Kansas City, CNN, and Extremism

I don’t like discussing these sorts of topics but I believe it’s necessary to do so. Most of us know about the fatal shooting in Kansas City where white supremacist and hate-monger Frazier Glenn Cross (aka Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr.) gunned down three innocent people at the Village Shalom retirement center and Jewish Community Center. I’m sure that, by now, most of you also know about the CNN article that purported to “discuss” his ‘racist religion.’ It should come as no shock, then, why I’m writing about this. The CNN article, which has subsequently been edited, basically attempted to portray all versions of Heathen religion as part of a racist, white supremacist contingent that misuses and distorts Heathen troth for their political ends. 

The reality is that Cross was a lost, angry, and misguided man with a long history of radical racial extremism. His ties with the KKK and white supremacist movements are well documented. In the past, he was deeply involved with the Christian Identity movement, another radical racist group. If anything, we can see quite clearly that the only thing this man worshiped was hate and racism. Let this be the last word we say about him. Instead, I’d like to look to helping the affected community.

The article on the CNN religions blog has propelled Heathenry into the limelight of this discussion. In response to this, several efforts have been made to show that we are not hatemongers. One such effort is even attempting to help the victims and the Jewish community of Kansas City. They have started a fund raiser to support the victims and the families of the victims. I spoke with one of the organizers of this fund raiser about their effort. They are attempting to raise $5000, which will be donated to a memorial fund set up by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. According to Josh G., they have received donations from the Asatru Folk Assembly, Steve McNallen and his wife, the Troth, members of both organizations, and according to their donations page, several kindreds, independent Heathens, and non-Heathen groups who support this effort. I strongly encourage anyone who is able to donate. This was a horrific act and if we can be a part of the healing process, then we should be. Josh informed me that the JCC is very responsive to the offer of assistance and has expressed their gratitude for the effort. It is my hope that we can open a dialogue with the Jewish community not just in Kansas City, but in other parts of the country as well. If something good can come of this, then the lives of three innocent people will not have been in vain. Hate is not a Heathen virtue but helping our communities is. This isn’t limited to just the Heathen community, but instead extends to the entire community around us.

Proving The Past

old-booksOne of the difficult things we deal with when trying to understand ancient practices and beliefs is “proof.” All too often proof means empirical, repeatable evidence. Such things are rare in humanities. Instead, we have to deal with a preponderance of evidence to support our arguments. The flaw of preponderance of evidence is that it is, no matter how well examined, still subject to error. It’s not chemistry. Sodium and chlorine in the right mixture is always going to make table salt. That’s empirical science. Antibiotics are never going to cure the common cold. That’s empirical science. What we are dealing with when talking about culture, language, history, and all these other social science topics is almost as much an art as anything. The scientific method can still be used to make sure our work is as accurate, thorough, and effective as possible but the ability to generate empirical evidence to offer up as proof is limited.

Take the Ultimatum Game, for example. When it was used in only Western, industrialized societies, a consistent result of behavior dominated and caused the experimenters to conclude that there was a universal sense of fairness among humans. When this same experiment was performed (only recently I might add, and by an economist no less) among gift-giving societies, the behaviors were very different, both in terms of what was offered and how it was received.

moneyFor those that don’t know, the Ultimatum Game takes 2 test subjects and provides one of them a commodity of value, typically money, but not always. The first participant is told that they can divide up the money however they see fit between the two of them. However, if the recipient rejects the offer, both players go home empty handed. In Western society, people often rejected offers that were “too low” simply out of spite because the other person was being greedy. This is, of course, in opposition to getting free money. In essence, the offering player was punished for unfair behavior. Acceptable offers ranged from roughly 45-55% of the money. In gift-giving societies, the offering player often made offers well in excess of 60-70% (and often amounts into 80-90%) of the money when the receiving player was of higher social station. These offers were almost universally rejected. The reason for this is because in gift-giving societies, accepting a gift means that some form of reciprocity is required at some other time, essentially creating a debt. In the case of Ultimatum Game players, that debt was either unwanted or the recipient was insulted that the offering player would so blatantly try to curry favor.

What does this have to do with Heathenry? While this isn’t “proof” that such behaviors would likely occur among our ancestors, the fact that it happened repeatedly in different gift-giving cultures around the world provides a preponderance of evidence about how they would have reacted. It also sheds light on the nature of our religious offerings. This is something that I believe the Anglo-Saxon Heathenry and Theodish groups have a much better understanding of than most Asatru groups. Our relationship with the gods is a reciprocal, gift-giving relationship. We don’t just offer to them to give thanks for what we have received (a rather Christian notion, to be honest), but to bind them in a sort of debt wherein they are obligated to provide aid and blessings to us just as if it was the relationship between a thane and his king. This is why we are told that a gift goes looking for a gift and that it is better to not offer at all than to offer too much.

Converting To Ásatrú

YggdrasilBefore I get started, I’d like to take a moment to apologize for things having been so quiet around here lately. For the last few weeks I’ve had some upheaval in my life and it’s taken a toll on my writing time. I switched back to a day shift at work, which means I’m a lot busier there and have a lot less time to research or write. I also came down with a bad case of food poisoning that left me in bed for 10 days. I also got a promotion at work and that has increased my work load a bit. I’m happy to be doing the new job but it is does mean I have a lot less down time. Things are finally settling out a bit, however, so that means I should be able to get back to writing and updating the blog regularly again. Now, on with the show!

One of the questions I see in a lot of places, whether it’s online, private messages I get, or even at events where newcomers show up, is what someone has to do to “convert” to Ásatrú. Of all the questions I get asked, this one is the hardest for me to answer. Heathenry, in all its forms, is not centralized. Some forms are more hierarchical than others, such as Théodism, and these versions tend to focus more on becoming a member of the group than on religious conversion. Other forms, like Ásatrú, is so highly individualistic that membership in a group isn’t even required to profess faith in the Aesir and Vanir. As someone who does not currently belong to any kind of local group, I am somewhat torn in my own opinions on the matter. I’d like to address the two different aspects present here, as they are both important.

I have said repeatedly that I believe being Heathen is fundamentally a cultural matter. In truth, this is a slight step to the side of Tribalist thought, where the emphasis is placed on tribal membership. I see this cultural approach as a modernized variation. Cultures were made up of many tribes and in today’s world the tribes are long gone. What remains, however, is the culture of now more unified people. To be Heathen necessitates being part of a Germanic culture because the way we think, speak, and act is what makes us Heathen as much as the gods we honor. For most of us, we live in a culture of Germanic origin, so this is partly met already. We do, however, have to work through 1000 years or more of outside influence to regain our identities. In this respect, all of us have some work to do regarding “conversion.” We all have to retrain our thoughts in some way.

In addition to our cultural identity, to be Ásatrú means that we worship the Aesir and Vanir. Our faith is a part of our culture. To the outside world, it is our defining trait. While I disagree with that assessment, it is the thing that most separates us from those around us. This is even at the very core of the issue. It is our faith that began to re-emerge first. It was what has allowed us to begin to revive our cultures and identities. When troth with the Gods of the North was re-established, it gave birth to any number of efforts to become who we once were. It is the faith that draws people in and opens the door to an entire world of cultural values and ideas. A conversion of faith leads to a conversion of being. And this is where we fall flat on our faces.

Because we are not centralized in any way, and because we are newly revived, we do not have hundreds or thousands of years of traditions telling us how to bring someone into the group. Instead, we are figuring that out right now. The truth is, we don’t have a conversion process. What we do have is a wide assortment of group membership customs that are as numerous and varied as there are Heathen groups out there. So, this leaves us with the question of how does someone actually convert?

BlótConversion isn’t just a matter of “accepting” a belief and then professing it. That may work for others but I don’t believe it works here. That’s just the start of things. As I see it, the first step is to do a lot of study. Like so many things in life, what you put into Ásatrú effects what you get out of Ásatrú. There are many different ways to approach Heathen faith. It can be culturally or regionally specific. It can be tribal, historic or modern. It can be pan-Nordic or even pan-Germanic. I can’t say what is right for you but I can say that I prefer a culturally specific approach. Whatever choice a person makes, it means they are going to have to do a lot of research. As I said earlier, being Heathen is about culture, not just religion. That means it’s about folklore and history. It’s about music and art. It’s about song and dance. It’s about being part of a cultural group, not just acting like it.

A person also needs to learn the basic tenets of the faith they are going to practice. This is probably the sticking point for most because there really isn’t one religion, and that doesn’t even count the different interpretations of those faiths. Those who are starting out today have it a bit easier, I think, than I did. There are a lot more books out there that discuss all sorts of different variations on Heathenry and Ásatrú. I suggest that newcomers read several different books and talk to others about those books. There probably isn’t going to be someone to teach you, so you need to be a self-starter and be self-motivated.

A lot of people want to jump ahead of themselves and make some profession of belief soon after discovering Ásatrú. I strongly advise against that. In all the excitement of things being shiny and new it is easy to over-look the obligations that come with being Heathen. A change of heart is also possible. I’ve met several people who were gung-ho at the start but within 6 months, they had decided it wasn’t for them and had moved on. We place a great deal of importance on the value of our word. If you should make a commitment in haste and then disregard it when things are no longer fun or interesting, it isn’t taken very well. I genuinely suggest at least of year or more of study and worship before making a solid commitment and professing belief. That said, I do advocate for a ritualized profession of faith. I believe that it helps mark the event in your life and gives gravity to it. If you belong to a group, this can be part of the process of becoming a full member of that group. This kind of act makes a clear delineation in your life and I have seen it be the action that reinforces a person’s faith when things are tough and belief is hard.

I have no doubt that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other things that can or should go into this article. I hope that this serves as just a starting point for thinking about what you need to do if you are thinking about honoring the Gods of the North or are helping someone through the process. I would love to hear from readers of all experience levels on this subject, so please take a moment to comment on your experiences and ideas. What you add to this conversation just might help someone else.

Thoughts About Disting

Disarblot by MalmströmWhen we look at what we know about Disting, we see three different functions occurring. First, it was a trade market that looks to have catered to hunting and trapping. It would have been an opportunity for people to trade what the furs and pelts they had collected so far, as well as other goods they have lots of in stock for things they are running low on. Second, we see it as a legal event. The law was recited and changes to the law was made at this time. Lawsuits and other legal business could be addressed and settled at the Thing. Third, we see the religious activity and this is where it gets a little fuzzy.

Today, we believe that it was a disablot that was performed at the Thing. Given the name, this is a reasonable assumption. Snorri tells us that the sacrifices were made for peace and for victory. It is my speculation that what this obvious contrast in goals is “peace at home” and “victory abroad.” In this case, however, I think “peace at home” is about more than just not being invaded or dealing with local raiders and outlaws. When we examine the broad range of association we find with the disir, it is extremely reasonable to believe that this is also a sacrifice for fertility and growth of livestock and crops. One of the best ways to ensure that there was limited strife and conflict was to have plenty of food. When it comes to “victory abroad,” we see other elements of the disir come into play, namely that of magical aid and assistance in battle. Your wife, aunt, or sister may be safe at home while you are away raiding or making war on other lands but your disir, the ancestral women of your clan, are there with you performing magical acts on your behalf. They are placing fetters upon your enemies and breaking those placed upon you. They are their wiping up winds that cripple the fleets of your enemies. They are there, causing all sorts of mayhem. And if you should fall, they are there to claim you so that you can remain with your kin instead of being lost in foreign lands.

Now, what I say or do during my offering to the disir is deeply personal and not something I care to share openly. Those words are for them alone. What I can tell you is that the “legal” side of the event is much more open to discussion and sharing. This is the time of year that I make changes to my ritual format, the way certain things are conducted outside of a blot or sumbel, and when the liturgical calendar must be set for the year. Any new rules for the year are implemented at this time and old rules that didn’t quite work are modified or removed. Additionally, if I have the money, this is also the time of year that I like to buy goods from other Heathens.

The Disir

MatronaeLast year I wrote a little bit about Disting, a celebration of the disir. This year I’d like to take a look at just exactly who the disir are as this is not nearly as simple a topic as it could be. In truth, we have a lot of different, even somewhat conflicting, sources that make it hard to say for sure who and what they are. Today, it is generally held that the disir are the ancestral woman of your family who help protect and guide it. There is more to it than this, however, and I’d like to briefly examine some of these elements.

Understanding the Disir

Dís (pl. dísr) basically means “woman.” In it’s singular form, it is broadly applied to human women, female ghosts, goddesses, and even monsters. In skaldic kennings, a dís is someone’s kinswoman, living or dead. It even serves as a name element common to Old Norse female names. The plural form is often used to refer to the dead women of a clan who protect and aid it.

Matronae

Sigdrifa informs Sigurd that among the mid-wife’s skills is the ability to call to the disir for aid in childbirth. It is quite possible that these are the beings Snorri meant when he said that norns come to all children when they are born. This “motherly” relationship could well be a continuation of continental cultic practices and be part of earlier fertility worship. The oldest known cult dealing with “The Mothers” comes from the west bank of the Rhine where a large number of clay statues have been found, all bearing an inscription identifying them as Matronen. Some of these are linked with individual family names while others with entire tribes. Some are linked to rivers and streams while still others are identified as healers, gift-givers, and midwives. In this way, they could be similar to the álf.

Battle Aid and Magic

The Mersberg Charm directly cites the disir with providing magical aid to their kin in battle, both through the breaking of fetters and ill-magic and through binding the enemies of their kin. We also see in the Helgi lays that disir cause all sorts of trouble for Helgi’s enemies and wards his fleet against a terrible storm. We also see them cause a storm to damage the fleet of the Jomsvikings. As we will see below, they also demonstrate the ability to see the future.

Caring for Kin and Claiming the Dead

There are numerous examples in the sagas of the disir appearing to warriors before their impending death. For example, they come to Gunnar before he makes a trip to the hall of Attila the Hun, which results in Gunnar’s death. Gísli Súrsson dreams of two disir, one helpful and one harmful, before his own death. This may seem terrifying but we also see how they aid their own kin, preventing their death. There is one tale where a man is made sick by his disir so that he is prevented from traveling into an ambush that would have killed him. They are also said to be able to give advice and council about things to come to those who can hear them.

Honoring the Disir

As we can see, the disir are complex beings and I have only just scratched the surface of the material on them. There is much more to read and learn about them and I encourage you to do so. This does lead us to the question of how best to honor them today, however.

Our understanding of the disir has come back towards what we see in Germany during the Roman occupation. We see the disir as our ancestral mothers who care for us, guide us, and protect us against harm and our enemies. We love them because they are not just mysterious female ghosts we have some relationship with but because they are our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and nieces who have gone into the grave but not left us behind. We honor them because they love us as we love them.

Truthfully, I can’t tell you how best to honor your disir because I don’t know them. I don’t know who they were in life. I can tell you that to honor them, it would be best to find a place in your own home that an appropriate shrine can be set up. Give to them gifts that is befitting to who they were in life, what they do now, and above all, shows the esteem you hold them in. This coming Disting, I plan to put flowers on their shrine because I know they are meaningful to my disir.

Something Old, Something New: Making Heathenry Make Sense Now

By Ingeborg S. Nordén

sweden-04Author’s note: This article is loosely based on a message which I had posted to Patrick “Jordsvin” Buck’s Heathen discussion list, as a rebuttal of Bil Linzie’s e-book on Christian and Wiccan influences in modern Asatru.

After reading Bil’s work, I’d agree that he has some valid points about Christianity and popular neo-paganism influencing the beliefs and practices of the average American Heathen.  There is no sound basis in the lore for any of the following:

1. Use of an “eightfold year wheel” calendar.  This practice is  clearly based on the timing of Wiccan Sabbat celebrations, not on any list of holidays preserved in lore or in the folk practices of any one Germanic culture; since most Heathens prefer to focus on a single region or ethnic group in the Germanic world, following holiday traditions of that “source culture” makes more sense than using a mix-and-match schedule from all over Western Europe.

2. Ahistorical “days of remembrance” for cultural heroes on an arbitrary day of the month.  Although the heroes themselves usually are mentioned in lore, the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor a specific person is not.  Furthermore, the chosen date for these celebrations (usually the ninth of a month, because nine is a sacred number in Asatru) rarely has any historical connection to the life or death of a hero being honored in this way.  When I see a Heathen newsletter mention “Remembrance for Raud the Strong” in the coming-events schedule, am I the only Heathen other than Bil who thinks of Catholics celebrating the Assumption or the feast of John the Baptist on some arbitrary, non-Biblical date?  Adding memorials for their own sake feels too much like a Blot-of-the-Month Club, an excuse for kindred members to meet on a regular basis—not a sincere tribute to anybody whom Heathens might admire in modern times.

3. Obsessive concern with regular votive rituals.  Although the lore does mention people asking for divine guidance when they need it, or making offerings on personal occasions which had nothing to do with any festival–the modern idea of doing those things at regular intervals seems to be a holdover from Christianity.  Stanza 145 of Hávamál warns Heathens:  “Better not to ask than to sacrifice too much…better not to send than to slay too much.”  Furthermore, the title character of Hrafnkels saga is described as a “great maker of sacrifices” who shares half his property with Freyr; yet his religious fanaticism does nothing to prevent a lawsuit which led to his being exiled and tortured (Hrafnkell even becomes an outright atheist in the end).  Clearly, the Norsemen frowned on excessive involvement with religion in ancient Heathen times; modern followers of Asatru should remember their attitude if they take the lore seriously.

4. Obsessive concern with the role of clergy.  Although secular laws might require an ordained minister to preside at religious weddings and funerals today, I see no lore-based reason for Heathen godhar and gydhjur to fill roles similar to those of Christian priests.  Heathens in ancient times worshiped at home with friends and family most of the time, with nobody appointed as a permanent leader in those situations.  The few saga descriptions of godhar leading public sacrifices may have already been influenced by Christianity; even if those are legitimate, the lore still doesn’t imply that a godhi was necessary for all formal religious functions.

5. Obsessive concern with the afterlife.  Although the lore often mentions an afterlife with several possible destinations (not “one good/one bad” as in the Abrahamic religions), few people mention any desire to earn rewards or avoid punishments from the gods.  They admitted that such things existed, but did not base their entire ethical system on earning a desirable state in the next world.  Nor did they see preparation for the afterlife as the purpose of earthly life:  that attitude is common in many Near Eastern cultures and religions, but foreign to anything Germanic.

6. Obsessive concern with magic, especially misuse of some magical terminology in the lore.  First, the popular neo-pagan idea that most people can and should learn magic conflicts with the Norse perception of magicians as marginal members of society–and with descriptions of characters who keep their magical knowledge secret from all except a few trusted people.  Second, Norse terminology is often misinterpreted and misused by Heathens who do practice magic today:  “galdr” wrongly includes chanting isolated rune names in meditation or reciting poetic invocations to the gods.  “Seidhr” wrongly includes a mishmash of foreign traditions (such as trance channeling and pathworking) with only a thin veneer of Germanic names and imagery.  Although we have only a few partial descriptions of native Scandinavian spellworking in the Eddas and sagas, those fragments of existing material are not enough to justify most so-called galdr and seidhr work as legitimately Heathen.

Despite my agreement with Bil on those points, I disagreed  wholeheartedly with some of his comments on modern Heathen theology and social structure:

7. The decreased importance of ancestral spirits does not necessarily derive from either Wicca or Christianity.  Instead, I believe this change reflects the social reality in which modern Heathens live.  Very few of us have detailed family histories recorded and memorized, unless we are descended from nobility or other famous people.  Even for those who are, most Heathens in the past thirty-odd years have converted from some other religion:  if we respect our ancestors enough to acknowledge their beliefs and backgrounds, it makes sense that at least a thousand years’ worth of them would consider Heathenry blasphemous and not want to be included in ceremonies of our religion–let alone worshiped with offerings, or consulted after death as the early Germanic peoples consulted theirs.  “Respect through omission” seems to be the best way of treating those ancestors. They can be acknowledged in purely secular contexts, but anything more leads to a theological Catch-22; either our idea of honor becomes dishonor in the eyes of a non-Heathen ancestor, or we end up incorporating so many non-Germanic practices for the ancestors’ sake that our religion becomes an eclectic Christo-paganism instead of Asatru.

8. Similarly, the decreased importance of local nature spirits is rarely a matter of personal“baggage” from another religion. With the physical and religious environment so hostile towards nature spirits nowadays, it seems logical that few Heathens have the opportunity to develop a strong relationship with those beings.  Nordic folklore often describes nature spirits as shy or even hostile towards humans; therefore, few of them would stay in crowded urban areas. Furthermore, the spirits are often said to hate the trappings of Christianity:  in a neighborhood where churches, Christian holiday celebrations, and the like are very common, it makes sense that few beings friendly to Heathens would continue to live there. Finally, people travel and change residence much more often today than they did in the ancient Germanic world; they rarely stay in one region long enough to become spiritually attached there.

9. With the role of both ancestors and landwights decreasing, a corresponding increase in the gods’ importance makes good sense:  deities are seldom confined to one place or ethnic group in Midgard, unlike the other two types of spirit.  They are also better known to most Heathens, if only because the written lore which describes them is easier to find; and they are reliably Heathen, unlike the foreign land-spirits or devoutly Christian ancestors that many people would otherwise have to shoehorn into their religion.  Neither Christianity nor Wicca is necessarily the culprit in this theological change:  Heathens are simply trying to make their beliefs and practices consistent with their real-life situations.

10. On a related note, the concept of patron deities and “personal relationships” with the divine is not necessarily foreign to Heathenry. Both the Eddas and the sagas mention characters who felt particularly close to one deity or another; though some of them were depicted as dangerous fanatics (like Hrafnkell, mentioned before), others were described as heroes rewarded bythe gods for their loyalty (like Thorolf in Erbyggja saga, whose house pillars were divinely guided to the place where he settled).  At least one other saga character whose name escapes me is said to have carried an image of Freyr in a belt pouch; if this does not  suggest a personal closeness to one specific god, no one knows what else that person’s motives might have been.

Granted, the modern insistence that all Heathens ought to have patrons seems to derive from non-Germanic paganism (not necessarily Wiccan, but still non-Germanic).  And granted, the modern belief that most Heathens will live with a patron deity after death seems to be strongly influenced by Christianity:  the lore does contain a few references to non-warriors living in some divine residence other than Valhalla, but those cases are an exception to a general rule.  Still, making a blanket statement that a follower of Thor cannever  hope to live in Thrudvangr after death–or that he must be a closet Christian/Wiccan for feeling that way–is not entirely accurate or fair.

11. Finally, I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that these social and theological trends in Heathenry should be reversed by rebuilding and enforcing ancient tribal structures.  The gods are not  locked in a time warp over Northern Europe in the Bronze Age, and do not expect their followers to be that way either.  Why didn’t the Migration Era peoples get punished en masse by the gods after settling in fixed homelands?  Why didn’t the Norwegians and Icelanders face divine wrath for abandoning sacral kingship?  If neither of those things happened, then it makes no sense to assume that the same gods would punish or reject modern Westerners for living in non-tribal and non-agrarian societies.  As long as we retain a solid understanding of the lore, as long as we use common sense to apply that lore to our own times and places–our religion is just as Heathen as anything practiced in the ancient Germanic world.

©2004
Originally published on her now-defunct Geocities page.
Used with author’s permission.

Winter Feasting: Keeping Your Spirits Up

OldManWinterThe Feast of Thorri, or Þorrablót in Old Norse, has some ancient, and mostly lost roots, that are referenced in Orkneyinga saga and a section of Flateyjarbók called Hversu Noregr byggðist (How Norway was settled). Þorri is a mythical human king who is a descendant of a giant named Fornjót, who had three sons, Hlér (Ægir), Logi (fire), and Kári (cold). Kári had a son named Frosti (frost), who is called Jökull (glacier) in Hversu Noregr byggðist. Frosti’s son is Snær (snow), the father of Þorri, king of Finland, Gotland, and Kvenland. Þorri’s sisters are Fönn (snowdrift), Drífa (snowfall), and Mjöll (snow powder). It is said that one of Þorri’s descendants is Nór, who gave his name to Norway. Þorri gave his name to the first month of the Norse calendar. We can even seem remnants of it in the Old Swedish calendar where the name survives as Torremånad.

According to Orkneyinga saga, Þorri was the first to hold a midwinter feast, which gets its name from him, Þorrablót. Hversu Noregr byggðist tells us that the Kvens continued to sacrifice to Þorri for good snow. The 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that the residents of Thule (most likely Scandinavia) celebrated a great feast in celebration of the days growing longer, which would have been notable some time after the winter solstice. Procopius didn’t observe this himself. Instead, he tells us that this was told to him by natives of Thule.

The modern celebration of Þorrablót isn’t ancient at all. In truth, it’s part of the Romantic and nationalistic revival of the 19th century. Still, the Icelanders today make great use of it as a means of celebrating their national heritage and as a means of keeping up their spirits in some of the coldest months of the year. Thankfully, for those of us who aren’t Icelandic, most of the traditional foods they eat at this time aren’t exported to the rest of the world. It will be a very cold day in Muspelheim before I could bring myself to eat hákarl or a sheep’s head. Lutfisk is bad enough, and I’ll have you note that I refuse to eat that as well, thank you very much!

Now, I don’t mean to be unfair to the Icelanders. I like them and they are a friendly lot. In fact, I appreciate their efforts to find a way to stave off those bad feelings of being cooped up inside during the later winter months. Just the other day, my wife mentioned to me that she hates this time of year because it’s cold out, you can’t really go do much, and there are no more holidays to look forward to. This got me thinking about how we go about keeping things feeling cozy and just right. In Swedish, there’s a word that doesn’t quite translate well into English, gemytlig, that means “cozy” but it’s more like feeling like things are right and good in your home. Part of this is not just the appreciation of family time but also those times when really good company comes over, or even going to visit dear friends, and feeling connected to those that matter most to you.

This is the value I see in some sort of festivity like Þorrablót. For those who would rather not associate a celebration with someone of giant kinship, some modern American customs have been to celebrate a Feast of Thor (not at all linguistically related to Þorri) as a means of warding against the cold and asking for Thor’s protections against the ice and cold. Interestingly enough, the first month of the Old Swedish calendar has Torsmånad, Thor’s Month, as an alternate name for the first month of the year. Which ever way you choose to go, or even if you don’t make too big a deal out of it and just have a nice dinner party, the real value here is in keeping connected with friends and family.

Lussinatta

LucyLussinatta, or Lussi Night, is a Swedish custom that I find completely fascinating. Today, it is celebrated on the night of December 13th, the Feast Day of St. Lucy. Young girls vie to be selected to represent their schools or towns as Lucy, bedecked in a white robe with red sash and a wreath of greenery and white candles crowning her. This is, of course, a far cry from its heathen roots.

Under the custom, Lussinatta fell on the darkest night of the year, the solstice. Partly due to calendar changes with acceptance of the Julian then Gregorian calendars, the date shifted from roughly the 21st of December to the 13th. It is suspected that the Catholic Church worked to associate the old heathen custom with their St. Lucy partly because of the similarity of sounds and both relate to light.

The Lussi is said to be a terrible witch or monster who rides forth on this night with a host of trolls, ghosts, and goblins called the Lussiferda to cause all sorts of mischief and trouble. It is said to be extremely dangerous to be caught outside from Lussinatta until Jul. This is clearly related to the Oskorei, the Furious Host, which is also known as the Wild Hunt.

In an interesting parallel to modern Santa Claus stories, the Lussi is said to come down the chimney late at night to snatch away poorly behaved children. Additionally, if a family had not properly prepared for the winter season, and Jul in particular, she is said to punish the entire household for their laziness. This has a parallel with some lore pertaining to Frigg in Scandinavia or Holda in Germany punishing the entire house for not finishing the preparations in time. Lussivaka, the tradition of staying awake all night to ward the house and family against evil, is practiced today as an all night party that ends at sunrise.

Some areas, particularly Västergötland, focus on a male creature called the Lussigubben. In Swedish, an affectionate term for an old man is “gubben.” If we understand the Lussi to be Frigg, then it would stand to reason that the Lussigubben is Odin, particularly associated with the wild hunt of the Furious Host.

In Värmland, a slightly different tradition is attested to by Erland Hofsten in an unpublished manuscript from the early 1700s about a feast and offerings made outside. No detailed description of events remains but Hofsten believed this had heathen origins. E. Fernows wrote about similar practices in 1773. Where Hofsten talked about the practice among the commoners, Fernows talked about how the wealthy practiced this feast.

The appearance of St. Lucy today appears to be related to other customs from Värmland. C. Fr. Nyman wrote about a trip in 1764 about a custom that was previously unknown to him. In his unpublished work he describes an early morning visit from a girl dressed like the description given earlier, accompanied by singing, who came to his bedroom door with food, drink, and other assorted items. It isn’t until 1820 that the first depiction of the candles on the head is documented, however.

Celebrating Lussinatta Today

While the contemporary Lussinatta customs are heavily Christianized, I see no reason to abandon the customs and traditions that have been passed down to us. They just need a little tweaking to revive their heathen spirit!

Instead of celebrating it on December 13th, I prefer to return it to its proper place at the solstice. This does, of course, require a little understanding that the Lussi is probably not a witch or monster but Frigg herself. I also believe that it should be a feast filled with light, particularly to light Sunne’s path through the darkest nights of the year and help guide her back to us.

If you should hold a blót or sumbel during this time, it would seem reasonable to me to have the blót lead by a young woman or older girl dressed in a white gown, wearing the signature read sash and wreath crown. If you are holding a sumbel, the horn bearer could be dressed in the same attire. If you wish to have the lit candles, I recommend looking into one of the many battery operated crowns with electric lights. It’s much safer than lit candles on their heads!

In the morning, it would be in accordance with some of the Lussinatta customs to have the women and girls serve freshly baked (or at least heated in the oven) lussekatter, a kind of saffron bun, for breakfast.

With a little research and imagination, I’m sure you can come up with other ways to revive the heathen nature of this ancient and truly special custom.