Introduction to Modern Heathenry

What is Asatru?

  • Asatru is an old Norse word which means Troth (loyalty, or “truth”) to the Gods, and is a revival of the ancient Norse Pagan religious practices of Northern Europe and Iceland.
  • Asatru is a word derived from “As,” a God of the Aesir family, and “tru” meaning troth. To be Asatru is to be bound by loyalty and troth to the Old Gods of the North.
  • Asatru is polytheistic in nature. This means that while we recognize that the universe is divine, the gods and goddesses we worship are distinct and separate entities that act independently.  The universe we believe in does not act as one unifying entity, but rather, it’s a series of forces, or personalities, sometimes acting in concert, and other times in contradiction to each other.
  • Asatru as a religion is not solely about the worship of the gods and goddesses of northern Europe.  Asatru also explores questions of ethics, magic, and mysteries of the land and the Landvaaettir (land spirits).  It’s as much about the way one conducts ones life as it is about worshiping the gods, and practicing the magical arts.  Those who are Asatru don’t just “go to church” or “cast the runes.”  Being Asatru is about how one conducts oneself in society, as well as how one relates to the gods.
  • We also honor our ancestors, both those who have gone to the other worlds, and those such as the Disir, who remain connected to Middle Earth in order to watch over and protect their family.
  • Asatru believe in leading a productive life, in individual liberty, and the responsibility that must go with it.
  • Those who are Asatru tend not to cling to religious structure.  Rather, we choose to follow out paths, and the traditions of those who came before us.
  • To those who are Asatru, the core of our life is our home, our hearth, and our family of choice.
  • Asatru is a religion, not a system of magick or spirituality.
  • Asatru is not a practice for everyone; however, it is open to anyone who wishes to pursue the path.

Asatru is an interesting religion when compared with other pagan traditions in that many of the Asatru traditions start with ethics and values before proceeding onto the gods, rituals, or magical workings.  By starting with a philosophical core (which, admittedly is based upon the tales of the gods and goddesses), this concept of Asatru as being more about a way of living life, rather than a religious or magical practice, begins to form.

The Nine Noble Virtues

When one looks at the original source materials (The Eddas, sagas, etc.), there are very few “codes of conduct”, other than those contained in the Havamal (which many have argued are difficult to put into perspective in the modern world).  However, there have been significant efforts to condense the stories that we’ve learned, including the history, into a meaningful ethical structure.

Asatru acknowledges the existence of right and wrong, good and evil, but we deal with these as philosophical concepts that come from Odin, the simple common sense of Thor, and the solid honor of Tyr — the gifts of the Gods to us.

Asatru posits that the basic place of moral judgment is within the human heart and mind. The Gods teach us through the examples of their lives, as chronicled in the Eddas, and through various pieces such as the Havamal which directly offer us advice.

The Odinic Rite (a long standing Asatru Organization) has created a cohesive and sensible list of values.

The Nine Noble Virtues according to the Odin Rite are:

  • Courage
  • Truth
  • Honor
  • Fidelity
  • Discipline
  • Hospitality
  • Industriousness
  • Self Reliance
  • Perseverance.

For additional information see The Nine Noble Virtues.

Rituals in Asatru

Asatru is an extremely practical religion, as we previously talked about. While we do set up ritual space, it’s not as stringent as one might find in other practices. Leaving ritual space (because you need to) is not considered offensive, provided one is not interrupting the ritual. Typically position within the ritual space is somewhat informal as well, and doesn’t require everyone to stand in a circle, or other shape. However, typically for ease of passing the horn, we find ourselves forming up in just such a position.

For those who  have the space available, particularly if you have a large outdoor space, it may be appropriate for you to create a semi-permanent space.  This isn’t necessarily space that’s 100% reserved for ritual; rather, it’s space that you typically use for ritual.  A square of land in the back yard, with torches (or something similar) in the corners can work extremely well for this.

The key thing about ritual space is that its malleable. Don’t feel like you have to constrain yourself to a specific region or spot to participate in the ritual.

 

The Blot

A Blot is a simple sacrifice to the gods. In the past, this would take the form of a ritual sacrifice of cattle or crops.  A portion of the sacrifice would go to the gods (probably through burning) and the other portion would be consumed.  We don’t know a significant amount about the actual process, but are aware that it was done.  Typically they were done with each season.  Sturllson told of a dispute over blots between king Haakon I of Norway and the peasants of Trøndelag over his refusal to participate in a blot because of his desire to convert Norway to Christianity.  From Sturllson’s notes we know that blots were festivals of great celebration, and considered an important part of honoring the gods and our ancestors.

Since we’re no longer farmers or ranchers, this sacrifice is typically made by offering mead or another alcoholic beverage to the deities.

Symbolically, we see ourselves as kin to the Gods. On a more esoteric level, humankind is gifted with “ond” or the gift of ecstasy. Ond is a force that is of the Gods. It is everything that makes humans different from the other creatures of the world. As creatures with this gift, we are immediately connected to the Gods. We are part of their tribe, their kin. Thus we are not simply buying off the Gods by offering them something that they want, but we are sharing with the Gods something that we all take joy in.

Sharing and gift giving was an important part of most ancient cultures and had magical significance. Leadership was seen as a contract between the leader and follower. It is said, “A gift demands a gift.” A good leader among the Norse was known as a “Ring giver,” and it was understood that his generosity and the support of his war-band were linked and part of a complementary relationship. Giving a gift was a sign of friendship, kinship, and connection. Among the runes, gebo (G) encompasses the mystery of the blot. In English, the rune is named “gift,” and the two lines intersecting are representative of the two sides of a relationship, both giving to each other. By sharing a blot with the Gods we reaffirm our connection to them and thus reawaken their powers within us and their watchfulness over our world.

A blot can be a simple affair where a horn of mead is consecrated to the Gods and then poured as a libation, or it can be a part of a larger ritual.

The blot consists of four parts:

  1. Creation of ritual space through the hammer rite.
  2. The Hallowing of the offering
  3. The Sharing of the Offering
  4. Libation

The only physical objects required are

  • Mead, beer, juice or other fluid (water even works)
  • A horn or chalice
  • A sprig of evergreen used to sprinkle the mead and,
  • A ceremonial bowl, known as a Hlautbowl, into which the initial libation will be made.

The blot begins with the consecration of the offering. The Gothi (Priest) or Gythia (Priestess) officiating at the blot invokes the God or Goddess being honored. This is usually accomplished by a spoken declaration with one’s arms being held above one’s head in the shape of the rune Elhaz.

After the spoken invocation an appropriate rune or other symbol of the God or Goddess may be drawn in the air with the finger or with the staff. Once the God is invoked, the Gothi takes up the horn. His assistant pours mead from the bottle into the horn. The Gothi then traces the hammer sign (an upside down T) over the horn as a blessing and holds it above his head, offering it to the Gods. He then speaks a request that the God or Goddess bless the offering and accept it as a sacrifice. At the least one will feel the presence of the deity; at best one will be able to feel in some inner way the God taking of the mead and drinking it.

The mead is now  blessed with divine power, and has passed the lips of the God or Goddess. The Gothi then takes a drink of the horn and it is passed around the gathered folk. In our modern rituals each person toasts the deity before they drink.

During these toasts the mead is no longer simply a drink, but is imbued with the blessing and power of the God or Goddess being honored. When one drinks, one is taking that power into oneself. This should be done for the purposes of honoring the gods.

After the horn has made the rounds once, the Gothi again drinks from the horn and then empties the remainder into the Hlautbowl. The Gothi then takes up the evergreen sprig and his assistant the Hlautbowl and the Gothi sprinkles the mead around the circle or temple or onto the altar. If there are a great number of folk gathered, one may wish to drop the drinking and merely sprinkle the various folk with the mead as a way of sharing it. In a small group one might eliminate the sprinkling and merely drink as the blessing.

When this is done the Hlautbowl is taken by the Gothi and poured out onto the ground. This is done as an offering not only to the God invoked at the blot, but it is also traditional to remember Nerthus, the Earth Goddess, at this time, since it is being poured onto her ground. Many invocations mention the God, Goddess, or spirit being sacrificed to, and then Mother Earth, as in the Sigrdrifa Prayer “Hail to the Gods and to the Goddesses as well; Hail Earth that gives to all men.” (Sigrdrifumal 3) With this action, the blot is ended.

This is a very sparse ritual that can be completed quickly. This is as it should be, for blots are often poured not because it is a time of gathering or festivity for the folk, but because the blot must be poured in honor or petition of a God or Goddess on their holiday or some other important occasion. For example, a father tending his sick child might pour a blot to Eir, the Goddess of healing. Obviously he doesn’t have time to waste on the trappings of ritual.

The intent is to make an offering to the Goddess as quickly as possible. At some times a full celebration might not be made of a holiday because of a person’s hectic schedule, but at the least a short blot should be made to mark the occasion. However, in most cases a blot will at least be accompanied by a statement of intent at the beginning and some sort of conclusion at the end. It might also be interspersed with or done at the conclusion of ritual theater or magic.

One important thing to note about any Asatru ritual is that ours is a holistic religion, integrated into everyday life. We do not limit our Gods or spirituality to a certain time and place.

Asatru is also a very vibrant, intense, and somewhat rowdy religion. Invocations to the Gods, particularly outside, are often shouted at the top of ones lungs, and are punctuated by loud “Hails!” which are echoed by the folk.  When someone in an Asatru ritual says “Hail!” or hails a God (“Hail Odin!” for example) it’s appropriate to repeat after them in a similar tone and loudness.

The Sumbel

When Beowulf came to Hrothgar, the first thing they did was to drink at a ritual sumbel. This was a way of establishing Beowulf’s identity and what his intent was, and doing so in a sacred and traditional manner.

When I think of Heathen rituals, the Blot is traditionally about our gods, and our relationship to our gods.  While the Submel certainly has this type of element as well,  a Sumbel is actually more about the relationships between men then it is with the gods.   If you’ve ever been to a Sumbel you no doubt notice that it many respects it feels very much like a party or feast.  Much celebration happens, and there’s a sense of comradship amongst all those participating.  As time passes, and you attend several Sumbels, you’ll discover that when talking with people who you were at a Sumbel with, there’s a certain fellowship that has developed, and you often times may find yourselves referring to events that transpired during the Sumbel.

Its for this reason I recommend that as you start down this path, you attend a Sumbel as early as possible, or hold one on your own if you’re comfortable with it.  This ritual is a perfect example of how the Heathen lifestyle is not just about us and the gods of the north, but it’s also about how we, as men (and women) interact with each other.  Participating in a Sumbel will give you a true feeling of community that you’ve probably never experienced.

The sumbel is also an important time for the folk to get to know each other in a more intimate way than most people are willing to share. People within our modern society often behave at one of two extremes. At one end are individuals who remain unnaturally distant from their own emotions, either because to display emotion would be “unmanly” or because they have been socialized to believe that self-sacrifice for others is the only desirable way to live. On the other side are those who cultivate their “feelings” and who spend their lives consciously attempting to stir their emotions and who force an unnatural level of intimacy between themselves and others. There are some levels of emotional intimacy which are not meant to be openly shared with strangers. Doing so reduces their meaning to the mundane. At sumbel, barriers can be lowered in a place which is sacred to the Gods. Thoughts can be shared among companions and friends without embarrassment or forced intimacy.

The core structure of a Sumbel is actually quite simple; Guests are seated, (traditionally, in some formal fashion), and the host begins the sumbel with a short statement of greeting and intent followed by the first toast. The horn is then passed around the table and each person makes their toasts in turn. At the sumbel toasts are drunk to the Gods, as well as to a persons ancestors or personal heroes. Rather than a toast, a person might also offer a brag or some story, song, or poem that has significance. The importance is that at the end of the toast, story, or whatever, the person offering it drinks from the horn, and in doing so “drinks in” what he spoke.

One format for the sumbel is to drink three rounds. The first is dedicated to the Gods, the second to great heroes or ancestors, and the third is a boast round, where one tells of accomplishments.

Another theme for a sumbel is past, present, and future. This type of sumbel is more of a magical ritual than one of celebration. The idea is to make toasts which bring up some aspect of your past and present situation, and a third toast or brag which represents your wishes for the future. One might make a toast to the first Asatru ritual one attended as the past, a second to the companions and kindred then gathered, and for his third toast might state that he intends to be dedicate himself as a Gothi in the coming year. The purpose would be to link the coming event of his dedication with the two already accomplished events of pledging Asatru and finding a kindred — two other important rites of passage. In this case initiation as a Gothi then becomes something which is linked to a chain of events that have already occurred, rather than an isolated action which might occur. Thus magically, this moves the person towards his goal.

A third and everpopular type of sumbel is a free-for-all where stories are told, toasts are made, and bragging is done until all gathered are under the table. Perhaps this is not quite so esoteric or purposeful as the previous ideas, but it’s certainly in keeping with the examples of our Gods and ancestors. In any case, no matter how relaxed a sumbel has become, I have never seen one that was merely a drinking event. Some of the most intense experiences I have had with people have come from such “open ended” sumbels.

The sumbel is a very freeform type of thing and the framework is very simple to adapt.

Profession

Profession is one “tradition” that is common within the Heathen lifestyle that there’s actually very little evidence of its practice.   We certainly believe that people would choose to follow one god or goddess over another, and certainly there are norse gods that are “more appropriate” for some type of people over others.  However we don’t have an direct evidence that the formal ritual of “profession” actually existed.

That aside, many individuals feel the need to closely tie themselves to one god or goddess over another.  Or make special promise to that god or goddess that seem more than what may typically occur in a Blot.  This is where profession comes in.  Profession is about announcing “to the world” (in whatever form is appropriate) that you have a special relationship with a god or goddesses, and you hold them in special regard, and likely have made oaths to them that you consider particularly important.

To Profess one’s belief in and kinship to the Gods should be an important turning point in ones life and the beginning of a new understanding of the self.

Profession is, however, a very simple and rather short ceremony.

It is not an occult or initiatory ceremony. It is nothing less than its name: one professes (declares, affirms) his wish to become one of the Asafolk. This oath is usually taken on the oath ring or some other Holy object as follows:

The Gothi stands in front of the altar and says “Will [insert name here] please come forward.” After he or she does so “Are you here of your own free will? Is it your intention to solemnly swear allegiance and kinship to the Gods of Asgard, the Aesir and Vanir?” If the answer to both these questions is in the affirmative the Gothi takes up the oath ring (or some other holy object upon which oaths are sworn) and holds it out to the person professing and says “Repeat after me. I swear to follow the way of the North, to always act with honor and bravery, and to be ever true to the Aesir and Vanir and to Asatru. By the Gods I so swear. By my honor I so swear. On this Holy Ring I so swear. Hail the Gods.” The kindred then replies “Hail the Gods!” and the Gothi finishes “Then be welcome to the service of Asgard and the community of Asatru.”

Alternatively, one make make the profession “by oneself” with something as simple as simply stating the following (or something similar) in an “appropriate ritual.”

“I solemnly swear allegiance and kinship to _________________. I swear to be ever trued to the Aesir and Vanir. By the Gods I so swear. By my honor I so swear. Hail ____________.”

Alternatively, if one simply wishes to profess to be true to the gods of the north, one can do that as well.  If one does this, one is taking an oath not to be true to any one god, but to the northern european gods as a whole.  You may insert “The Aesir.”  “The Vanir,” or “The Aesir and Vanir” where you’d typically insert the god or goddesses name.

The essence of Profession is making a commitment to a god or goddess. It should not be undertaken without thought and prayer. When one Professes, one is leaving behind other faiths. If one isn’t yet comfortable in doing this, then Profession should be put off, perhaps indefinitely.

The Gods

The Old Norse reckoned that there were three races of Gods:

  • The Aesir – The Gods of human society, representing things such as leadership, craft, justice, etc.
  • The Vanir – The Vanir are more closely connected to the earth and represent the fecundity of the land and sea, and the natural forces which help mankind.
  • The Jotnar – The Jotnar or Giants are the “outlanders” or more simply everyone else. They represent the natural forces of chaos and destruction.

In the end the two sides (The Aesir+Vanir vs. the Jotnar) will meet in the great battle of Ragnarok and the world will be destroyed, only to be reborn.

The Norse Gods were not held to be all powerful or immortal. Their youth was maintained very precariously by the magical apples of the Goddess Idunna. More importantly at the end of the world a good number of the Gods will die in battle. The Northern view of the world was a practical one with little assurance for the future and little perfection and the Gods are no exception.

It is very important to understand that the Gods are real and living beings. They are not mere personifications of natural forces, nor are they Jungian archetypes that dwell only in our minds–although Jung’s work may be helpful in understanding their nature as living beings. Those divinities who we call “Gods” (i.e., the Aesir and Vanir) are also “personal deities” who take an active interest in the affairs of mankind, and seek relationships with their followers. This is important to remember when we perform ceremonies or pray to the Gods. They aren’t magical symbols to be manipulated, nor is our religion some type of giant cosmic vending machine where sacrifices are inserted and blessings come out. The Gods are living beings and offer us benefits because we are their friends and companions. They should always be treated with respect.

Thor

Thor is probably the best known of the Norse Gods. He is a simple God, the patron of farmers and other folk who are “wise, but not too wise” as the Eddas advise us to be.

Thor is best known for wandering the world in search of adventure; usually found in the form of giants or other monsters to kill. He possesses tremendous strength and the hammer Mjolnir, which was made for him by the Dwarfs. Mjolnir is considered to be the Gods’ greatest treasure because it is sure protection from the forces of the Jotnar.

Thor is less a professional warrior than a common man called upon to defend his land. He loves battle not for itself as do the berserkers of Odin.

Thor is associated with thunder and lightning, but it’s important to note that he is not the God of destructive storms, thunder and lightning were associated with the summer storms that brought swift crop growth. Thor is nature as a benefit to man.

Odin

Odin is the Allfather, remembered today best as a God of war and of the berserk rage of the Vikings.

However, he has other aspects which are just as strong or stronger.

In the Eddas, he is the leader of the Gods, but this is a position which most of the Germanic peoples attributed to Tyr. It’s likely that Odin only became ruler during the Viking Age, when a God of wile rather than strict justice was more necessary.

Most importantly he is a God of transcendent wisdom and in relation to that a God of magic. He is the God of the Runes, the magical alphabet which holds the mysteries of the universe within it.

In England, where he is known as Woden, he is a gray cloaked wanderer who travels the country, usually alone, surveying his land. Here again we see him in the position of a father figure, a warder of the land but not necessarily a King.

Odin is also a God of the dead. It is said that half of the slain in battles go to him to prepare for the Ragnarok. (The remaining half go to Freya.)

He also has associations with the dead as a practitioner of Seidhr, a form of shamanic magic which he learned from Freya and used on various occasions to travel to Hel and seek the knowledge of those who have passed from this world. It’s difficult to classify Odin simply because he was such a popular God during the last stages of Norse Paganism and thus absorbed many traits of other Gods.

Tyr

Tyr is the God of battle, justice, of oaths, and of Kingship. The most important myth concerning Tyr shows both his bravery and honor. He gave his hand as surety to the Fenris Wolf that no trickery was involved in the Gods binding of him. When the fetter in fact did bind the wolf, Tyr lost his hand. The honor and reliance on ones word is often overlooked in this myth in favor of an interpretation of self sacrifice.

However, throughout the myths various deals are made and the Aesir easily get out of them. It’s likely that Tyr could have escaped his fate as well, but one’s word is one’s word and thus Tyr lost his hand because it was less valuable to him than his honor and word.

Tyr was held to be the God of the Thing or assembly. While the ancient Norse were not truly democratic, and in fact held slaves, within the noble class all were reckoned to be roughly equal. The Thing was a place where the landholders would meet for trade and to iron out disputes among them, in the hope of avoiding feuds. Tyr was originally the chieftain of the Aesir and the God of Kingship, but he has been gradually supplanted by Odin, especially during the Viking Age. It is likely this was because of Tyr’s strong sense of honor and justice. For raiding and pillaging, Odin, the God of the berserker rage, was a much better patron than Tyr, the God of honorable battle.

This is an important thing to note about Northern religion: it is extremely adaptable. There are not hard and fast rules about who is what and while the nature of the Gods cannot be changed they are more than happy to have the aspects most important to their worshipers emphasized. Just as a person uses different skills and “becomes a different person” when they move or change jobs, so the Gods too have adapted to new climates and needs.

Frey

Frey is a God of peace and fertility. Frey is the God of the crops themselves. He is a God of the Vanir, but lives with the Aesir to secure their treaty with the Vanir. His symbol is the priapus and his blessings were sought at planting and other important agricultural festivals.

The word “frey” means “Lord” and it’s unsure if this is the Gods name or his title. He is also known as Ing or Ingvi, so some have speculated his title is properly Frey Ingvi–Lord Ingvi. We do not known a great deal more about Frey as few myths have survived which give us any insight into his character. As much as he is a God of fertility, he is also a God of peace and Ing was said to have brought a Golden Age of peace and prosperity to old Denmark. Horses are held to be sacred to Frey, probably because of fertility connections.

Balder

We only know the myth of Balder’s death, it is clear that he was a God of some importance. Balder was a God of beauty and goodness, but his name also translates as “warrior.” It is a mistake to turn him into a “Norse Jesus.” The mere fact that he died and will return after Ragnarok is not enough for this equation. Another interpretation of Balder is that of the dying and resurrected God of the Sun. This also seems a mistake, as Balder does not return from the land of death. It makes a poor symbol to honor Balder on solar holidays, lest the sun not return! The remaining major interpretation of Balder is as a God of mystic initiation. While this fits to some extent, we unfortunately no longer know. The equation with Christ has wiped out a great deal of lore about Balder and we are left to rediscover his place in our modern practice.

Loki

The most perplexing God of Asgard is Loki. He was probably originally a fire God, but he is best known as the troublemaker of Asgard. In various minor scrapes Loki arranges to get the Gods into trouble, usually by giving away their treasures and then arranging to return them. This is very much in the traditional role of a trickster, who keeps things interesting by causing trouble. However, it’s sometimes difficult to see Loki merely as a trickster because his actions are sometimes simply too evil to be ignored. Balder was the most beautiful and beloved of the Gods and a pledge was extracted from all the things in the world that they would not harm him. The sole exception to this was the mistletoe which was deemed too tiny to be a threat. Amused by his invulnerability, the Gods took turns throwing objects at Balder, which of course had no effect on him. Loki took the blind God Hod and put a spring of mistletoe in his hands and guided him to throw it. The dart pierced Balder’s breast and he died. Later a deal was arranged wherein Balder would be allowed to return to life if all the creatures of the world would weep for him. Only one refused, an ogress who said she cared not a whit for Balder when he was alive and thought him just as well off dead. The ogress is believed to have been Loki in disguise. For these actions Loki was chained beneath the earth and it was arranged that venom would drip upon him in punishment that would last until the end of the world. With the death of Balder, Loki goes beyond the level of trickster and becomes a truly evil figure. It is known that when Ragnarok comes, Loki will lead the legions of chaos against the Aesir and bring about the end of the world.

Indeed Loki’s actions certainly do seem harsh, but they are entirely in keeping with the Norse way of looking at things. One of the functions of a trickster God is to keep things from becoming stagnant. The trickster causes trouble so that people may evolve, for nothing brings about ingenuity like need. The Norse did not believe anything was eternal. In the end even the Gods would die in the battle of Ragnarok, which would also destroy the world. Balder’s invulnerability was not natural. As the Edda says “Cattle die, and men die, and you too shall die…” It was deemed much more wise and valiant by the Norse to live up to one’s fate than to try to avoid it. It would likewise be unnatural to return from the dead. One can see Loki as merely acting as an agent of nature to return things to their normal and correct course. In such a view, it was not an act of evil, but an intervention to stop an evil against the natural order. Likewise Ragnarok must come. It is in the nature of the world to be destroyed and then be reborn.

Recognition of his action and his place in the universe is essential. It is “fashionable” today to laugh at trickster Gods and see them as a sort of jester figure, but we must not forget that their nature is much darker than this even when it does serve a purpose. Change is important, but nothing changes the world faster and more thoroughly than war.

Heimdall

Heimdall is the guardian of Asgard. He, as Rig, is also one of the Gods who fathered mankind. Heimdall will sound the horn warning of the final battle of Ragnarok.

Njord

God of sailing and sailors. Unless one travels on the sea, he is probably of little importance to you, but if one does sail, he is your natural patron. If Njord is the God of sailing and of man’s use of the sea.

Aegir

Aegir is the God of the sea itself. He is married to Ran who takes drowned sailors to her home after their death. Aegir is considered to be the greatest of brewers, and our kindred honors him in a special holiday due to the importance of mead in our modern religion.

Brag

A much overlooked God who is the patron of taletellers and bards.

Other Gods more or less overlooked in the myths include Forseti, who renders the best judgments.

Goddesses

In general we know much less about how our ancestors worshipped the Goddesses than the Gods. Later Norse culture was very bound up with the vikings and it is likely that the Goddesses were deemphasized at this point. More importantly, virtually all the mythology we have today was recorded during the Christian period and Christian culture had little respect for women.

Freya

She is the sister of Frey and along with him was sent to live with the Aesir in order to seal a peace agreement. Freya is a Goddess with several distinct sides.

  • First, she is the Goddess of love and beauty and
  • Second a Goddess of war who shares the battle-slain with Odin.
  • She was also a sorceress who practiced the shamanic magic known as Seidhr, which she taught to Odin.

Freya is the Goddess most often invoked by independent women. While she is a Goddess of beauty, she is not dependent on men as is the stereotype of so many love Goddesses, but is strong and fiercely independent.

She is also known as the Great Dis and probably has connections to the family spirits known as the Disir. In many ways she is like Odin in that she is a Goddess of many functions which are not always obviously related. In modern Asatru, many groups have placed Freya alongside Odin and Thor on the altar, in place of her twin brother Frey.

Frigga

She is the wife of Odin and many people are too willing to let her be known simply as that.

However, the old Norse had a much different idea of the place of women and of marriage in general.

While marriages for love were certainly known, marriage was also a business and social arrangement and there were important duties for a wife. These were symbolized by a set of keys which hung at the belt of all “goodwives.” This symbolized that the home was under the control of the woman of the house, who was equal to her husband.

Today we think these duties as very minor, but a thousand years ago they were far from trivial. Up until this century most of Europe lived in extended families. A house, especially a hall of a warrior, was not a small building with a nuclear family, but an entire settlement with outbuildings, servants, slaves, and an entire clan.

The wife of the house was in charge of stores and trading with other clans. It was she that saw to the upkeep of the farm, the balancing of the books, and even to the farming itself if her husband was away trading or making war. It was as much a job of managing a business as it was being a “wife.”

For these reasons Frigg is very important and can easily be invoked beyond the home. She would, for example, be a natural patron for someone who owned a business.

Frigg also shares a lot of characteristics with her husband. She is the only other God who is allowed to sit in Odin’s seat from which can be seen all that goes on in the nine worlds. It is said that she knows the future, but remains silent, which is entirely in keeping with the way women of the time exercised their power: namely indirectly. While in a better world this might not be necessary, it is still an important tool for women who must exist in a world where men are sometimes threatened by them. While Freya is a Goddess who acts independent of “traditional” roles, Frigg is a Goddess who works within those roles, but still maintains her power and independence.

While we might say that certain Gods are more important than others, this is in many ways not accurate. We would be better served to say that some are more popular. The Norse concept of the relationship between men and Gods was one of friendship. A man would honor all the Gods as worthy and existent, but would usually find one as his special patron. It is not surprising, considering this, that Thor is the most popular of Gods. If the average person was searching for a God very much like himself, Thor would be the obvious choice. Likewise, a God such as Njord would have been extremely important to sailors and fishermen, but would have been almost completely unimportant as a patron to inlanders. The less well known Gods are just as powerful as their more well known contemporaries, they merely have power over a less well known aspect of life.

The Jotnar

The Jotnar or giants are the sworn enemies of the Gods. While the Aesir represent order and the Vanir represent the supportive powers of nature, the Jotnar represent chaos and the power of nature to destroy man and act independent of humankind. In the end, it is the Jotnar who will fight the Gods at Ragnarok and bring about the destruction of the world.

In essence despite being called Giants or Ogres, the Jotnar are Gods just as much as the Aesir or Vanir. In many cases they correspond very closely to the Fomoire in Celtic mythology. Most simply put, the Jotnar are the Gods of all those things which man has no control over. The Vanir are the Gods of the growing crops, the Jotnar are the Gods of the river which floods and washes away those crops or the tornado which destroys your entire farm. This is why they are frightening and this is why we hold them to be evil.

The Jotnar are not worshipped in modern Asatru, but there is some evidence that sacrifices were made to them in olden times. In this case, sacrifices may very well have been made “to them” rather than shared “with them” as was the case with the Vanir and Aesir. It would be inappropriate to embrace them as friends and brothers in the way we embrace our Gods. One doesn’t embrace the hurricane or the wildfire; it is insanity to do so.

Other “Beings”

Various other beings can be honored in addition to “The Gods.”

In the various folktales and sagas we find very little which would lead us to a concrete system of what spirit was responsible for exactly what. Today, we call these various figures, who are neither mortal nor God, “Wights.”

Valkyries

We are sure of the place of the Valkyries, who were responsible for bringing the slain to Valhalla, and also for choosing who in battle would die. They seem, judging by their actions, to be supernatural beings of some type. However, Valkyries appear in various places as very human figures and their exact nature is difficult to determine.

Sigrdrifa was a Valkyrie who was cursed by Odin because she refused to bring victory in battle to those whom he had chosen. Her punishment was to be married to a mortal, and the implication is clear that this would end her days as a Valkyrie. It’s equally clear that she has great knowledge of the runes as she tutors Sigurd after he awakens her. In most respects she seems to be a normal human woman, although a very wise and independent one with great powers. Elsewhere, Voland and his brothers are said to have found three Valkyries sunning themselves without their swan-coats. When the brothers steal their feather-coats and hide them, the Valkyries again appear as otherwise normal women. This does not seem entirely in keeping with a supernatural origin, and it’s possible that some kind of magickal order of Priestesses has become confused over time with the supernatural beings we know as Valkyries or that mortal women may somehow ascend to the position. The swan-coat seems very similar in description to Freya’s falcon-coat and the entire issue may be something related to the practice of seidhr. As far as we know, the Valkyrie were not worshipped as such, but were considered more the messengers of Odin. They also serve the mead at Valhalla, and because of this whoever pours the mead into the Horn at Blot or Sumbel is today known as “the Valkyrie” (no matter what sex).

The Disir

The other spirits whose place seems fairly clear are the Disir. These are spirits who are intimately linked with a family.

There is also some indication that they are linked with the land, but this would be in keeping with the old ways. We forget sometimes that many landowners in Europe have been living in the same place since before this continent was discovered. The land becomes an intimate part of the family and its identity, so it is natural that family spirits would also oversee the family land.

Disir are seen as women who appear at times of great trouble or change. They are somehow linked to the family bloodline, and seem most closely linked to the clanchief.

There is one scene in one saga where a spirit, apparently a Dis, is passed on from one person to another who are not blood relations. However, these two friends are closer than brothers, so while the link is apparently not genetic, it is definitely familial. We know the family Disir were honored with blots at the Winter Nights and that they have great power to aid their family. As far as their origin, it’s possible that they are ancestral in origin. They may be ancestors whose power was so great that they were able to continue to see to their clan. Or it’s possible that the Disir are the collective spirit of the family ancestors. Freya is called the great Dis and there may be some linkage here to her position as a seidhrwoman, but the reference is sufficiently brief to remain cryptic, and open to different interpretations. We know from the sagas that Seidhr was involved with talking to various spirits (including the dead) and its possible that this is the source of Freya’s name. It is also possible that she performed much the same function as a Dis to her tribe the Vanir.

Closely linked to the idea of the Disir is the Fylgia. These spirits are attached to an individual person in much the same way that the Disir are associated with a family. Fylgia usually appear either as animals or as beautiful women. They correspond to the “fetch,” “totem,” or “power-animal” in other cultures. Most of the time the fylgia remains hidden and absent, it is only with truly great or powerful persons that the fylgia becomes known. They may have something to do with Seidhr as well, because many sagas offer evidence of spirit travel in the shape of animals. This corresponds exactly to notions of shamanism found in other cultures.

== Elves, Dwarves, Kobolds, and the Landvaettir. ==

The remaining spirits include Alvar or elves, Dokkalvar or Dwarfs, kobolds, and landvaettir. We know that various landvaettir or land spirits were honored with blots. We also know that Frey is the lord of Alfheim, one of the nine worlds where the alvar are said to live.

Of all the remaining spirits, the dwarfs are the most consistent in description. We know that the dwarfs are cunning and misanthropic in character and incredible smiths, capable of creating magickal objects so valuable they are considered the greatest treasures of Asgard. Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, Freya’s necklace Brisingamen, and Sif’s golden hair are all creations of the dwarfs. They live beneath the earth and have little to do with mankind or the Gods unless one seeks them out.

Elves are the most difficult race to pin down. Mythological sources tell us that the Alvar or elves live in Alfheim where Frey is their Lord. However, we also have the enduring belief in folklore of the elves as faery-folk: beings associated with the natural world. These two conceptions of elves might still be linked, however, as Alfheim is known to be a place of incredible natural beauty, and Frey, their leader, is an agricultural deity. To further confuse this issue, Norse folklore has a strong belief in the Landvaettir, or land spirits who may fit into either or both of these categories. I’m inclined to lump them all together as similar beings that we simply don’t know enough about to tell apart. What is important is that Asatru, like all Pagan religions, honors the natural world and the earth very deeply. Whether one calls the spirits of the land as the elves, the faeries, or the landvaettir, or uses all of these terms interchangably, respect is all important. Asatru is known for having some of the most politically “conservative” members of the modern Pagan religions, but you’ll find few of us who aren’t staunch environmentalists.

One of the most important spirits to honor is the house-spirit, and in fact, honoring these beings may have been a greater part of daily life than honoring the Gods. Folklore is also filled with stories of various spirits variously called faeries, elves, kobolds, brownies, tomten, etc who inhabit a house and see to its proper conduct. In the usual form of the tale, they offer to perform some housekeeping functions, but eventually turn on the owners of the house when they are insulted by overpayment. We don’t have any concrete evidence for how our ancestors honored these beings, but this is not surprising because such a thing would not be a public observance and it’s unlikely it would be recorded in the sagas or Eddas. We usually leave a bowl of milk out when we feel we need their help in something.

In general folklore does not paint the various elves and spirits as particularly benevolent figures. With the exception of house spirits, who as spirits of a place strongly associated with humans are bound to us on some level, they seem most interested in staying out of the dealings of mankind. There are numerous stories of people who spy upon elf women and force them to become their brides, confusingly, some of these stories are very similiar to the tales of swan maidens. Inevitably the women are unhappy and eventually escape, leaving their husbands emotionally devastated. There are also numerous stories of spirits who haunt the woods and who will drag wayward travelers into rivers to drown or to some other untimely death. When people do have dealings with the elves these beings seem to operate on an entirely different set of expectations than we do. Most of us would be gratified by the gift of a “bonus” from our employer, yet time and time again in folklore this is the easiest way to anger a house spirit. We know that elves were honored with blots, but it’s just as possible that these ceremonies were made in propitiation to them rather than in kinship as are our blots made with the Gods. We suggest caution in dealing with beings with a set of values so foreign from our own. They should be approached in the same way one would approach a person from a country whose ways are very very different.

We’re also very reticent to make decisions about classifying the various “other peoples.” It would be very easy to draw lines and place certain spirits into little boxes which label their function, but that seems overly mechanical and of little utility. Elves and other “wights” are not human, and it might be too much to try to classify them in other than subjective terms. It’s probably best to simply make your intent clear, experiment, and use the terms which work for you.

There are a whole classification of Gods which are not truly part of the Aesir, Vanir, or even the Jotnar. Wayland the Smith is the best example of this that we can offer. Wayland, called Volund in the Norse version, is the greatest of smiths, but it’s clear in the mythology that he was more or less a human man. The myth tells of how he lost his wife and was enslaved by a human King. While his powers allow him to outwit and take vengeance on the king, it’s clear throughout that he’s not on the level of a Thor or an Odin. What one does about these demi-Gods or local Gods is a good question. I see nothing wrong with pouring a blot in their honor and dealing with them as you would any other God or Goddess. On the other hand, they are not part of the Aesir and I think it might be disrespectful to honor them with the Aesir or as part of a ceremony dedicated to the Aesir as they seem of a different nature.

Ancestors

Honoring ones ancestors was one of the most sacred duties of the Norsemen. One of the most important parts of greeting new people was the exchanging of personal lineages at sumbel. The worship of the Disir is closely linked to ancestor worship. However, it is difficult for modern day Pagans to seriously engage in ancestor worship. We are, for the most part, without a strong connection to our heritage, and even if we feel motivated we would probably need to skip at least a thousand years back to find ancestors who would not have been appalled by our Heathen beliefs. One substitution for ancestor worship in the modern Asatru movement has been the veneration of heros from the Sagas and legends of our people.

The manner of how we honor ancestors is also somewhat troubling. I reserve the blot ritual to Gods and other powers, and I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to pour a blot to an ancestor, no matter how important he was. I think the most important part of ancestor worship is remembering, and the sumbel seems the most important part of that.

While we discuss ancestry, I must mention that some modern Asatru groups, in part because of holdovers from 19th century cultural movements, have placed a great deal of emphasis on ancestry in terms of race and ethnic heritage. Many have held that Asatru was a religion for whites or Northern Europeans only. In my not particularly humble opinion, this is pure idiocy. The basic argument for this is that people of other cultures do not share the same background and values. This is certainly true, but the key word in my opinion is culture, and all Americans by definition share a culture. Also, while I admit I would think it doubtful that people from outside of our own cultural heritage would be attracted greatly to Asatru, if they are it is for a reason and they should be welcomed and not shunned. It proves the worth of our religion and way of life that it is so strong that one would leave his own cultural path behind to take up ours.

As far as culture is concerned, the ancestry of the ancient North is alive and well in modern America. A thousand years ago settlers sailed to Iceland to avoid the growing influence of powerful kings and centralized government. This centralization of power was one of the things which Roman Christianity brought with it. Two hundred years ago, we in America rebelled against our king for much the same reasons. Our culture is much more profoundly influenced by the Vikings than most would care to admit. Our law is based on English common law, which in turn has roots in Norman and Saxon law. (Both the Saxons and Normans were descended from Germanic tribes.) Our culture is based on many of the same ideas which the Northmen held dear: the importance of the individual and the belief that individual rights outweighed collective rights. Thus, it is my assertion that we are all descended, at least in part, spiritually from the ancient Norse.

Yggdrasil

In Norse cosmology, Yggdrasil is the World Tree, a great ash tree located at the center of the universe and joining the nine worlds.

The trunk of the tree may be thought of as forming a vertical axis around which these worlds are situated, with Ásgard, realm of the gods, at the top and the Hel, located in Niflheim, at the bottom. Midgard, or Mid-Earth the world of mortals, is located in the middle and surrounded by Jötunheim, land of giants, both of which are separated by the ocean.

The phrase ‘nine worlds’ is Níu Heimar in Old Norse. Relating to heima meaning ‘home’ or ‘homestead’, the term heimr means ‘homeland’, or in a larger sense the ‘world’.

In the context of Norse Cosmology, each ‘homeland’ is a land that a ‘family’ (ætt) of ‘nature spirits’ or Vættir inhabits. Thus Ásgarðr is the homeland of the family of the Æsir (gods), Álfheimr is of the family of the Álfar (elves), Jötunheimr is of the family of the Jötnar (giants), and so on. These lands correspond to regions of this world, so Niflheimr is in the north of this world, Muspell in the south, Svartálfaheimr below, and so on.

When counting the nine worlds, they include the earth, called Miðgarðr, where humans as a family dwell.

The Nine Worlds

  • Ásgarðr – Asgard — The Land of the Aesir.
  • Miðgarðr – Midgard — the realm of humans
  • Múspell – Musspelheim — the realm of the primordeal element of fire
  • Vanaheimr – Vanaheim — Homeland of the Vanir
  • Álfheimr – Alfheim — The Realm of Elves
  • Svartálfaheimr – Svartalfheim — The Realm of Dwarves.
  • Niflheimr – Niflheim — The realm of the primordeal element of ice in the north
  • Hel – Hel — The realm of the dead
  • Jötunheimr – Jotuneim — The realm of the Jötnar (giants)

 

Altars

Asatru altars are generally simple affair. There’s no specific requirement of what they should, and should not contain. Except the stuff you “typically” use for rituals, such as a hammer, a horn, a bowl, maybe a sprig of evergreen.

Your altar can also change with the seasons if you wish. You may decide that during certain times of the year, certain objects are appropriate, such as a blown egg for Ostre.

Pictures of Gods and Goddesses, or statuary are also good.

The key thing to remember is functionality. Asatru is a religion about functionality. Whatever works for you works!

Magic

Asatru has a belief in magic and the spiritual realm. However, the bedrock of Asatru is faith in the Gods, and magic is but a part of our customs and folklore, not a substitute for faith or something separate from it.

It’s important to note that the ethics of magical practice are not governed by “traditional” wiccan values, but Asatru values, which in particular means that the use of “aggressive” magic against another may in fact be appropriate. (With the understanding that use of such magic can in fact create retribution)

Magic in Asatru is more of a “practice” rather than a ritual of worship.

Magic can be divided into four categories, three of which are Runic in nature, and one which has characteristics common with Shamanic practices.

Divinatory practices

The most common type of magic found in the Asatru tradition is that of using the runes for divination.

Asatru believes that there are forces, shaped by our past and the history of the world, that affect the world and the way the future comes to be. We believe that the forces of Wyrd and Orlog can be examined and to some extent tell us what is likely to happen. On the other hand, we do not believe in predestination. Future events are shaped by our actions, and we can change them. If we change our actions, we change the future.

The runes are an alphabet (both “normal” and “magical”) which in various forms was found throughout the Germanic world. The most common form used in Asatru today is the “Elder Futhark” (runic alphabets are called futharks, a word constructed from the first 6 runes) of 24 runes which is believed to be older and than the later versions such as the Anglo-Saxon set of 33 runes or the 16 rune Younger Futhark.

For additional information see Introduction to Rune Reading.

Also see

Bind Runes

The runes are also useful in active magic. The most common way to use them in this manner is to carve a “bind rune” or a symbol made up of more than one rune, all of which together are intended to produce an effect. The most common of these would be a rune carved on a single line with one rune pointing to the left and the other to the right. However, the more complex a rune is, the more powerful it can become.

The use of runes to have an “affirmative” action can take a variety of effects, from a simple blessing (such as what you see in Pennsylvania above many home) to curses upon ones enemies, in the form of a Niðing Pole or Niðing post.

For additional information see Bind Runes.

Galdr

Galdr magic is the act of chanting or singing the runes so as to get the desired effect of each particular rune. Most often it is the letter that starts off the rune.

One repeatedly chants the “sound” of a given rune, in hopes to bring the positive (or negative) influence of that rune, based upon its meaning.

Seidhr

Another important type of magic is called seidhr, which seems to have been a “shamanic” tradition within ancient Asatru. Sometimes, these practices are called spawork. It has been suggested that these were similiar practices, but that the first term involved magics that were considered disreputable, and the second term, magics that were considered reputable. Some modern practioners make this distinction, some do not. This type of magic involves going into a trance, speaking to spirits, and journeying to the other worlds. One might consult the spirits of nature, the Disir, or the ancestors. Unfortunately little information is left to us.

We know that Freya was a skilled practitioner of seidhr and that she taught it to Odin. It was considered to be a woman’s magic, and Odin is taunted about it by Loki. Although today there is no such prejudice against men interested in it.

In what records we do have, the trance of the seidhrwoman was created through another person singing songs or chanting while the seidhrwoman was elevated on a platform. We don’t know much else about the practice. However, around the world shamanic techniques are remarkably similar, and the main difference seems to be the cultural context, which provides a map to interpreting the otherworlds. The best approach might to be explore some of the material on core shamanism (shamanism studied outside of a specific cultural context), and then apply that to what little we do know.

Holidays

From literature, we find very little about specific Holidays, likely because due to the extreme environmental conditions, holiday celebrations were not something that occurred on a regular basis.

However, in today’s society, having regularly scheduled holidays allows one to remember certain gods or goddesses (or events) that we other might allow to pass without notice. The following is an abbreviated list of holidays that are often celebrated with the Asatru Tradition.

  • March 21st — Summer Finding — Ostara Blot
  • June 21st — Summer Finding — Sunna Blot
  • September 21st — Winter Finding — Disir Blot
  • November 11th — Einjerhar, celebration of war-dead and Ragnarok Dedicated to Odin and Freya.
  • December 21st — Yule — Thor Blot.

Some groups actually have a long celebration from December 21st to the 1st of January, having a Blot to a different God or Goddess each day, and make a major celebration of it.

Organization

Literature offers us little help in determining how organized the ancient religion of Asatru was. We know that there was a large temple at Upsulla, and we know that some areas had taxes which were clearly intended to support the religion. We also have abundant evidence of a much less organized system in which people met in sacred groves or built their own Hof’s and thus became a Gothi (Priest) or Gythia (Priestess). Such temples were generally maintained by the family after the builders death, the title being more or less inherited by whomever was lord over the land.

Kindreds

Today, Kindreds are highly autonomous. The clergy of Asatru are known as Gothi (Godman/Priest) or Gythia (Godwoman/Priestess). These are honorary titles only. Being called Gothi does not mark any administrative or religious power or rank within Asatru as a whole. The Gothar are those who have chosen to take on more responsibilities.

Anyone in Asatru can reach the Gods through their own prayers or blots without being a Gothi.

As to what makes one a Gothi, the requirements would vary from group to group. Some might have written criteria, while others might leave it up to the persons heart. The true test of a Gothi is not one of credentials, but of whether the folk take one seriously or not. Certainly a Gothi is one who has a long term relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. One does not, for example, simply read this book or practice the religion for a few months and then proclaim oneself Gothi, to do so would invite scorn and laughter. A competent Gothi should have studied the Eddas and Sagas and know the history of our religion. He or she should also know a bit about the runes, and the other mysteries of our tradition. One should also note that historically this is a public office and the Gothi of old had responsibilities as leaders of the community. Most importantly one must be sincerely dedicated not only to the Gods, but to the duties and calling of being a religious leader. There’s no push to move to a “higher” level of the Priesthood as there are in religions or other orders with “degree systems” and if you do not feel compelled to take on the responsibilities of being a Gothi or Gythia, there is no need.

The Hearth or Homestead

The most basic unit of Asatru religious worship is the hearth or homestead. This is nothing more than it sounds like: a household who worships the old Gods and Goddesses. Several individuals or hearths may group themselves into a “kindred,” which is a term that has many meanings to many different groups. Some kindreds have many members and function like mainstream churches, others are more family like and attempt to hold to their privacy. The place of a kindred is more or less analogous to a clan or small tribal group. A kindred is made up of people you are familiar with and with whom you meet in person and in it’s best sense it’s an organic grouping, however it’s not the same sort of bonding that one would find in a single family or even in an extremely close knit group of friends. In a true Pagan society, the kindred would be found on the level of a farmstead or small village.

The ritual blots are most commonly done on the level of the kindred, or in meetings where more than one kindred comes together. The rituals of a Hearth might be less formalized and more “homey” in atmosphere. The blot ritual is based on a religious observance that was part of the official public aspect of ancient Asatru, and its likely that there were many other private rituals that would not necessarily be appropriate for a kindred to take part in together. For example, a kindred might not honor the individual family Dis or the house-spirits unless all members of the kindred lived together or were tied by blood as well as companionship.

A kindred is something which should form organically. It’s not a good idea to push ones friends into joining unless they are sincerely interested. We usually wait until people ask to formally join, unless we perceive they are waiting to be asked. On the other hand, Asatru is not a secret religion or one open only to “initiates.”

People in a kindred should be aware that they are making a commitment to the group. The first duty owed to our kindreds would be regular attendance. The kindred cannot function if people do not attend. I have heard some say that making a monetary donation should be sufficient. I say this is simply not true. While the money most certainly does help, it cannot make up for the impression made on new people when they are the only ones showing up for a ritual. Also since Asatru is still a growing religion a lack of regular attendees will lead to only one view being put across instead of many peoples personal takes on a subject.

The next duty we have to our kindred is loyalty. I will assume that every kindred has some sort of leader whether it be an elected leader or not. This person has taken on the responsibility of being in charge of the kindred as a whole. I say that we should ask these leaders what we can do for them to make their job easier. I am not saying that we have to center our lives around whatever kindred we may belong to, but sometimes just asking if we can pick up the mead for the blot will take a lot off the mind of the person in charge.

Another duty we have to our kindred is helping the other members of that kindred. This could include the simple willingness to give a ride to events, but also on a deeper level to really be their for each other in times of need. We must remember that while our religion espouses the glory of the individual, that individual usually only as good as the community from which he came. We also do not want to be like other religions, where members of the same church are strangers to each other. The fact that we have chosen the word “kindred” to name our religious bodies should mean, in practice as well as definition, a much closer relationship to each other then is found in most, but certainly not all, mainstream churches.

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