Things To Consider About Oaths

oath_ringOaths are a tremendously important matter in Heathenry. While an oath may be simple, it should never be “easy.” The worth of an oath, and the honor it brings for completion, is directly linked to the benefit fulfilling the oath has for the clan. If it is easy then it is also not particularly worthy. While I do not hold to the strict sense of communal luck held in Théodish Belief, I do understand that an oath is not made in a vacuum. Swearing an oath is like tying an anchor around wyrd, forcing it to conform to the shape of the oath. The strands of wyrd belonging to all who are present to witness the oath will be shaped by the oath. It is inevitable. It is immutable.

Take, for example, the heroic tale of Beowulf. When Beowulf swears to kill the troll Grendel, he is swearing to take an action that affects the lives of every man, woman, and child present. Simply my angering Grendel, Beowulf is risking the lives of all the Danes of Heorot. His success will mean their freedom and his failure will spell their doom. This is no small task Beowulf has taken upon himself, and convinced the Danes to permit.

Now, we all know that Beowulf not only slays Grendel, but also Grendel’s mother and frees the Danes but it is important to understand that Beowulf wasn’t risking just his life. He was potentially sentencing everyone there to death if he failed. The oath is simple but it was not easy. It bound all present to the consequences of his actions, the reason that Unferth challenges him about the words Beowulf is speaking. Unferth is upholding his obligation to his king and his people. Now, there’s a great deal of misunderstanding about Unferth, his role in the tale, and much more that can be discussed at length but this will have to be for another time as it is somewhat outside the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that we should all be lucky to have someone like Unferth around when someone starts running off at the mouth about doing great things.

Returning to the matter of oaths, and what the basics are that we must understand to prevent ourselves from making frivolous oaths, we need to examine the way in which an oath is sworn. First, an oath requires witnesses. Those witnesses are tied to the oath and, frankly, should at least be representative of those who will gain benefit from the long term impact of the oath. To swear an oath to do something with no one around is to do nothing more than make a promise to the air. It is insubstantial and meaningless. It is nothing more than empty words spoken where none can hear, none can recall, and none can hold you accountable.

The oath itself should comprise of no less than two parts regarding consequences. First, there must be a clearly stated action. Second, there must be a clearly stated cost of failure. Often, there is a third part clearly states what shild will be paid for not completing the sworn action. Sometimes the second and third parts are combined, sometimes they are explicitly enumerated. There is no room for ambiguity here. You must say what you will accomplish and what will happen if you fail. If there is no consequence of failure, the oath is worthless. It is just a non-binding promise to do something.

An oath should be achievable but challenging. It must require genuine effort on the part of the person swearing it. If we are not willing to invest time, sweat, blood, and treasure into an endeavor that aids both us and our folk, then we are not truly willing to put forth the effort to achieve a worthy deed that will increase our worth, our luck, and our reputation. An oath does not need to be a grand, heroic action but they must be a worthy boon.

The points covered so far are not the whole range of requirements for swearing a good oath. These are simply the most basic components that need to be understood. Different groups will have different additional requirements for when and how an oath is sworn, who can swear it, and so on. For example, it is common fairly common in tribal-oriented groups to make it known that not only has an oath been sworn but also that it has been completed. I have known of one group that required that regular “status updates” be made to the group. There is always going to be variation in requirements and execution but it is important to understand that these basic elements come into play in some way with pretty much everyone. If they do not, it is worth taking the time to stop and consider why these things aren’t done, what impact it has on how things are done, and what this means for you, your kin, and for the group. Oaths are important and the last thing you want is to swear an ill-informed and hasty oath without understanding that every oath sworn is a life altering action.

My Approach To Heathenry

One of the things I get asked for on a semi-regular basis is an explanation of my approach to Heathenry, so I thought I’d provide a breakdown of the different “elements” that make up my perspective and methodology. First, and foremost, I believe Heathenry should be based on polytheistic reconstruction. The purpose of reconstructionist methodology is to re-establish historically accurate behaviors, thought forms, beliefs in an effort to create continuity of ritual traditions. It is not historical reenactment. Polytheistic reconstruction is in contrast to the syncretic beliefs of Neopaganism or “channeled” systems like Theosophy. In 2004, Bill Linzie listed the primary difference between polytheistic reconstructionism and Neopaganism from the 19th and 20th centuries, which include different efforts at Germanic mysticism like Ariosophy. According to Linzie, the differences are:

  1.     There is no attempt to recreate a combined pan-European Paganism.
  2.     Researchers attempt to stay within research guidelines developed over the course of the past century for handling documentation generated in the time periods that they are studying.
  3.     A multi-disciplinary approach is utilized capitalizing on results from various fields as historical literary research, anthropology, religious history, political history, archaeology, forensic anthropology, historical sociology, etc. with an overt attempt to avoid pseudo-sciences.
  4.     There are serious attempts to recreate culture, politics, science and art of the period in order to better understand the environment within which the religious beliefs were practiced.

I found some interesting commentary that I think actually sums up much of the attitude within Heathenry towards being called “pagan.” I think it’s absolutely fair to say that those of us who rely on reconstruction reject being called “pagan” or “neopagan” in order to distance ourselves from more common elements of Neopaganism, namely eclecticism, syncretism, cultural appropriation, esotericism, mysticism, and Wiccan or Ceremonial Magic inspired ritual structures and practices.

Second, I believe Heathenry is not just reconstructionist, it is also revivalist. This element means that I believe that we are working towards a renewal of our customs and practices in the modern world and addressing Heathen belief and practices in a modern framework. This should not be taken to mean that we are free to just run any which way we want with the material we gain from our reconstruction efforts. Quite the opposite is true, actually.

Our revival must take into account that we do not live in a world from a thousand years ago but we must make every effort to maintain that continuity of tradition. We are forced to deliberately evolve those customs to address the needs and realities of the world we are in. Yes, it is fairly true that Heathens do have some element of rejection of what can be called a plastic, consumer culture that we often find ourselves at odds with but even in this, we enjoy a great deal of modern benefits and our lifestyle is vastly different from those of our ancient ancestors. This necessitates that we adapt certain things for our modern life. Being a revival, however, also means that we must adapt our modern life to certain ancient customs and norms. Where that balance is found is one of the many things that we are still sorting out so there is going to be a great deal of experimentation for a long time yet to come, but it is a sign of the genuine effort being put in to the revival that we are doing this.

The third element to my approach is Tribalism. This is a bit of a thorny subject because Tribalism is a term that poses difficulty in definition due to various uses. For the sake of Heathenry, I am going to define Tribalism as advocating for the creation of modern tribal units based on continuity with ancient tribal structures. These tribal units are predominantly reciprocal, culture-based, and socially distinct from the dominant culture resulting in a specific sense of identity and membership.

I believe that tribal thinking and behavior is inherent to human nature. Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool argued that the average person is capable of understanding only about 150 individuals as fully developed, complex people (Dunbar’s number) and I believe that we are only really able to develop meaningful relationships within that limitation. Others have argued that the number might be greater, in fact, almost double according to H. Russell Bernard. Regardless of what the actual number is, and I am inclined to think that Russell may be more correct, the point remains that we are not truly able to see a limited number of individuals as “real people” that we can identify with meaningfully. This natural inclination causes us to create “tribal” identities around various subjective associations, particularly when we lack customary tribal membership.

Finally, I take a liberal approach to interpretation of these influential elements. I believe that all of our sources provide guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. We are regularly called upon to deal with issues in an adaptive, utilitarian manner. We must strive to remain consistent with tradition as we do this, of course, but the poem Havamal is not the direct word of Odin, which we must not violate. The sagas provide us insight into the mores and norms of our Viking Age ancestors but they are also good examples of what not to do. We are also not limited to just that one specific place and time. Each tribe must decide for itself where and when it draws inspiration and cultural continuity. The only true moral imperative we have is that we must maintain frith with our kin, our clan, and our tribe. What is good is that which is beneficial to the tribe.

 

The Heathen Mind: Construction & Transgression

Split Rail FenceHeathenry is constructive. It compels us to create. It compels us to build a legacy to pass down to future generations. The Heathen mindset is one of investment in the system in both terms of identity and physicality. The Heathen mind cannot abide tearing down the system. It demands reform, not destruction. Chaos follows in the wake of destruction. Reform rebuilds where things are broken, repurposes what is good but wasted, and creates what is needed. It establishes hale order out of what was unwholesome. The Heathen mind has ideals, not ideology. Heathens are known for being practical, pragmatic people. We take the world around us as it is, not as we believe it to be. This is what we mean when we talk about Heathenry being world accepting.

To be Heathen is to build a legacy that we pass down to future generations. As Heathenry grows, we will continue to strive to build that legacy of order carved out of chaos. We will rebuild our norms and establish new ones. Sure, we are going to struggle and we are going to make mistakes and have failures. We have a lot to rebuild and we have to find ourselves invested in these reconstructed and revived societies, but it is our nature to continue to do so.

Heathenry is communal. In Culture of the Teutons, Grönbech discusses frith, kinship, and honor to great extent and one of the conclusions he draws about Heathen society is summed up best as “the man is the clan and the clan is the man.” We are at our truest when we are part of something and when we are invested in it. In fact, it is the man without a clan, without frith, that is no man in any meaningful way. This is partly because a man living without frith, without kin, is expelled from society and can build nothing. They will have no legacy. They transgress the borders of society, living like a wolf, and preying upon others. They are outlaw and not protected by the normal rules governing human interaction. They are without purposeful and meaningful existence and, where they intersect society, exist as a parasite. They steal what they can and give nothing back. They violate all the rules and upset the proper order of things.

Because Heathenry is constructive, that also means that Heathenry is normative. We live with the idea that the Order is good and that, for there to be Order, there must be rules. These rules set the foundation of our tribal customs. Those customs then build our cultural legacy. The opposite of this constructive nature is transgression. Transgression is reductive. It tears down the normative and violates the social order. It bucks the rules. It sets aside what is understood and acceptable. To transgress against the normative is to change the rules you are playing by when no one else has.

This is why Heathenry and Wicca don’t get along, and more importantly, what makes us call something “Wiccatru.” Wicca, is built on a model of counter-culture. It is transgressive. Our complaints about “Wiccatru” are less about “Woo” and more about how Wiccan mystical and religious ideas transgress our boundaries. You could say that where we build fences, they hop right over them. The truth is, we like our “Woo” as much as any other pagan religion, we just have fairly rigid norms that aren’t to be violated when it comes to them. When our “Woo” does transgress against the norm, we demand that it also acknowledge the superiority of the norm. An example of a common norm is resistance to syncretism. The syncretic nature of Wicca, the thing that drives us craziest about Wicca, is part of Wicca’s transgressive nature. Therefore, when “Woo” transgresses the normative, fails to acknowledge the superiority of the normative, and has even a hint of syncretism, out comes the “Wiccatru” saw. By standing against the transgressive, we are working to reinforce the normative, constructive nature of Heathenry.

I don’t bring this up to beat on the old anti-Wiccan war drum. In truth, what I just said will not contribute to the conversation between Wicca and Heathenry in any meaningful way. At best, the observation only serves to enlighten us about our own motivations. It does, however, serve as an illustration of the Heathen world view.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone as they struggled with how their growing understanding of Heathenry was forcing them to come to some very uncomfortable conclusions about his political ideology and those who share it. His conclusion is that the reason this political ideology continues to fail to make any meaningful impact and has no real experimental success is because it fails to set rules and expectations and then devolves into infighting because their are no norms to uphold. For our purposes, we need to compare this extreme individualism to the communal factor of the Heathen world view.

When I was younger, my politics were a lot more radical than they are now. I still hold on to many of the core values of that political ideology but I am not as extreme in them any more. The reason for this is investment in society. This is both a matter of how Heathenry as a cultural system, and not just a religion, developed an understanding of who I am but also how actual financial and physical investment grew from the accumulation of personal property that was distinct from my parents’ property. The ideology got tempered by realism, that damned world accepting thing we like talking about, into ideals that could be used as tools for working with others to build something rather than tear down.

Heathenry is constructive.

It compels us to create.

It compels us to have a legacy.

This I Believe

Author’s Note: If you are an NPR listener, you a probably familiar with the “This I Believe” series of essays read on air from time to time. For those who are not familiar with these essays, the premise is that it is a statement about some sort of existential concept, how the author views its importance and impact, and why these things sum up their belief in such a concept. It is with this format in mind that this article is structured.

Creative Thinking With Brainstorming, wax candle into lighting bulb.I believe in old fashioned ideas. Working in the tech industry, I like to think that I’m a generally “progressive” person with an eye on where technology and culture are moving and how they are improving. I also like to think that I’m a realist and that it sometimes seems as if there is change for the sake of change alone, as if somehow, an old fashioned idea is no longer useful simply because it isn’t new and shiny any more. All too often it seems like old fashioned ideas like being steadfast in the face of adversity or fair in your dealings with others is somehow an indication of not being part of the here and now and that it makes us a bit of an anachronism. I believe in old fashioned ideas but I don’t believe that they are out of fashion.

The very foundation of Heathen ethical and moral thought, ancient and modern, revolves around belief in honor and worth. Every family has their own demands of honor. Every tribe has its own ideas of worthy action and behavior. These are varied and nuanced ideas and few hard and fast rules can be applied to them but there are certain patterns that do emerge. The patterns are the foundation of long standing concepts of what makes a person’s life truly meaningful. They are old fashioned ideas about loyalty, self-control, integrity, good judgment, and so many more than just the handful I could try to name. We find these traits being taught in leadership courses. We find them passed down from father to son on Midwestern farms. We find these ideas at the very bedrock of our social norms and we find them all too often derided as being the values of hicks, rednecks, and country bumpkins who don’t know that you need to do anything and everything you can to make a fast buck and get just that much richer. Just look at the business ethics as they are really practiced on Wall St. Sure, they are an easy target but just because it’s low hanging fruit doesn’t mean I’m not going to pluck it.

So this raises the question of whether or not these old fashioned ideas are anachronistic. I don’t believe so. I think they are worn, tarnished, and dinged up but they sure aren’t forgotten or abandoned. They may be old fashioned ideas but they are also very modern ideas. We, as Heathens, have made an active choice to live our lives by a certain sense of right and wrong and to believe that honor means something. When we give our word, even as just a simple promise, people expect us to keep it. We expect our kinsman to stand by us when times are hardest. We rely on our own boldness and steadfastness to see us through our tribulations. These values aren’t really all that old fashioned, just honest and expectations that family means something, your word is your bond, and that we will do our very best to support ourselves and our loved ones when times are hard. Sure, it might be easier to abandon our time honored traditions when things aren’t looking so grand but I suggest to you that this kind of behavior is really what is out of fashion. Where ever we look, we see the selfish no longer being free to revel in their self-absorbed seclusion. Instead, people are once again demanding that society uphold these old fashioned ideas and set things right again. So, I believe in old fashioned ideas being the future. They really aren’t so old fashioned after all.

Honor Our Ancestors: Telling the little stories

MatronaeI have sat through many sumbles where men and women in mourning have shared tales of their lost kin. Almost always this is something that moves everyone present in some way. If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve lost a loved one and you know the pain they are feeling. I’ve even found that formal speech, either in sumble or blót, about our lost kin helps with the grieving process. It was over a year before I spoke about my own father’s passing and until I did, I was haunted by his absence. I was able to finally start to come to terms with it after raising a horn in his honor and speaking well of him. It was difficult beyond measure, as it was when my mother passed as well, but I go through it and began to move on. I’ve also come to notice that we tend to avoid talking about our ancestors in terms of the small, everyday stories. We want those around us to know our admiration for our kin. I think we are doing them, and ourselves, a disservice by focusing only on these “big stories.”

Let me start off by saying that there is a time and place for telling the little stories. That time is when you’re with a smaller group that is more closely related to you. With family is, of course, the obvious time to tell the small stories. Large groups that you don’t really know the majority of people might not be the best time because the intimacy of kinship bonds just isn’t there. If you belong to a group, particularly one that is tightly knit, this is also another good place to speak of kin and tell them your stories as well. Being aware of the time, place, and audience helps make sure we aren’t telling intimate personal stories to people who just won’t appreciate them.

I have found that some people have a deeply negative reaction to telling the little stories during sumble. Those whom I’ve spoken with feel like it somehow lessens the importance of the rite. I couldn’t disagree more. Telling the big stories about our kin reminds us all why we honor them. Telling the little stories reminds us why we miss them, the joy we had with them around, and of our love for them and our shared lives. Telling the big stories tells us what they did. Telling the little stories tells us who they were and how they lived. The big stories give us a framework for viewing them but it is the little stories that fill in the details and bring us closer to them.

This coming Disting I will make my usual offerings to the past matrons of my kin as I always do. This year I plan to make things a little different. I plan to tell at least one little story for all the woman of the family that I can recall. This way I can share my life with those who matter most to me and build those bonds that tie us together.

Heathenry as Fashion Accessory?

vikingIn a recent conversation with someone I found myself talking about religion as fashion accessory. It seemed a bit odd to me at first but I have noticed that this is a pretty common state of affairs for so many, Heathen and otherwise. Honestly, it’s not all that surprising to me that we can so easily treat it that way. After all, we are constantly surrounded by consumer messages that tell us to satisfy our desires. If it doesn’t make us feel good then it should be discarded. Religion is just another thing that we accessorize our daily lives with. We slot it in where it’s convenient and when it’s not, we just sort of “forget” that it’s there. Why shouldn’t we? We compartmentalize so much else that we naturally remove religion from an all the time thing to make it a some of the time thing.

There are all sorts of stereotypical behaviors that one could attempt to cite as evidence of “Fashiontru” but none of them, on their own, are inherently dismissible and some of them are activities that a sincere person might engage in. In truth, there’s really only one key element that I look for when I’m trying to see if I am falling into the trap of treating my Heathenry as a fashion statement; does it serve only to aggrandize my ego? This one question tells me more about what I’m doing than anything else.

As a personal example allow me to bring up my Jultid offerings. I have spent far too much of this month fighting a nasty version of the flu. I am still partially without my voice. For someone who talks as much as I do, both for a living and because I am a bloviating cretin, this is a downright problem. At the onset of Jul, when I make the majority of my offerings, I was croaking out very few sounds at all and it hurt to even attempt to do so. I was whining to a friend about not knowing how I was going to speak my biddings when I could barely make a sound. Frankly, I was making a right ass of myself because I was more concerned about me than doing what I needed to do. In his less than subtle way he reminded me to stop whining and just do it. He was right. In my self-pity I was making a holy act about me. I was wearing my Heathenry as a fashion accessory to show how “Heathen” I was while not putting in the full effort. So, I went outside, said what I needed to say, and croaked my way through it. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy. Frankly, it hurt like the dickens, but it was done and it was done right.

I tell you this story not because I want to look good but because I want to illustrate a point. We do what we do because we must do it. It doesn’t matter if it is easy or convenient. We make the offerings because we have been given gifts. We continue the gift-giving cycle and we reaffirm our bond with the Aesir, the Vanir, our ancestors, and the wights around us. Sometimes this is a down-right pain in the butt. That doesn’t matter, however, because it is the right thing to do. It is the proper thing to do. If we are only Heathen when it’s easy for us, then we are treating our faith as nothing more than a fashion accessory that we can show off. It becomes no more meaningful than a token and that does more harm to our relationship with the numinous Other than anything.

Family and the holidays

Yule picFor the life of me, I can’t believe we are already back around to Jul. I could swear to you that it was just Midsommar. That my life this year has been all sorts of crazy and hectic would be an understatement. It’s going to be on it’s way out the door with even more commotion and stress than ever before. I’m looking forward to the challenges of the next couple of weeks but they are reminding me of what is so important at this time of year and the need to balance family and work. This, of course, is all back drop to get to the point I want to make about Jul and family, so let’s just get on with it.

We all know that Jul is a time for family. Even if we are new to Heathenry, we have spent most of our lives being told that this time of year is for family. Every Christmas special says it. Every ad meant to encourage us to spend lots of money says it. Heck, we practically drive ourselves mad talking about it (and the dreaded trip to see family that actually comes with that). This almost always gets inexperienced Heathens asking what to do about their families as they are likely still in the closet. Truthfully, even those of us who are old hat at this are regularly at a loss with what to do when it comes to family.

I have absolutely no idea what to do if you come from a deeply Christian family that insists on everybody going to church for Midnight services. You’re going to have to gauge your discomfort against the backlash of just not going. I know it doesn’t help, but if you’ve got a shift-work job, and you feel like working the worst commercial shopping day of the year, you wouldn’t be the first person to use that as an out. I have a friend who’s done that for the last 8 years. Not exactly a good solution but it beats having to listen to people singing about the White Christ and wanting to stab your eyes out. It’s a tough situation and I haven’t got a clue what’s right on this one.

That issue aside, I think the rest of the holiday season is a bit more manageable for most of us. Whether you put up a tree or a wreath, we all know where these symbols come from. Hanging lights is a pain but it sure does look good once it’s done. I always consider it an homage to Sunna. I don’t put up a lot of lights but I do look forward to the first time they are turned on. I’m planning to add just a little more this year, mostly window decoration. Depending on your persuasion, there are plenty of online retailers of Scandinavian and German holiday decorations that can really add to the whole look and feel.

Outside of these larger traditions, each family has their own set of traditions. These are the ones I find the most meaning in. I am looking forward to my mother in law’s breakfast casserole. She only makes it one day a year and it is so tasty. In thanks for this, I’ve managed to convince them that glögg is good (it’s the best but they are wine purists and so that took some convincing, to say the least) and now I get tasked with making that every year. I’m not at all heart broken over this, as I’m sure you can imagine.

There are a few other things I do that I’m slowly getting my wife to come along with. On the morning after the solstice I always make a batch of lussekatt and porridge for breakfast. Of course there’s also freshly brewed coffee for me. I make an offering of this to Sunna as a “rise and shine” breakfast. This year I might be lucky enough to include some deer sausage with it. I also make an offering to the tomten of the house for all their help throughout the year. I’m having to cancel my usual Jul Party because of low attendance but I’m still expecting some friends to come over. All this really means is that I’m not spending $200 to cater the thing and the invite list gets very small.

So, why all this talk about family and holiday customs but not a whole lot on religion? Honestly, it’s because Jul is such an important time to be with friends and, most importantly, family that I want to focus on the what I consider the best part of the season. I want to focus on those things that bring us together. I’ve written in the past about Jul from a religious perspective but this year has been a real reminder to me about what is most important in life. Being at home, with your family, is where you should be safest. It is where you should be able to relax and let down your guard for a while. Family should be the people who will see you at your worst and your weakest and build you back up again. I’m not a complete fool and I realize that not all of us are blessed with a good home life, so a lot of this may sound trite and meaningless. I believe quite the contrary. For those who suffer strife at home, or have left home altogether because of it, you know better than most why family is so important. If you are reading this and you don’t have family to be with, I hope you have good friends to spend the time with. Many people today have to make families of choice rather than families of biology. If you’re in this situation, I hope that you find yourself this Jul with family of different bloodlines but no less meaningful. For all of us, whether we are with families of biology or choice, take a moment when you’re all gathered together to just appreciate the situation. This is what is best in life.

I would also like to add one last note that affects a lot of people, military service. If you are part of a military family, please know that there are those of us who do know the difficulty of this time of year. My heart goes out to all the men and women of the armed services, and their families, that are unable to be together because of deployment. I hope that each and every one of you is able to get some time to speak to your loved ones. I know it isn’t easy but the sacrifices you are making are not unnoticed.

If you know people who are deployed, or dealing with the stress of deployed family, please take some time to make sure they are taken care of. I think there’s still some time yet to get a care package in the mail and get it to at least most of them. I believe the USO has some generic care packages that can be sent to service personnel as well. No soldier, sailor, airman, or marine is going to have their feelings hurt from a random person sending them a gift that says they aren’t forgotten. Take a moment to make sure their civilian families are looked out for as well. I try not to get up on a soapbox too often but this is important. If you can, please do something nice for these folks, regardless of creed. They have earned this small kindness.

Winter Nights: A Private Blessing for the Family

late-autumn-lake-ian-mitchellWinter Nights is one of my favorite holidays. Much of the meaning has been lost to us but a few references do survive. The term is used in some of the legendary sagas but mostly describes the passage of time, roughly the three days which begin the winter season. In Ynglinga Saga, Snorri refers to a sacrifice at the onset of winter that fits into the same timeframe. There are several different elements to Winter Nights but the one I wish to focus on for this post is on the private, family nature of the festival.

When looking at the skaldic poem Austrfararvísur, we see a very peculiar behavior for Swedes visited by the Norwegian skald Sigvatr Þórðarson, namely that they are very unwelcoming to him during this time, even though the customs of hospitality would usually have meant he would be welcomed into their homes for the night. Instead, we see him turned away during the álfablót. Many scholars have concluded that the álfablót was a rite of veneration of ancestors and a blessing for the family that dwells within a home. It was a private affair that outsiders weren’t privy to and the usual rules of hospitality were suspended. This seems perfectly reasonable to me because it was a time to honor your dead kin and remember them in a deeply personal and intimate manner.

For me, the offerings made during Winter Nights are the only time I do not permit guests into the home to celebrate with me. The doors are open to any who would attend any other time, but not when I am speaking directly to my most beloved and dearly missed family. The things I have to say to my mother and father, to my grandparents, and to others is for my family only. The blessings they bring are for us alone and it is our well-being that I am seeking to assure. I am also rather secretive about just what I do and how I do it because it is, again, a personal family matter. With that in mind, however, I think it’s fair to say we can discuss certain common elements that may be used by others.

Many of us focus most of our offerings on the Aesir and Vanir before we turn to our ancestors. In this case, the ancestor cult is dominant. It is to them that the offerings are made first. If we are to look at the poem Austrfararvísur, we will notice that one man mentioned is named Ölvir, and it is suspected that this is a ritualistic name. The first element of the name refers to beer and it has been suggested that beer and ale played an important part of the Winter Nights celebrations and offerings. Given that it is also about the first time in a while that fresh beer would be brewed and ready to drink, this also seems reasonable to me. The same poem gives us an indication that the sealing of the home against outsiders was against more than just human visitors. Hallowing the home is an act of making it sacred space as well as warding it against all manner of unwelcome guest, human or otherwise. When we look at the month names of the Old Norse calendar, we also see an indication as to why this might be. The Winter Nights fell sometime in late October or early November. By the Old Norse calendar, this would be during the “Slaughter Month,” when the herd was culled. The presence of that much blood and death, while necessary, was also believed well into modern times to draw the attention of trolls and the dead. To ward the home against such beings seems almost a natural response to their presence outside the home.

What we see in Icelandic custom is that there was also a public celebration as well as these private offerings. The public celebration was the dísablót and may have also been a fertility blessing as well as making offerings for a light winter. The dísablót fell later in the year in Sweden than it did in Iceland, making them different holidays. It has been suggested that the dísablót was predominantly performed by women and this may make it akin to the Anglo-Saxon mōdraniht.

I wish you all a safe and happy time with your family during these Winter Nights.

Two Years Already?

November 1st, 2013 @ 20:49:50

The last few months have been tough. I haven’t had the time or energy to write nearly as much as I wanted to and I feel like I’ve neglected this project even though my personal life has taken it’s toll. I just realized that it’s been over two years since I started this project and even when I wasn’t able to dedicate the time it deserved, you all have continued to be interested. I am beyond grateful. This realization leaves me rather emotional and humbled.

To celebrate the two year anniversary of this blog, I’d like to share with you all where my life is at. As you know, my wife and I separated in May. In mid to late August she asked me to come home. Since then we have been working on fixing what was broken. As you might imagine, this has required a great deal of my time and energy and it has contributed to the silence. Things are going well. I can say that I’m fairly certain most everyone understands and will be okay with that.

Year 2 of this project was rougher than I expected but I’m very hopeful for Year 3. Let’s do this!

Heathenry & Heartache: How To Deal With the End of a Relationship

willowispThis is something I’ve been trying to figure out how to address for some time now and it finally came around to me in a way that I could do so. On a forum I belong to, a young man asked about how our faith can help us deal with a bad break up he is going through. This is a question that is dear to me because I’ve been separated from my wife for 3 1/2 months now. I can’t even begin to articulate the degree of anguish this causes me every single day. The truth is, there isn’t a magic answer to this question. It’s easy to want to fall back on faith to find something, anything, to hold on to until the pain begins to dull and becomes more manageable. Maybe that might work for someone but it doesn’t work for me. This is my problem, my failure as a man and a husband, and I do not believe I should be begging the Aesir, the Vanir, or my kin to do something about this because it’s not something they can do anything about. The kind of pain we go through when we grieve for this sort of loss is intensely personal and it is really only up to us to deal with it. I have to be honest with you, I don’t know how that’s done. I don’t think there is a formula for grieving.

I know we have other members of this group who are divorced and can speak to things after the healing begins. I can’t because I’m not there. I’m still deeply, deeply bothered by this and I believe I will continue to be for quite some time to come. What I can tell you is what I do to “stay strong.” I get up every morning and I go to work. I took the first week of this crisis off work to find a place to live (currently an extended stay hotel) and to get through the initial shock and emotional trauma. After that, I got up and went to work. I spend a lot of time alone, mostly because I don’t have many friends (no shock to most, I’m sure) and I don’t really have family to turn to, but I’ve been doing what I can to continue to live my life. I go see movies when I’m interested in them, alone if no one wants to go with me. I make sure my laundry is done and groceries are bought. I try to enjoy hobbies and find new interests. I keep putting one foot in front of the other and I live my life. Sometimes it’s harder than others but you have to keep reminding yourself that, in time, it will get better.

In ancient times, there was a custom among some of the continental tribes of taking young men from their homes and forming what is basically a semi-permanent raiding party where they would live outside of society and the norms. They would go into the woods and become “wolves.” While they went as a pack, in many ways they also went in alone. I was reminded of this by a good friend. Every man goes into the woods alone. In this case it is an emotional metaphor rather than a literal survival exercise, but it has value in this context as well.

What we learn in the woods is how to keep going, how to survive. We learn how to get back to ourselves and be men again. It takes a great effort to fight every impulse and thought that says you are worth nothing. It takes a great effort just to get out of bed and go to work, the grocery store, and the laundromat. I am somewhat fortunate in that my Ex and I are on somewhat better terms than we had been for the 6 months leading up to this, but this too comes at a cost. If we hated each other it would be easier to stop feeling for her. It would be easier to say that I have no obligations towards her. As it is, she is still my wife legally and I do not see myself released from my marriage oath to care for her well being. She is still on my insurance and is still the beneficiary of my life insurance. She will remain so until the divorce is concluded and I am no longer bound by my marriage vow.

I find some comfort in this, actually. I look at myself and see someone who knows what it means to be who we are and I strive to live up to that ideal. As I paw around in the woods, I hold on to these ideals so that I can remain a man and not lose myself to the wolf. I have no idea when, or if, I’ll find my way home again but until I do, I don’t seek to unburden myself from my pain. I choose to feel it, cope with it, and use it to drive me forward. It’s not easy. I have spent 14 weeks in some very serious self reflection and analysis of my own flaws and failings. I don’t like a lot of what I see. I hurt from pulling out my own insides and poking them until they are a bloody, raw mess but I am using this to make myself a better man. It has been said that what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. If that’s true, this sort of thing ought to have some impressive results because this hurts like Hel!

I would very much like to hear from you, especially those of you who have gone through a divorce, and find out what you think. What worked for you? What didn’t? What would you do again and what would you avoid repeating at all costs? How helpful were friends and family? Did you have any to fall back on?