Is it a blót or a faining?

BlótOne of the great things about Heathenry is the diversity of cultures and beliefs that make up our conglomeration. The downside to this is that confusion over terms and beliefs arising from different cultures and customs shows up all too easily. One common point of confusion comes from different terms pertaining to worship. The most common term used is blót but many folk also say faining. Why is this? In Anglo-Saxon custom, a blót specifically refers to a blood sacrifice whereas faining means something akin to “celebration” involves votive offerings. In Old Norse, a blót can involve either a living sacrifice or votive offerings. The difference between a blót and faining only matters in Anglo-Saxon custom. To the Norse, there wasn’t a difference.

Fain’s archaic modern English meaning is “happy, joyful” and is derived from “fægen.” Bosworth-Toller, an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, defines “fægen” as “joyful, glad, rejoiceful.” The Old Norse cognate is “feginn.” Neither is directly related with religious practices. Rather, the examples given clearly associate these words with an emotional state. I suspect that faining entered common use as an alternative to blót early in Théodish development due to the historic, cultural, and linguistic link between blót and blood sacrifices and a need for a word usable for worship utilizing votive offerings, particularly in the context of a religious celebration.

So, what about other words related to religious worship? Cleasby-Vigfusson, a dictionary of Old Icelandic, identifies “fórn” (not to be confused with “forn,” meaning “old” or “ancient”) as a physical offering and probably is derived from Latin ecclesiastical terminology. During the conversion of Iceland, Christians used fórn to refer to their offerings to their new god because blót came to mean specifically “heathen worship” of any sort, including the pouring of libations to the álfar and vættir. It is not used to describe Christian worship. Cleasby-Vigfusson also indicate that in Old Icelandic, blót came to mean “swear or curse,” demonstrating how odious Christians found it.

In modern day Icelandic practice, which American Heathenry borrowed from heavily in the early days, they call their worship rite a blót but don’t sacrifice animals. Additionally, everything I have seen and been told by the Faroese, Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes I’ve spoken with, they also use their modern equivalent word for blót and have no cognate for faining, and have often been very confused by the distinction some Americans make.

What does this mean for American Heathenry? Honestly, you can use either term for what most of us do (votive offerings instead of live sacrifices) but it’s good to know the difference in origin as it likely indicates a customary preference by the speaker. The difference between a blót and faining seems to hold true among Irminists in America as well, and there may be linguistic connections because Old High (and Low) German and Anglo-Saxon are both West Germanic tongues while Old Norse is a North Germanic language. I just don’t know enough about OHG / OLG to tell you what words are cognates and whether the split in terminology that is used today had an ancient basis.

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