion(s) and tradition(s) as they exist. With a basis in what has come before and is now, we can be discerning about what becomes part of the corpus of the myths we carry into the future.

The second leg, divination, requires expertise in the work. It requires the willingness to understand we may not have understood or reified our experiences accurately. A given experience may have just been for us. A given experience may need context we do not have yet, or inspiration for a poet, or another experience to tie it into the mythologies we have before us. Divination requires us to consider that what is most important is that we seek the answer and report what we find without flinching, whether it confirms or denies the entry of experiences into the corpus of myths.

The third leg, experience accounting, is to be honest, truthful, and unflinching in our assessment of our signal clarity with the Holy Powers. It is to be clear in what our understanding was at the time a message was received, how it was understood, and how it was accounted for. It is to engage in active discernment with the Holy Powers we worship, and realize that sometimes information is given to us not because it may be completely truthful, but useful. It is not as if our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, or vaettir are not given to subterfuge, lying, misleading, or misdirection. These are part of powerful mythologies, such as the Rescue of Idunna or Thor’s battle of riddles and wits with Alsvin. The point of experience accounting is to see where pitfalls in our communications lie, to see where the Holy Powers may not be honest or forthright with us, and to understand that what we experience and/or receive may give us many windows to understand what does become part of the corpus of myths.

When I use a term like corpus of myths, the image of a great weathered book might sping to mind. That belies the understanding that, until relatively recently in time, most understood their myths orally. It is not my intent that only the written word becomes part of a corpus of myths. Some parts of myths and the practices that come from them should never be written down, such as a myth involved in a secret initiation. Some parts may be useful to write down, as with the previous example, so that those who qualify for an initiation have to know the right phrase, deeper meaning of a piece of mythology, and/or have taken in a key lesson from a myth before approaching to be initiated. Some parts of myths should be as accessible as possible, such as Creation Stories, stories of the Gods, Ancestors, heroes, spirits, etc. that give insight into Them, lessons for us, and/or how we are to relate to Them.

Developing myths, even ones that seem to clash with each other or with the previous sources, may be seen in terms of how mythologies have unfolded in living polytheist cultures. There are many Creation Stories out there, and having more than one Creator God or Goddess has never fazed me. I have space for Odin and Ptah among the Creator Gods. I have space for the four Creation Stories of Kemet and the Creation Story detailed in the Völuspá. I also recognize in the same blow that I am dealing with stories delivered through a variety of hands. Rather than seeing many Creation Stories as wrong, or only one right and the rest mistaken, I see each Story expressing its truth, its understanding, its worldview of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

None of the stories as academia has handed them to us have anything to do with the construction of our religions. We have had to do that ourselves. Academics not of our communities are first and foremost concerned with academia and what each story tells us, has to say, and informs us of, what each story may hint at, and where the limits are in relation to their field of study. What differs us significantly here is that we seek to understand cosmogeny and cosmology so we may understand and live well within the worldview given to us by the cosmogeny and cosmology. Through understanding that worldview well we seek to live in right relationship our Holy Powers.

Developing myths is a process of developing theology. Myths provides the basis to understanding what our Gods are, what They do, Their place in the cosmos, our relationships to and with Them, and what offerings may be accepted by Them. Myths tell us who are Ancestors are, who and what we relate to as Ancestors, what our place as mortal Beings are in the cosmos, what offerings the Ancestors may accept, and what our relationships with Them should look like. Myths shows to us who the spirits are, what our relationships with Them are, Their varied places in the cosmos, what our relationships are, and what offerings They may accept. Again, mythology is not just the Creation Stories.

Myths are found as much in small things as great. The small myths may detail what offerings a God likes, and perhaps why. Stories written down, stories passed down, folklore, and personal experiences all may be part of mythology. A myth may be entirely wrapped up with a locale, such as Dionysus Laphystius with Mount Laphystus in Bœotia. Likewise, a part of mythology may relate to a Holy Power in respect to functions the God has dominion over or functions with/in, such as Lenœus, a name of Dionysus relating to His dominion over and function with the wine press.

For those identifying Athena as a Goddess of a war college like West Point or Athena as being a Goddess of libraries, this too is part of developing a God’s mythology. Where we find our Holy Powers and why, building up not only correspondences but understandings as to why a given Holy Power may look at a place as holy or one They have affinity for, places our understanding of our Holy Powers not only in the past, but in the immediate, the now. Looking for our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits in our modern landscapes is resacralizing our world, providing points of contact between ourselves and the Holy Powers. It also provides us unique opportunities to connect with Them in was our Ancestors may not have.

Shining Lakes Grove, an ADF grove, shows this work in practice quite clearly in their worship of Ana, the name they were given by the Goddess that is the Huron River in Ann Arbor, MI. Per their work within An Bruane they developed links with the Gods particular to their Grove and within the land they work and worship on. Were I to begin work with Ana, I would likely refer to their work and ask them questions on how to develop a good relationship with Her. After all, they have been doing this work well over twenty years. Likewise, they have developed a unique relationship with the land spirits and the Native American Gods that have called this land home.

In my recent post, Twice-Born, PSVL said:

Excellent work here! I love the series of Goddesses in the middle…that really adds a lot to this myth.

It was never my intention to add anything to the myth. I was inspired by the God to write a poem for Him telling His story. Yet, here I was adding to His myths. Every poem can build up the layers of meaning and understanding around a Holy Power, put new light to the old stories, and bring new stories into being. Writing mythology, whether through prose or poetry, is an act of co-creation with the Holy Powers. Far better for us to enter into this powerful and sacred relationship with care and clarity than to deny the connection this work forges between us and the Holy Powers.

Whether in brief or at length, each story written, each story told, each poem written, each poem spoken, each song sung, each one made for Them all build up our relationships with the Holy Powers. To be sure, not every bit of writing, poetry, or song is meant to build up myths, but all potentially may. We cannot leave our corpus of myths to the past or that is all we will engage with or understand.

Let us teach the myths that are the foundations of our religions and our communities in those conscious and sacred ways. Let us work to develop our myths with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in sacred ways, with care and devotion. Let us work to teach all of our myths consciously and thoughtfully, in sacred ways that honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, that bring us, individually and communally, into sacred and good relationships with Them.

On Ritual Praxis -Divination

July 1, 2018 1 comment

Before digging into hearth cultus it occured to me that writing on divination first would be ideal. Given how often I referenced its use in previous posts and how much it is coming up in the hearth cultus section as I write it, divination needs some exploration. This post will dig into what divination is, divination’s place in Heathenry and the Northern Tradition, some simple methods of how to perform it, and how to put divination into practice.

Divination is a form of active engagement, of ongoing conversations and development of relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is how we come to know the will of the Holy Powers in a given matter, how we affirm whether an offering is acceptable or not, and how we should proceed at times in our lives. In this, we are not altogether different from the ancient cultures we relate to.

The way that modern divination is done spans a gamut of arts and techniques, among them sortilege, omens, dreams, trance states, meditation, and the use of books, poems, and songs. Again, as with ancient polytheist cultures, we are not so different here. Ancient polytheist cultures engaged in all of these things and more, including some divination methods our modern societies would find illegal.

What information we have indicates that, according to Tacitus, ancient German cultures had many ways of divining, including using twigs and/or strips of wood marked with signs, cups and dice, and divination by omens such as how a sacred horse raced. Ancient Icelandic cultures would have used what was called a blotspann or sacrifice chip among their forms of divination. Scholars are uncertain as to whether this indicates that either ancient German or Icelandic cultures used Runes in divination. For at least the ancient Icelandics there was also spá, a form of ritual prophesy. It is unknown if Tacitus’ sources point to spá being performed by women in ancient German society, though in both cultures women were renowned for their arts of prophecy and magic. Dr. Jackson Crawford gives an excellent, brief overview of this here.

Ancient cultures valued divination for the same reason we do, and performed them for the same reasons. Whether or not our modern divination methods match theirs, what I believe to be more important is that it works. In this, I set aside whether or not reading the Runes is historically attested. What matters for my Kindred and I is that it works. Likewise, tarot may have started as a card game but the use of games for divination is historically attested to, namely in terms of cups and dice as mentioned above. Again, in the end, we use what works.

The Place of Divination

A member of the Kindred asked a powerful question: if we have the Nornir who weave Wyrd, then what is the point of acting? If all things have their stories written in the web of Wyrd then isn’t doing one thing vs another pointless? My response was that we are weaving Wyrd along with all the other threads in the warp and weft of Wyrd together, including with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Divination directed towards the future gives us a look at how the threads are coming together, and gives us information that we might act in anticipation of, or in reaction to those threads. Divination directed to our Holy Powers invites conversation with Them, giving Them a way for us to hear Their response. Divination directed to ourselves gives us insight into how our Wyrd may be weaving, its direction, or how we can act to better the way we weave.

Rather than in a singular place, divination sits at many crossroads. In crafting a rite, divination can provide guidance on how it is to be done. Before a ritual, divination may guide us in the selection of offerings for a Holy Power. During a ritual, divination may instruct those gathered as to the acceptance of an offering. After a ritual, divination may guide those gathered to the next steps to deepen a relationship with the Holy Powers. On and on, divination provides ongoing conversation and interaction with the Holy Powers.

It is important to note we humans are not the only ones who do divination. It is noteworthy that in the lore our Gods also divine. In taking up divination a Rune reader is not only following Odin in His journey in taking up the Runes, but also in His work as a diviner. Likewise, we are also taking up following our human Ancestors who divined. Divination’s function, cosmologically, keys us into the active weavings of Wyrd. It indicates where we may move the threads in our power to affect change, and it may show us some of the effect that change can make.

Divination does not replace our need to know what is ours to know. Lore and archaeology are maps, not territories, but they can give us indications on what roads to take. It would be foolish to take a road trip without checking the maps, developing familiarity with the route, and planning for stops and needs along the way. Before one does a rite to a Holy Power, getting to know that Holy Power is paramount. Before one asks a question before a life event, possessing as much information as one can is paramount. When asking a question in divination phrasing the question carefully, and really getting to the heart of what you want and/or need to know is paramount.

The place of divination is to help us live our religions well. It helps us to know the will of the Holy Powers. When we are stuck, it can help us find a way forward, or what to do.

Divination engages us in active communication with our Holy Powers. Its place is to help us develop, keep, and further our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, as divination provides some of the places we can hear Them the clearest on these things. It helps us to do our best in weaving Wyrd together with our Holy Powers. Divination helps us to establish and keep right relationship with the Holy Powers. Divination’s place is at the crossroads of our lives, the events within our communities, and our relationships, communally and individually, with the Holy Powers. Divination’s places lies in all the between spaces where we can seek guidance if we just reach out and work with it.

Learning is Doing

There is an Estonian proverb: “The work will teach you how to do it.”

Divination is a form of work whose expertise cannot be taught out of a book. Divination is a profession of study and especially experience. As divination is a profession learned by doing, the best way to begin to do divination is to start small. Far better to start small, say with a Rune or card pulled a week, or starting with small-impact questions from friends before a big question comes.

In regards to Rune divination, knowing the Rune Poems, the Havamal, and what other lore and archaeology we have that tells us about Them is useful to have and know, but this is where scholarship leaves off and the work of religion begins. None of the Rune Poems, the Havamal, or our other sources of lore are religious texts and should not be treated as such. I keep referencing them as guideposts because that is what they are. How we relate to the Runes and divination, however much these are informed by the past, are a largely modern phenomenon and there is no problem in that.

It is controversial in many Heathen circles to suggest that folks read the Runes, to recommend modern Heathens’ books on working with the Runes and doing divination and/or magic with the Runes. As I mentioned above we have only suggestions in our sources that the ancient Germans read Runes for divination, and so anything we have extracted from this and other sources are based on people’s own exploration of the resources and with the Runes Themselves. The books I recommend are Runes: Theory and Practice by Galina Krasskova, and Taking Up the Runes by Diana Paxson. Both are books I have worked through and would recommend for those looking to get into working with the Runes.

No matter which divination system(s) one goes with, it takes time to develop competency and expertise. In time, even with relatively simple binary divination systems, i.e. yes/no, one can get a lot of information depending on how a question or series of questions are phrased. Certain divination systems may be able to be used at any point, whereas others may be restricted to certain settings for their usefulness, i.e. outdoor omens like the flight of birds. Certain divination systems may be tabooed for a diviner to be used only in certain rituals, or a divination tool may be dedicated to a single Holy Power, whereas other diviners may have free and open use for all the tools in their toolkit. What makes the difference is how each person walks their path, what taboos and tools become used during that walk, and if the diviner continues to develop their expertise.

Divination Systems Other than the Runes

Not everyone uses the Runes, and not everyone will find use in working with the Runes in divination. Going into all the ways one could learn to divine within a Heathen worldview would, I imagine, be a book unto itself. Rather than go through such an exhaustive process I am going to list three divination methods a Heathen might adopt that do not involve the Runes.

Dice

In reading Tacitus’ Germania it is noted that the Germans took their games of dice seriously, so much so that they would bet their freedom on the roll of a die. With contests such as horse-racing with sacred horses, and the nearby peoples actively practicing forms of astralogomancy, it is not a long stretch to imagine that dice could have held a similar place in German culture. In any case, simple dice divination can give quite a lot of information with the throw a single die.

Even ascribing simple meaning to the dice, such as odds being “Yes” and evens being “No” can yield a good deal of information if good questions are asked. Another method of dice-throwing may be having an individual meaning given to each number or pips on the die, such as a 6-sided die having the following:

1 = “Yes”

2 = “Unfavorable”

3 = “Neutral/Maybe”

4 = “Reconsider the subject/question”

5 = “Favorable”

6 = “No.”

It may be worth considering adopting a system besides the usual 1d6 and look at different dice, such as the 10-sided die in regards to representing the Nine Worlds. 0 could represent Yggdrasil Itself or Wyrd, with 1-9 representing each of the Nine Worlds. Questions would be asked, with relevant information coming out depending on which World, or if Yggdrasil/Wyrd is drawn, a second roll is made with the attributes of the World the die lands on being especially impactful or auspicious.

Dropping Stones

As with dice a great deal of information can be learned in a short amount of time by using dropping stones to divine. Tacitus’ Germania states that wood chips with “signs” marked on them were thrown onto a white cloth for divination. While this may work, one may also want to throw onto a printed image, such as a map of Yggdrasil or onto a cloth with words sewn, embroidered, or printed on it.

One method I have been taught that works well is a three stone divination which has a Yes stone, a No stone, and an indicator stone. These three stones are dropped onto bare dirt or onto a mat blessed for use in divination. It is simple, straightforward, and effective, and a great deal of information can be gained by being careful with a question, or series of questions.

Seeking an Omen

To seek an omen is to seek a phenomena of “Prophetic significance.” Seeking an omen has a long history with a lot of branching paths that can be taken. Among the long list of historical forms are looking at the flight of birds, astronomical events, disjointed chatter from a crowd forming a word or series of words or, as noted in Germania, the racing of sacred horses and noting the winner.

Of the ways we have explored so far, seeking an omen is the most subjective of them. As this is the case, seeking an omen needs to be specific enough that a sign can be accurately discerned. So, asking for an omen of a flight of birds may be far too broad, particularly if one has lots of birds in the area. If one is looking at the flight of birds then looking for a specific kind of bird associated with the God, Ancestor, or vaettr in question is ideal, and noting which way they are flying. While we could look at birds flying east as a good sign, as that is the direction of the rising sun, the meaning of each direction may depend on where one lives. If one lives near a body of water then a flock of specific birds flying towards or over those waters can carry different signficance than those flying towards. So, to an extent the usefulness of seeking an omen is dependent on how developed the symbol set one is working with, what lore one associates with a given sort of omen seeking, and how one integrates the knowledges one has about the subject of the omen, the object or being the omen is contingent on, and one’s expertise at discerning whether or not an omen has occured. As with the previous divination skills, I recommend starting small and working up to larger questions.

Ways to Divine with the Runes

If you are going to work with the Runes for divination then get to know as much about Them as possible. Do your research; read the Rune Poems, look at what the archaeology and lore in general has to say on Them. Look at what modern Runeworkers and diviners say about working with the Runes, and compare your understanding to theirs. It is important to point out that not every Northern Tradition Pagan or Heathen will work with the Runes, and not every one who does Runework does so to divine. The examples I have laid out here are just some of the ways in which the Runes can convey information or divination can be done with Them.

Drawing a Rune

Perhaps the simplest way to divine is drawing a single Rune out of a bag in response to a question, and exploring the answer with the knowledge and experience one has with that Rune. This method is deceptively simple. After all, the Runes represent and are a sound, a letter, and an extended meaning to the ancient Heathen cultures that They com from. There is a deep well of information that can be gathered out of a single Rune being drawn in response to a question if the person has the knowledge and understanding to get it and use it.

Drawing or dropping a series of Runes

This would be placing one or many Runes into a preset pattern with designated meanings. One method I have used is a simple North/South reading style, with the extreme North being representative of Niflheim and negative/slowing/death, while the South being representative of Muspelheim and positive/quickening/life. This is because the further North you go the colder it is, the colder it is the higher your chance of dying. The southlands of many of the ancient Heathen cultures were places where, even in the harsher climes, it was easier to grow food and raise animals. There are many nuances I found with this divination system, some of which comes from finding Runes associated with the opposite element in the two poles, or thinking on what a given Rune might mean if it is in the North vs the South.

Dropping Sticks

This takes its cue right from Germania. The method may be either an appropriate number of sticks are marked with the Runes and dropped on a white sheet to see which turn up, or unmarked sticks are dropped on a white mat and it is seen if any Runes are seen in their pattern. Either way, the effect is rather random and the answer may be quite direct or hidden, depending on if the Runes are clear or not.

Seeking a Rune Omen

This method of divination engages with the Runes directly. Generally, when I am looking for a Rune omen I will make a small prayer to Runatýr (Odin’s heiti meaning God of the Runes) and the Runevaettir. Then, I do some cleansing work, and keep my eyes peeled for something that forms a Rune. Perhaps it will be a walk in the park and fallen branches form a Rune, or a fallen branch takes on the form of Fehu or Ansuz, both of which have happened to me when I was seeking an omen.

As with seeking an omen in general, this is more intuitive and requires you to know what you are looking for. Something that may be useful for discernment is asking the Runes to show you an omen three times. As with the previous example, the placement of the Rune, what the Rune is ‘made of’, i.e. branches, shadows, flight of animals, etc. may have its own part to play in your interpretation of the message.

For example: if I asked a question like “What is the next step?” and the shape of Uruz is the answer on the ground after I have picked up trash in a park, it may be strength is required in service to the goal or for the next step at hand. If the branch came from an oak tree, perhaps I need to seek out Thor and see if He has requests of me. If a birch tree, perhaps speak with or make offerings to Frigga. The oak may also mean finding strength in deep roots of service with community, or the birch may mean that service to those healing long term. Again, as before, context and one’s knowledge of the Runes, and the mediums the Runes come in, can profoundly affect the interpretation of the omen. Double checking the omen with other forms of divination would not hurt, particuarly if you are unsure.

Engaging in Divination

Since divination is an engaged conversation between the Holy Powers and us, I approach each divination session as I do ritual. This ritual discipline orders your internal headspace, orienting it towards the divination at hand, centering it as an engagement with the Holy Powers, and entering into a sacred headspace. This is the format I will generally follow:

Step 1: Cleanse the space and those present for the session.

Step 2: Make prayers to the Holy Powers inviting Them to engage in conversation.

Step 3: Lay down offerings to the Holy Powers.

Step 4: Do the divination.

Step 5: Make prayers of thanks for the attention of the Holy Powers and make any additional prayers and offerings as needed.

A Sample Rune Divination Ritual

This ritual is designed for a one-on-one divination rite, and should be able to be formatted to whatever the situation calls for, whether it is a group ritual or at the end of a rite to see if an offering was accepted. As with other rituals, I will modify as the Holy Powers and venue require. If I am doing divination in an open space where fires are unresitricted, I will likely work with fire to cleanse. Where fires are restricted I may work with water, song, and/or Runes to cleanse a space.

I begin by making the Fire Prayer before I light a candle: “Hail Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Hail to Fire Itself! Hail Loki! Hail Glut! Hail Logi! Hail Surt! Hail Sinmora! Ves ðu heil Eldest Ancestor!”

I then pass the candle flame over the divination area, saying “Thank you for cleansing this space, Holy One.” I repeat this prayer for myself, the client, and over the divination tool(s) and any sacred items present. Generally I pass the flame three times in a clockwise circle over whatever it is I am cleansing.

I will then make offerings appropriate to the Holy Powers present. In the case of a Rune reading I generally make offerings of whiskey, vodka, and/or clean water. Other offerings I have made include food, coffee, and mugwort.

I then make prayers to the Holy Powers of the divination ritual. If it is a Rune divination session I pray to Runatýr and the Runevaettir:

“Hail Runatýr! Hail Runevaettir! Hail Disir! Hail Väter! Hail Ancestors all! Hail to the Holy Ones! Hail to the Holy Ones! Hail to the Holy Ones!” I will usually repeat “Hail to the Holy Ones!” as a mantra in 3s, 6s, or 9s, until I am in a semi-trance or full trance headspace.

Then I will address the Holy Powers and ask Them for me to divine well. “Hail Runatýr! Hail Runevaettir! Help me to know well, to speak clearly and true!”

Even if the client has already made the question known to me I still ask them to repeat it, usually three times. This serves two functions. One, is if the question needs clarification or refinement we can do it before the question is ‘locked in’. Two, is that the querant understands the question they are asking and is accepting responsibility for the answer.

I will then engage in divination itself and as the answers come up and as need arises I may repreat the steps above to reestablish good headspace, the sacred space, the making of new offerings, and the introduction of new questions.

Once the divination session is over then prayers are made the Holy Powers asked to be present. In this case:

“Thank You Runatýr! Thank You Runevaettir! Thank you for providing us [answers/wisdom/insight/etc.]! Hail Ancestors! Hail to the Holy Ones! Thank You for being present, for helping us to find [answers/wisdom/insight/etc.]! Ves ðu heil!”

The Sacred space and all people and items within it are cleansed with the fire of the candle. “Thank you, Eldest Ancestor, for cleansing us within and without. Thank You to the Sons and Daughters of Muspelheim! Thank You Loki! Thank You Glut! Thank You Logi! Thank You Surt! Thank You Sinmora! Ves ðu heil!”

I will then make prayers to the assembled Holy Powers otherwise, saying “Thank You Runatýr! Thank You Runevaettir! Thank You Disir! Thank you Väter! Thank You Ancestors all! Thank You Holy Ones! Thank You for this time to divine, to know Your messages, to experience Your wisdom. We make these offerings in Gebo!” Then the offerings are usually taken to a holy tree representing Yggdrasil, and laid down there.

Divination is Change in Action

Divination is change in action because divination opens ourselves, and our communities to Wyrd’s weaving. It is direct engagement with weaving Wyrd itself. We can come into better or worse alignment in right relationship with our Holy Powers. Done well, engaging in divination enters us into a better co-creation of Wyrd, of ties of hamingja with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.

Divination is engagement with our Holy Powers. Just by engaging in it divination will cause change. Incorporating the results of divination session, whether a ritual unto itself or as part of a ritual, requires us to be open to change and challenge. More to the point, it reqires us to be committed to action in accordance with the message divination gives us. This can be quite challenging, especially with a divination result that upends one’s life. This can also be quite easy, especially if good relationship with the Gods is consistently being sought and maintained. The change could be something minor, but important, such as confirming the wine you intuited the Gods might like is actually deeply appreciated. From that comes change: you trust your intuition and dialogue with the Gods deeper, and can gain a more refined sense of our intuition in this way over time and experience with this small, disciplined work. The change coul be something major, such as undertaking an initiation, sacred journey, or letting go of a dream you had your heart set on seeing through.

Divination is part and parcel of ongoing dialogue with the Holy Powers. It has the power to utterly change how our rituals are structured, how we engages with the Holy Powers, our relationships with one another, and how we live in this world. It has the power to bring insight and wisdom if done well, and if done poorly, a lack of good connection to the Holy Powers and confusion where there should be clarity. Even for seemingly minor things, divination is a holy rite of engagement and needs to be respected for the powerful place it holds not only in our own religions, but for anyone of any religion that seeks it.

As with worship, divination is understood and expressed in doing it well. As with worship, the work of divination is in doing it. As written previously: “Divination is done to establish and/or confirm that rituals, offerings, and so on are done well in accordance with the Holy Powers.” With worship, divination is the foundation of polytheism. It informs how we may live in good reciprocity with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is how the foundation of worship may be formed and maintained, in what ways it grows and changes, and what we do to establish and maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers.

With this understanding of worship and divination we can now turn to hearth culture.

On Ritual Praxis -Beginning to Worship

April 7, 2018 2 comments

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

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.

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