The nature of the word “god” is one that we rarely discuss in modern Heathen circles but its linguistic heritage is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to in the last few days. How did the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and continental Germanic peoples use and understand the word and how is it different from the modern, monotheistic construct? How does their concept explain obscure references to things like “house-gods” and what does this mean for us today?
In order to answer these questions we have to start with the etymology of the word. The linguistic consensus is that the Proto-Indo-European word is *ǵhu-tó-m and is based on the root *ǵhau(ə)-, meaning either “to call” or “to invoke.” This means that Proto-Germanic word *ǥuđan could mean “one who is called upon.” It is worth noting that the Germanic words for god were originally gender neutral, meaning that they applied to male and female supernatural beings equally.
What we can see from this is that a god is any supernatural being that was called upon, or invoked, not just what we understand today as beings who occupy the highest strata of a spectrum of supernatural beings. The nature of being called upon also indicates a belief in a positive relationship with humanity as we are effectively inviting them into our homes, our communities, and into our lives. This differs from offerings made to otherwise hostile entities as acts of propitiation. In such cases it appears to have been common to go to the “home” of the offending wight, such as the entrance to the troll’s cave, and make offerings there so that the being will leave people alone rather than acts of veneration held in the home or village center.
This gives us insight into what KveldulfR Gundarsson suggests might well have been the most common form of day to day religious activity, offerings made to house and land wights. We regularly see the concept of “house-gods” arising from multiple areas of the lore and we can see additional evidence in folklore, such as the Christmas porridge for the tomten in Swedish folklore. Simply put, a house-god would be any wight with whom we share living space that we call upon and give honor and worship to. It is seemingly the most logical course of action when addressing day to day concerns, especially regarding the home and property, to call upon these beings because they share the same space as us and have a direct investment in the prosperity and well being of the home and land.
One of the regional differences in Ásatrú is the focus of the religion. In the USA, our focus is largely on the Aesir, the Vanir, and our ancestors. We discuss the land wights but they take a minor role in our religious practices. In Europe, and Iceland in particular, emphasis of worship is on the wights. This has, until recently, puzzled me but I believe that the understand of a god as any supernatural being called upon for aid and veneration, and the possibility of “house god” worship being the most likely common practice, explains this proclivity. It also seems to me that we might benefit from bringing these concepts and understandings into our daily lives. When we see discussion of “spirits” in a mythological context, the power and authority it would have had as a god to pagan worshippers gets stripped away. He observed that this is because the dominant view is a monotheistic normative wherein power and authority is derived from the greater pantheon and not from its own inherent nature. This seems to easily explain the reduction in status and power that “minor” river, lake, stream, or spring gods once enjoyed from local worshippers. It also seems quite possible that many of us today aren’t aware that we are functioning under that monotheistic normative of “trickle down divinity” instead of recognizing the inherent might and main of these local “spirits” and thusly don’t give them due credit or consideration.