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?

United States Air Force added Asatru and Heathen to Religious Preferences List

For a fuller account of the story, I recommend you go read Josh Heath’s guest article at The Wild Hunt.

usaf-logo-2004I was very happy to hear this news but I’ve been talking to a large number of civilian Heathens who, while happy for the new level of legal recognition, also don’t quite understand why this matters so much. What most civilians don’t know is that the rights they enjoy as US citizens, as enumerated so well in the Bill of Rights, aren’t enjoyed by our men and women in the armed services. When you say that you will protect the freedoms enjoyed by your countrymen you are also saying that you will do so by giving up the freedoms they enjoy. In truth, a lot of this is required for a military force to function and we should be grateful for the multitude of sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. By having Asatru and Heathen added to the list of religious preferences, here are just a handful of the protections and rights that will be enjoyed by Heathens in the Air Force; rights and protections they are helping assure we all enjoy and are now entitled to themselves.

1. Time off for religious holidays
2. Access to lay gothi during hospitalization
3. Protection from religious based harassment from superiors.
4. This is the first step towards an actual Heathen chaplain
5. Not subject to Christian prayers over the dead
6. Access to a lay gothi or Heathen chaplain (when there is one) to officiate funerals

So, now that you’ve got a little bit of context for why this matters, I encourage you to check out the Open Halls Project and see if there’s something you can do to help Heathens in uniform.

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.