On Human Wrought Boundaries

•April 12, 2017 • 5 Comments

The State boundary marker between New York and Massachusetts from the New York side.

 

There is some inherent, unique quality to man-made boundaries, a quality which I feel often gets overlooked in conversations about Paganism. The demarcations of space which cut across the landscape in sometimes glaringly artificial lines, which nevertheless draw our eyes to them. We follow them and trace them, experiencing them as both tangible and intangible forces. A ditch or culvert, roads and dirt tracks, an old moss-covered stone wall, and even post markers of property or former lines which no longer exist are all representative of the division of human space in this world.

These structures contain something more, something that exists both within and alongside the power from the natural realm that many Pagans emphasize. At times, it can be near-palpable and noticeable: crossing a threshold or stepping through an opened gateway, or crossing from one side of a seemingly mundane border to the other can elicit a feeling of change and otherness. These spaces can be as liminal as the twilight and the dawn, or as much as stepping onto a mound. They simply exist in different and sometimes imperceptible ways.

And people have long known this. Intuitively or by design, the power of the boundary was understood by numerous traditions. Boundaries have long been used by priests to demarcate sacred space. It was understood by witches and cunningfolk, in their use of intersections and existing structures. In a way, it just makes sense that there’s more to the division of the world. Humans are creatures of space as much as anything else. And as such creatures, they are adept at engaging with the forces which also inhabit that space, and are even able to construct it on their own with little initial assistance from the divine.

I often see Pagans approach their religions by being enamored with the glamour of the natural. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, ever. The sanctity and engagement of the divine in the wild and in the natural world, of the gods of the land and earth and those ancient powers that predate humanity’s ascendancy are just as important now as they were in the yesteryear. If not more so. Please do not misconstrue what I am saying in this regard.

But so many Pagans seem to ignore the importance and reject the power inherent in the constructed. Commonly, I have seen it viewed as an eyesore, or a physical reminder of the destruction that our species has caused – the creation of an unnatural edifice that contrasts directly with any real sense of the natural. Some go so far to view it as a blight on their quest for a true Nature religion, something that is at best tolerated but often lamented.

Yet there is power in these boundaries. The Romans knew of Terminus, He of the boundary post and the demarcation of what would today be considered the “secular space” of fields, and pastures, and workable property. He, who was honored by a position of such importance that He was placed next to Jupiter Himself. As traditional polytheistic religion pervades every facet of one’s engagement in this world it is understandable that these sites would be treated as importantly as those of nature. What’s more, the priests understood the importance of the sacred, but nevertheless artificial, boundary in the establishment of the pomerium.

Artificial construction bears relevance and importance in a cosmic sense, much more than some would think. The intersection of two walls creates an inherent axis mundi, a physical representation of the sacred cosmogony. The entire edifice becomes an image of the cosmos. Whether through natural happenstance, simply by existence of a familiar sacred geometry, or through some measure of ritual efficacy, the animation and sanctification of space through sacrifice and rite, these sites become attractants to all measure of spirits and deities. These boundaries are as important as the sacred trees that represent the connection between earth and sky, and they in the same way connect our presence space with that of the cosmic other.

There is sacredness in the enclosure. Walls and barriers so erected protect and, further, preserve the sacred from the profane contamination of the material and mundane. In their many forms they enshrine conduits directly to the numinous – rocks piled just so, a string or rope surreptitiously placed, borders and boundaries that ties reality together in an intimate way. The dichotomy of sacred and not is protected by powerful monuments wrought of human hand, be they ditch or bank that surrounds a sanctuary, or a wall which encloses one’s yard.

Crisscrossing the landscape there are networks of roads which both follow and cut across the contours of the land. These lines of hot asphalt and dusty gravel or dirt enable us to function as a society. They’re necessary and used daily without a second thought. But these very same roads, the arteries of present civilization that act as boundaries in their own right, cross. They become gathering places where dead things can gather during those thin nights of the year, and where Trivia reigns over liminal places. Cunningfolk seek to use them and work their spells with the inherent power of these boundaries. The mundane becomes a source of the esoteric.

Would these very same sites have achieved such relevance if not for the intersection of humanity and the numinous? I could not say, but perhaps not.

Interacting with these human boundaries gives me a sense of the other that pervades our material existence. The walls and roads cut across mundane reality in ways which assist me in contextualizing my place in geography and being. There is a noticeable shift in my perception at times when I walk across such a line, even when I don’t expect it. Even something as innocuous or unremarkable as the political border of two states found in the woods can have a more profound meaning. There is something there. Those that would reject it for being artificial are missing out, I feel.

My religious and esoteric practices take place within the realm of human experience, within the human landscape. I do not seek to maneuver outside the anthropocentric world. I come back to this place when I return from the wilds, across the henge or the road. I am always reminded of how the human environment interacts with the spiritual on a fundamental level, and how the most mundane features can reflect the cosmos.

From the Tool Shed – Transitions

•March 24, 2017 • 13 Comments

Spring has officially sprung. Ēastre is on Her way, complete with flowers, and green things, and warm weather.

Or so they say. You’d never know it, looking out the window.

A late winter snowstorm that hit the Northeast dumped over twenty inches of snow in my area of the Hudson River Valley. Though there were harder hit regions, it was still an inconvenience. Those few warmer days, having reduced the snow pack’s size, have once again given way to bitter cold and sub-zero windchills. In typical New York fashion, we’ve gone from near sixty-degree days to bitter cold, often within hours.

And now those selfsame snow packs are hard, and compacted, and near-solid enough for me to walk on without breaking the outer layer. But they still make the trails impassible. The bitter chill still stabs at your lungs if you try to go outside and do anything.

Layers are still needed. My hands are still ice. Just today our forecast is sleet, freezing rain, and snow showers.

But it’s a mixed blessing, really. For as much as this dreary, turbulent Winter has been hanging on, it competes with the knowledge that we need the water for the coming season. See, what they don’t really tell you about living in Upstate New York is that we have a fire season. It may not be as widespread, nor as devastating as other regions, but it exists. There’s a month or so between mid-April and mid-May where the foliage hasn’t grown up enough to provide a buffer against the spread of wildfires, and state-wide burning bans are common.

So the late snow has been a welcome sign, even if it’s made this transitional period between seasons difficult. Even if it perpetuates that kind of melancholic self-reflection that the stark bitterness of the Winter season creates: the white ground, gray skies, and the dour and dark, leafless trees all adding to it.

This transitory, liminal period of time has caused me to think about this space, Heathenry and Paganism, and my place within the circles of wider community. It’s been no secret that I’ve been dealing with a lot in my personal life – more, in fact, than I’ve really spoken about here – and things have gotten even more topsy-turvey for me (especially) in the past two months. Hard hits, let downs, things of that nature. Ultimately passing, yet nevertheless distracting.

It’s stopped me from being able to pay as much attention to this blog as I would otherwise like to.

My inspiration for writing has been low, lately. You can tell by how infrequently my posts have been since October. I attribute part of that to the level of writing I do. I err towards high-quality, in depth research, because that lets me keep my skills up. The downside is it takes a bit of time to produce something that I’m personally happy with.

And, I think, focusing heavily on that style of writing makes reading my work a bit inaccessible for some people. Consequently, I often feel that this space is a little too impersonal and sanitized. Oh, I periodically have written bits of creative exercises. But even my community critiques tend to be somewhat distanced, and I view them all as teachable moments. And while this blog was never intended to be a “slice of life” blog, maybe personalizing it a bit more would be beneficial.

I had an impressive year last year, in terms of reach and readership – for me, at least. I want to capitalize on that and do better than I did last year, reach more people, and engage with them more. Grow more. I think part of that is reaching out and humanizing Of Axe and Plough. At the very least it gives me opportunities to expand my reach and my writing, and I want to engage more in not only academic works, but in thoughtful projects and contemplations that I feel I often otherwise lack.

Recently, I have made the decision to pare down a lot of my extraneous engagements and limiting myself to a handful of Pagan projects. Most of it deals with leaving the drama of social media, save for a very few groups which I find value in. My focus is almost entirely on this blog, and my work with the Larhus Fyrnsida, and verbalizing my explorations of hearth cult, and other such interests that I’m exploring.

I don’t have much of a plan, and maybe this is my failing. A redesign maybe? An expansion to other social media sites? Who knows.

I’d like to hear thoughts from my readers. Am I wildly off base? Am I not? Inquiring minds want to know!

Blōstmfrēols: A Distinct Fyrnsidu Holiday

•March 17, 2017 • 2 Comments

In developing a more comprehensive character to one’s religious identity, inspiration for practice can come readily from scraps of information or otherwise from the barest of inspiration.  As a reconstructionist religion, Fyrnsidu is distinctly benefited from the use of various comparative methodologies in order to flesh itself out so that it does not remain in a static or otherwise stunted form.  Incidents of holidays and a religious calendar are one such facet which are underrepresented in the historic record and must be worked around in order to craft a proper identity.  The following is presented for practitioners of Fyrnsidu and the followers of the Larhus Fyrnsida to consider.

Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary includes a definition:

blōstm-frēols es; m.

A floral festival

Blōstmfrēols >>floralia<<.[1]

This definition is an Old English gloss for the Roman festival Floralia.  This may hint at an early-Spring festival that was associated with that more ancient observance, and was thus suitable for a proper Old English gloss for the Latin term.  It is known from the Anecdota Oxoniensia, the Old English Glosses, edited by Arthur S. Napier.

It is not unusual for an Old English gloss to exist for a corresponding Latin concept without proof of an existing practice.  Questions necessarily surround the extent of such a commonality of practice between these two terms.  But in this instance it may be reasonable to assume, with the prevalence of regional Spring festivals across the whole of Northern Europe that some measure of festival occurred within the Anglo-Saxon period that the scribes best associated with Floralia.

European folk traditions that take place in late-April and early-May are commonly known.  Of these, to modern practitioner, “May Day” celebrations are perhaps the best known of these Spring festivals.  It is common for contemporary Pagans to treat “May Day” as the archetypal spring festival honoring fertility, abundance and growth, given over to modern practice from a culturally syncretic Wiccan religious apparatus that combined Gaelic Beltane and traditional English folk practices.  

Blōstmfrēols is of interest in the quest of establishing a unique holiday practice to enrich the practice of Fyrnsidu as distinctly Old English practices for Heathens are largely nonexistent.  Blōstmfrēols, as a gloss of Floralia, gives us an insight into the nature of the period, and the position of that Roman holiday provides the foundations for a future construction of worship.

We are not alone in making these comparisons with Floralia, nor is this found only in Bosworth-Toller.  Such a comparison had been previously made in the monograph Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, by Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock.  Published in 1908, it was one of several printed volumes of collected folklore remnants at the time.  Floralia is intimately associated with the practice of “going a’Maying”, an old custom observed by children on the 1st of May.  Particularly, garlands of flowers were constructed that were adorned with dolls, explained by Gutch and Peacock as the chief doll “being representative of the goddess Flora, in the festival of the Roman Floralia[2].

While it is untenable to assume that the survival of pre-Saxon Roman practices into modern memory, the comparison nevertheless lays an important groundwork for the exploration of what could constitute a development of a particularly Old English Heathen practice.  Independent of Gaelicized-Wiccan observances, this practice can be explored through comparative study with the Floralia, in order to give more substance to what the writers of these glosses were describing.

Behind Blōstmfrēols: Floralia

As a festival celebrating the fertility and fecundity of the Spring, Floralia is the Roman festival for the goddess Flora and consisted of a festival post-dating the expansion of the original Flora cult in 238 BCE [3].  In the veneration of Flora, it consisted of hares and goats being released within the Circus Maximus and various seeds and beans scattered among the attending people gathered taking place on the 28th of April through the 3rd of May.  Given the emphasis on fertility and the bloom of the Spring and dealing with the fructification of the earth and humanity both, it was functionally and undeniably a festival for the common folk [4].

Flora is an old Italic deity who is associated with both Ceres, as the agricultural goddess of fertility, and with Venus, as the goddess of love and fecundity [5]. She is nevertheless set apart from these two deities.  She is not simply an “agrarian” deity in the same nature of Ceres, but deals specifically with the celebration of the Spring bloom of flowers.  Historically, the temples of Ceres and Flora were established separately, and their respective holidays were likewise kept apart.  Despite the apparent links between this holiday and the Cerealia, the celebration of Floralia-as-fertility festival was independent of celebration of agricultural cultivation

Floralia is representative of the fertility of the land through nonviolent means.  The release of the hares and goats, themselves herbivorous animals, were not sacrificed.  This positions Floralia against a bloodletting festival which would otherwise ensure the fertility of the land.  It takes place at the end of April when the flowers and fields are beginning to bloom for much of the northern hemisphere.  Much like Ēastre and Beltane, it would fall in the transitional period between April and May.

The festival of Floralia has been classified as a ‘propitiatory sacrifice’, or a piacula.  This denotes a ritual action reserved for sacrifices that are designed specifically in order to ensure the continuation of or otherwise protect against some specific outcome.  As much of a celebration of flowers and the Spring, it appears to have been a ritualistic safeguard to continue the natural order of spring growth.  

Blōstmfrēols in Contemporary Practice

The literal definition of Blōstmfrēols as a “floral festival” in Bosworth-Toller places flowers, flowering plants, and fructification as the highest concern in this holiday.  It celebrates the growth of those vibrant attractants and their importance within agriculture.  What does this include?  Flowers.  Bees.  Pollination.  Life.  It is more than a Spring festival, but one that actively worships the vibrant attractants which inevitably help produce the fruits and vegetables we as a society depend on, as well as the creatures that make that happen.

The question remains: How can one appreciate and celebrate this holiday if they so wish?  What are ways that practitioners of Fyrnsidu and their hearths can potentially approach such a holiday?  What would the requirements of ritual be?

It would perhaps be best to determine when the festivity should be.  Floralia is positioned late in the month of April, sometime between April 28th and May 3rd.  A similar positioning for Blōstmfrēols is absolutely appropriate, although individuals in different growing seasons are more than welcome to move it further ahead or behind, depending.  For instance, late April is a good time for those in what is considered “hardiness zone 5”, when things are entering their bloom.  Those that are in warmer climates further south may decide that close to Ēastre may be preferable.

It is a festival of both levity and solemnity, one that both celebrates flowers and new growth as well as seeks to ensure that the coming Spring and growing season are fruitful and prosperous.  Given its roots in the non-violent Floralia, it is unsuitable to celebrate Blōstmfrēols with offerings of meat or game products, relying instead on wines, honey, oils, and other products of agricultural practices which are benefited by the proliferation of flowers and pollinators.  Suitable sacrifices are poured out in libation or are otherwise “gifted back”, and coupled with votives (hares and goats in particular) and other offerings as deemed appropriate.

Though we do not have a comparative figure associated with Flora in Old English folklore, Ēastre provides a suitable focus for worship.  She is honored from the full moon of Ēastremōnaþ to the end of Blōstmfrēols, and celebrated as the bringer of the Spring and the flowers.  In this manner She is approached as the Goddess of flowers (Ēastre Blōstmbǣrende), of bees (Ēastre Bēomōder) and honey (Ēastre Hunigflōwende)[6].

Blōstmfrēols could then be seen as the end of the “Ēastre season”, the finished culmination of the honoring of the equinox, and the hope for the growth it should bring.

Compliments of the Sierra Club, such packets only help bee populations.

We can utilize later-period Lincolnshire folklore as an example for suitable actions, as well. The creation of flower garlands[7], especially utilizing native flowers to the area and grown at the appropriate time and adorned with ribbons and other festive decorations, is appropriate. Votive representations of either the hares or the goats, or of a divine figure placed within those garlands, can hang prominently throughout the period of the observance, only to be deposited on a body of water or buried in the soil at the end of the festival, as hearth practice entails.

Given the dire state of the bee population in the West, especially the United States where they suffer from Colony Collapse Disorder, the celebration and protection of pollinators is of paramount importance for our continued survival as a society.  Seeding local types of wildflowers or maintaining a space conducive for their growth will only aid in the proliferation of the bounty which Blōstmfrēols ultimately seeks to ensure.

In Summary

It is highly unlikely that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon tribes maintained a festival that was undeniably drawn from Roman practices, as a simple reading of the gloss would otherwise intimate.  No matter the thoughts of folklorists and gloss scribes, it is simply unlikely to have happened.

It is, likewise, undeniable that Blōstmfrēols is a contemporary holiday that is built upon very ancient practices.  There are no claims to antiquity in the present practice of the observance.  Instead it takes the tradition of established Spring festivities and brings them to the fore for Fyrnsidu practice, incorporating a perspective of our world and employing it in a fundamentally unique way.  This is vital in the performance and continuation of a modern religious identity, for if those holes which we have are not filled, we will remain in the mire of intellectualism and academic debate and not a living religious identity.

 


[1] Bosworth, Joseph, ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others, Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Blóstm-freóls. (Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010), Accessed: Web. 29 July 2016. http://www.bosworthtoller.com/040634.  There is also another word given for Blōstmfrēols in Bosworth-Toller, “Blōstmgeld” which serves as an alternative.  This word also is translated as “floralia”.

[2] Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock, County Folk-lore Vol. V., Printed Extracts No. VII: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire (London: Long Acre, 1908), pg. 200.

[3] W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans, (London: Macmillan and Co. LTD.), 1899, pg 91.

[4] Fowler, Roman Festivals, pg. 95.

[5] Fowler, Roman Festivals, pg. 92.

[6] This would syncretize Her with Flora, Chloris and Mellona, respectively, providing additional clues for an appropriate practice of the holiday period.

[7] Gutch and Peacock, Printed Folk-Lore, pg. 200. Traditional descriptions of these garlands include an “oval shape”, and were otherwise composed of cowslips, wood anemones, crab-blossom, wall-flowers, primroses, and daisies. Given the geographic conditions of modern Fyrnsidere, it is advised that one uses locally procured flowers.

Eofores Holt Heorþ

•January 31, 2017 • 1 Comment

The individual Heathen identity is often subsumed under group and communal identity. This is understandable, given the nature of human society, and how we collectively buld social bonds. If we are to take someone like Ken Dowden at his word in his book European Paganism: The Realities of Cult From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, as heathens our polytheistic practice by its very nature is unconsciously designed to encourage the growth of a form of greater-than-personal identity [1].

While I heartily disagree with this assessment of the native spirituality of these pre-Christian peoples, there is truth in the idea of the coalescing of identity within a larger group. As we as a society (especially American) progress from one of hyper individuality and a disillusionment with a pan-national idea, we’re engaging with and encouraged by the growth of tribal identity. In our society, we coalesce around hobbies, interests, and orientations which we derive our understanding of the world. Religion is, ultimately, tribal and concerned only with its constituent members. Pan-cultural universalist religion was a relatively late, relatively unique, development in the human idea of religion.

Other Heathens have written about the relative lack of individuality and individualism within Heathenry, that the worldview is inimical to the concept of the sole individual. Heathen religion is a communal religion, so they say. Larger traditions within Heathenry believe that divinity deals with the whole, and not the individual, and that the individual should nevertheless avoid attempting to engage with some facets of higher divinity. Others are content to ignore the personal for the communal, which has ultimately lead to a deficiency in home-based religious orientation.

They are, of course, free to do this and to prioritize their religion as they see fit. But it has never been something which I’ve approached as tenable to my understanding of self, my interaction with the wider community, and how I engage in my personal practice. And I identify that as one of the fundamental deficiencies of Heathenry as a religious movement.

We hear often that there is no such thing as “Solitary” practice within Heathenry, as a result of the pressures to engage in a wider group. “Go and do” is often uttered to interested neophytes and curious onlookers – go and find a kindred or tribal Heathen entity and see what they’re about. If you cannot, try to build one, no matter the relative experience (or lack thereof) that one may have. In some cases, this works well, and vibrant groups are founded that meet several times a year for ritual and rite, and otherwise make an effort in their locality.

In others, it fails abysmally. The location is not good, or the surrounding community are filled with people whom do not align with one’s politics, worldview, or what have you. These are all major considerations for the interpersonal relationships that are founded between people and while diversity of opinion is valued, some differences are insurmountable to a healthy working relationship. There are reasons why people stick to themselves. With concepts of intermingling luck, worth, and more importantly wyrd, it is particularly egregious to ask anyone to engage in a ritual relationship with relative strangers simply for the sake of “communal religion”.

With the discussion naturally focusing on the wider group, an individual tends to be glossed over. Ignoring the universally abhorrent quality of most published 101 level works, which might have some information about home-based worship, there is no true initiative in the maintenance of a home cult. Which is odd, considering the inverse importance that many Heathens place on their ancestors and local tutelary spirits over the higher gods. Some people even believe that there is such a thing as “too much gifting”, and that only a handful of times a year is suitable for their veneration and devotion.

While there are historic arguments for the development of individualism within the Western conscience (my Old English professor was aghast at the theory that some academics had that argued the idea of the “individual” did not occur until the Romance literature of the Medieval period), there is no argument that the individual household holds preeminence within archaic society. While the nations were supported by the tribes, the tribes were supported by the community, and most importantly, the community was established by a collection of households.

Our very understanding of the innangeard originates on the household first. This is the fundamental unit within Heathenry, and one that is vastly overlooked, to the detriment of the foundation of the whole religious outlook.

This brings us to the topic of this post: Eofores Holt Heorþ

I eschew the titles “Solitary” or “Unaffiliated” Heathen. I do not believe that community is the sole determining factor of “Heathen-ness”, and I have often found myself the pariah of various communities which I engage that espouse this view of Heathenry. By characterizing my practice consistently around my association with others, I lose myself, my family, and my gods, in the process.  This is unacceptable to me.

Instead, I choose to embrace a term employed by the Larhus Fyrnsida (as of yet unpublished, so here’s a sneak peek): Frēosceatt Hæþen [2], or “Freehold Heathen”. My hearth is independent from a larger tribal body. I am an independent entity holding to Heathen ideals and practices.  As the smallest unit of the innangeard is on the hearth, so is mine a unit, and I encourage individuals to look at it in this way.

In the honored tradition of the sacra privata of the Indo-European peoples, I am the familial priest of my hearth, and take the title: Þingere, or “intercessor”. As the sole polytheistic member of both my families, I keep my ancestors, and handle my gods on the behalf of them, any residing members of my family in my house, and tend the sacred space of my hearth and whichever tutelary deity is there.

To that end, to help assist the Larhus Fyrnsida (as member of the Larwitan) in the development, proliferation, and visibility of a hearth-centric Heathen practice, I take this time to formally announce the naming of my hearth, Eofores Holt Heorþ Boar’s Wood Hearth. I officially join the ranks of other free hearths like Sundorwīc, Þunresfolc Heorþ, Weiß Alb Hearth, Eber-Blut Hearth, and many others.

The nature of my hearth will blend my domestic cultus into my worldview as established by Heathenry and Fyrnsidu. As hearth cult is mutable, it is a guide to be inspired by, not necessarily one to be followed in toto, and will naturally differ from even those who I am in close correspondence with.

Consider this a statement of intent, a peek of what is to come, and an apology for not having much to update since October.  It’s been rough.


[1] Ken Dowden, European Paganism: The Realities of Cult From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, (London: Routledge, 2000), 291.

[2] The Larhus will be elaborating more on this in an official capacity.

Bīnaman: A Distinctly Fyrnsidere Approach to Divinity

•October 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I wrote a piece on Larhusian Fyrnsidu, and a unique perspective that we take towards Heathenry. While I traditionally share the pieces here first (see: Prayer in a Heathen Context), I opted not to for this page. But I am sharing it, and I hope that people enjoy it!

Lārhūs Fyrnsida

Author’s Note: This piece partially builds off of “Prayer in a Heathen Context” and “Prayer in a Fyrnsidu Context”, as a natural continuation of those practices within Fyrnsidu.

For practitioners of Fyrnsidu, or other Anglo-Saxon Heathen traditions, there exists a fundamental impasse in the understanding of divinity within strictly “Anglo-Saxon” religious perspectives. The problem is quite simple: the identifiable “pantheon” of Anglo-Saxon deities is beyond poorly represented in surviving literary works and materials. Outside of place-name analysis, the linguistic lineages such as the days of the week, and a few inclusions in authored works that survive – like Bede’s De Temporum Ratione – the actual identifiable names of deities are few and far between.

On the surface, this would not seem like much of a problem, until one thinks about the plethora of divinity that other tribal peoples would have access to. Instead, it generates the…

View original post 2,569 more words

“Prayer” in a Heathen Context

•September 19, 2016 • 18 Comments

Author’s note: I want to thank my pre-readers Forvrin, Sarduriur, and Conor for taking the time and expending the energy sometimes necessary for me to wrangle my disconnected thoughts into something more intelligible. Also, thanks but no thanks to Open Office, who decided that the excessive amounts of Old High German, Old Norse, and Hurrian were enough to completely break my spell check.

For all its claim to empiricism, popular opinions remain barriers to reconstructionist Heathen practice. Whether through misunderstanding, poor scholarship, or emotive clinging to attitudes from previous religious engagements (example: Christian-themed cultural baggage), these opinions tend to shape the growth of Heathen religious traditions for years. In some extreme cases – especially in the wider Contemporary Pagan community – the conflation between practice and this emotional baggage results in the disregarding of similar traditions or concepts.

This phenomenon can be examined in the regrettably still common Heathen claim that the pre-Christian Germanic pagans did not “kneel before their gods”. A concerted effort from various corners of the scholastic Heathen community has largely dispelled this notion, and have largely shifted the paradigm in regards to the concept of genuflection in holy situations. Yet similar claims exist for other common practices, claims which have no backing in historical or anthropological records. Indeed, many of these individuals claim an argumentum ad ignorantiam.  An appeal to ignorance based on the lack of contrary evidence, in such a culture of reconstructionism where primary source material is severely lacking, is a particularly dangerous and ultimately futile attempt to protect fragile emotional states which may press against uncomfortable baggage.

“Prayer” is one such practice which tends to find derision and criticism in contemporary Heathen groups. This is largely due to the associations with popular, particularly Christian, instances of prayer. The role and use of prayer within ritual are rarely, if ever, discussed within contemporary Heathenry, and individual practitioners often cannot articulate the purpose of prayer. This work will serve as an example for our discussion of prayer in the wider Indo-European context, in an effort to position the idea of “prayer” within a native Germanic tradition.

Understanding Prayer

Like many religious enactments within Indo-European practice, a combination of formalized prayer and ritualized action are performed in order to take part in the sacred exchange of the gifting cycle, the fundamental basis of these religions. Heathenry, as an orthopraxic religion, relies on these rites and statements just as much as other Indo-European paganisms. However, because we lack the source material for pre-Christian Germanic religious practice, alternative cultural examples must be explored in order to give a wider understanding of Germanic prayer.

Prayer supplications can – in part – be explored through oracular questions, literature, and other textual remnants. In approaching the antique (pre-Christian) context of prayer, the utilization of H.S. Versnel’s approach is aptly and appropriately done. In the case of the oracular questioning, the lesser-known oracles provide examples of the wants and needs of the day-to-day life of antiquity. Because of these insights, it is perhaps better to study the questions asked of individuals like the Egyptian magician Astrampsychos or the oracle of the Greeks at Dodona than it is to approach the most famous oracle sites in history, as at Delphi [1]. As notorious as Delphi’s oracles are to history, they are unsuitable for this examination of prayer in a common context, given their focus on legendary events and the utilization by an elite minority of statesmen or civic leaders.

These lesser-known oracular examples provide an example of the types of personal prayers which were common in supplication in antiquity. Importantly, they reflect the needs and wants of the day-to-day and provide examples of how modern practitioners of a polytheistic identity like Heathenry can find concordance within their daily lies in a formalized prayer structure. The similarity of thousands of examples of prayer across centuries show that humanity has maintained a striking similarity in prayer-format up through the modern period. Accepting that modern prayers are built on a foundation of classic, that is pre-Christian, prayers is the first step in understanding the role that they play in religious experience.

These prayers can be formally divided into three component parts, which follow C. Austfeld’s own division of prayer: invocatio, pars epica, and the preces[2]. Dissecting these components of prayer reveals three, distinct, elemental characteristics:

  1. The first is the invocatio. This forms a means by which the deity – or deities – are approached are formally invoked into the prayer formula or ritual format. Through the use of their names, surnames, epithets, or other identifying descriptive phrases, this constitutes the whom of the prayer: To whom it is addressed and directed.
  2. The second is the pars epica. This is typically portrayed in scholasticism as an ‘argument’, or a basis of explanation as to the why of the prayer. It is essentially a description of the benevolent nature of the God, insofar as that deity is disposed to intervene to mortal benefit, and why the prayer is to be/hoped to be productive in the capacity of being the God. It includes reasons the supplicant is approaching the deity invoked, the relationship which that supplicant has to the deity, the defense of asking for such things, and other reasonable explanations for approaching the god.
  3. The third is the preces. This can rightly be said to be the actual prayer itself. It consists of the service and task that the supplicant is beseeching the divine entity for, as well as any other loose ends within the prayer which need to be tied up. This is the end result and the objective of the whole engagement with the deity.[3]

These three aspects form, in essence, the totality of what is considered prayer in the sense of antique polytheism. Variations, of course, occur within history. But for the nature of polytheistic supplications, the most indispensable element to the prayer itself is the invocatio. A prayer is not, in the words of Bremer, a simple utterance of “HELP”, unguided and left open to the universe[4]. It is directed, aimed at a very specific divine entity, which is realized only through the formalized invocation of the god. However, of these three acts, the second has been identified as somewhat dispensable. A study of the Greek hymns would readily show a general lack of an ‘argument’ in various praise-prayer.

But even a deviation in particulars can highlight these particular forms of prayer creation. In an example Homeric hymn to Athena, taken from The Homeric Hymns in Apostolos N. Athanassakis’ work on the subject, we can find elements of these three categorizations. Consider the following:

“I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, defender of cities,

awesome goddess; she and Ares care for deeds of war,

cities being sacked and cries of battle.

And she protects an army going to war and returning,

Hail, O goddess, and grant me good fortune and happiness”[5]

In this traditional prayer, the deity Athena is invoked directly by name, epithet, and role as “Pallas Athena, defender of cities”. This is the invocatio, which appropriately directs the following prayer. Although Bremer does not place much in the way of an emphasis on the ‘argument’ of the prayer, we can see what could be construed as such a thing here. The writer actively defends his reasoning for the prayer: she is a warlike goddess, and protects those who go to war and are similarly returning from the conflict. Finally, the actual component of the prayer, the preces is simply stated: “Grant me good fortune and happiness.”

This tripartite division of prayer composition is inherent within Indo-European cultural prayers. Studies of Homeric hymns, Skaldic texts, local magcial and medicinal charms, and other similar writings. This indicates an important tradition of commonality in such things as meter and format, irrespective of the “level” of divinity being approached.

It should not be claimed that these prayers were only for the “highest” of deities within a culture’s religious world. It is a failing of contemporary practice in Heathenry to distinctly and arbitrarily divide the divine and their “roles” based on their relative position to humanity [6]. The ‘spheres of authority’ of these deities, whether ‘ancestral gods’, wights of the home or land, or celestial and infernal gods themselves, appear to be incorrectly and rigorously assigned. This is an utterly anachronistic, modernist approach which clashes with the traditionalism of Indo-European polytheism. Utilizing the history of these indigenous faiths, it can be seen that the ancients themselves would not have conceived in the divine in these separate ways.

Approaching the prayer formulas, and their implementation, we see that many of these prayers concern themselves with utterly mundane concepts: healing, travel, and safety, and a plethora of other socially ‘unimportant’ and intensely personal requests. We have discussed the oracle at Dodona precisely because it represents an intersection with “normal” people and the gods. In some Indo-European cultures, the concept of divinity was central to the idea a prayer, and not the varying degrees thereof. Versnel’s study of Roman prayer formulas account for this, where the idea of mis-apellation of a deity in prayer was so much of a cultural faux pas that the prayer formulas would either give the name ad hoc or left so wide that they could not potentially cause offense[7].

For the purposes of the continued discussion the modern anachronism of dividing the roles of the divine is dispensed with.

Prayer as an Indo-European Continuum

The smallest foundation of religious observance in modern Heathenry is the hearth cult. This traditional practice blurs the lines separating the priest and an individual position that does not have religious connotations. Whether this is within the nondescript house cult, or something more formally recognized as the Roman paterfamilias. An individual who necessarily performs hearth-based rites and rituals acts in the same tradition of an orator of prayer, a ritual poet, or other such official position within the Indo-European religious tradition.

There is a notable link in these traditions consisting of religious poetry, invocations and prayers, or hymns of praise which are directed towards the gods, all of which are inextricably linked to the worship of the being and the propagation and all the paraphernalia of that cult [8]. One of these traditions which spans Indo-European linguistic and poetic territory is the incidence of ‘name-giving’. This culture of giving personal names, typically a bipartite compound name, finds expression in various formulas and values, which form a nexus of tradition extending from India to the furthest extent of Western Europe. For this discussion, it is a tradition which is replicated in some of the oldest Celtic and Germanic linguistic monuments[9].

What is found is that extensive religious ritual texts can contain near-identical, if not wholly identical, enumerations in practice. A series of Hittite ritual texts grouped together contain litany-like spells and incantations in which physical maladies are addressed. These ritual texts are identical to Germanic, Indic, and Irish healing charms, and contain a linked formula with curative juxtapositions. Consider the following,

“ḫaštai=kan ḫaštai ḫandan

UZUSA=kan ANA UZUSA ḫandan

ēšḫar=kan ēšḫani ḫandan”

“bone to bone is fitted

sinew to sinew is fitted

blood to blood is fitted.” [10]

as a charm in Hurrian, especially when compared with the last two lines of the Second Merseburg Charm:

“ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,

lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin”

“Bone to bone, blood to blood,

joints to joints, so may they be mended.” [11]

This sequence is an example of stylistic replication, between two very different cultures and two very different periods. For the purposes of this paper, it should be looked at as an indication that comparative analysis between even distantly related pieces is a worthwhile pursuit. We will be able to suggest further practices which are in line with this foundational cultural continuum as it is currently understood.

Studies of extant Germanic texts, particularly later expressions found in the Scandinavian literary corpus, shed some light on potential applications of prayer within a Heathen context.

A paper by John Lindow, published in the Spring 1988 edition of the Scandinavian Studies journal speaks to a handful of fragmentary texts which remain from the Scandinavian Sagas, which he interprets as a native attempt to bridge the gap between human and deity through prayer. This is done in several instances by invoking the deity directly, in apparent conflict with pervasive contemporary approaches towards Heathen religious understanding.

There are two fragmentary texts penned by Vetrliði Sumarliðason and Þorbjorn disarskald, the latter potentially the same man as Þorbjorn Þorkelsson, and later preserved by Snorri. Lindow considers the association and implication of these prayers: these texts attempt to bridge the gap between man and deity, invoking the deity directly, but have no small amount of anomalous considerations of their own.

An arguably problematic par of pieces, the first of which had been penned initially by Vetrliði, and then replicated in some respects by Þorbjorn. They have historically been argued to as either a Christian-influenced prayer, or a native representation steeped in the older tradition of Indo-European prayer. Lindow ultimately disagrees with the conclusion that these prayers were the result of influence by Christianity, and agrees with older scholars that these works represent some aspect of religious continuum indigenous to pre-Christian peoples of Europe[12].

Consider the fragmentary text of Vetrliði Sumarliðason, as it reads:

“Leggi brauzt Leiknar,

lamðir Þrivalda,

steypðir Starkeði,

stett of Glop dauða”

“You smashed the limbs of Leikn;

you bashed Þrivaldi;

you knocked down Starkaðr;

you trod Gjalp dead under foot” [13]

Scholars have identified two components of prayer components within the manuscript fragments: deific praise summarily followed by a request. In short, they contain the invocatio and the presces from the aforementioned Versnal prayer format.

Vetrliði’s extant stanza attempts to invoke the deity Thor, laying out the actual groundwork of the prayer itself by beseeching the Giant-Slayer to kill and maim the targets of his ire. While the poetry identifies no less than four men and women, it has been commonly accepted in scholarship that the two Christian missionaries Þangbrandr and Guðleifr were the targets of the text [14]. Vetrliði implicitly assigns two Jotun a piece, one male and female, per missionary, at once both including them in the mythological cycle as agents of destruction and chaos, and summarily emasculating and ‘othering’ each through identification with the feminine.

Vetrliði’s words were most effective at one thing: rousing the ire of the missionaries, who were said in the sources to have “attacked Vetrliði in such a way that a murder-hammer resounded from his head in the way that a smith’s hammer resounds from an anvil”[15] and summarily slew the man. This builds off of the known quality of Vetrliði raising a nið against Þangbrandr [16], and that he intended Thor to slay the missionaries like other trolls. Bo Almqvist concludes that Vetrliði’s extant verse is the first helming of his nið, and that the survival within Snorri’s works would put him in a position not to continue the recording of those lines, his religious ethos overriding his inclination to preserve his cultural heritage [17].

The study of other Indo-European prayers and traditions supports this comparison. Following in the footsteps of Chadwick, an exploration of the Iliad, or the Homeric hymns provide an European correlation. Vedic parallels lay the foundation of the overall origin-of-form for the Indo-European practice, especially those to Soma and Maruts containing the same invocatio and presces formats in blending praise and request. Vetrliði and Þorbjorn’s work simply represent the latest, and arguably last, pagan prayer type commonly shared among the Indo-European peoples[18].

Even the Merseburg charms, the other Germanic representation, show connection to epic poetry which implicitly praise a deity, then demanding some action. We have already seen how they share a tradition with older Indo-European linguistic charms. They are nevertheless useful to look at in the concept of a prayer. “Phol and Wotan went into the woods” and “bone to bone, blood to blood” can be seen as constituting vestigial aspects of the prayer formula; a clear connection to the cultural expression of prayer itself, and not simply related in meter or format to charms.

Conclusion

We have thus approached the idea that the Germanic peoples were capable of articulating what can be considered “traditional Indo-European prayer” and that the concept of prayer in contemporary Heathenry is not something which should be approached as a ‘vestigial Christianism’. It is very much an extant, attested tradition in its own right and would understandably be utilized as a central, important facet in the intersection of man and divine.

In the utilization of a comparative method, modern practitioners are capable of avoiding a deleterious disputation buttressed by fallacious arguments relating to the employment of traditional prayers and charm formats. The Austfeld/Versnal prayer-format, in some capacity, provides an easy-to-understand template for the history, purpose, and ultimate proliferation of uniquely Heathen prayers, approachable by contemporary practitioners eager to do so.

More importantly, in doing so, Heathens are not breaking with tradition in the slightest, but instead are engaging quite naturally within the cultural continuum of Indo-European polytheistic traditions. To argue the idea of prayer is a ‘foreign’ concept is ultimately to deny one’s practice the rich and fulfilling history of poetic composition, and allowing one’s emotional attachment to preconceptions to override critical inquests to history and culture.

 

 


[1] H.S. Versnel, Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pg. 6.

[2] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg. 2.

[3] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg 2. In this, Versnel points to J.M Bremmer’s paper focusing solely on the pars epica and the argumentative aspects of that position in prayer. Versnel avoids speaking to the pars epcia due to the combination of this aspect of prayer and the invocatio being closer to a hymnal or religious poetry and unsuited to his dissertation. Bremer’s work articulates that the pars epica is better suited to an intermediary position, and is readily replaced with other terms (‘argument’ by JM Bremmer himself, or sanctio by Zelinksi). As this work deals with prayers, not necessarily ‘hymns’, we shall keep to Ausfeld’s particular definition.

It should be noted in the second item in the list, the pars epica, that “benevolent” does not necessarily constitute the orientation of the God vis-à-vis their mortal supplicants as a wholly “good” or beneficial deity. A deity which intercedes in the doings of a mortal, for the benefit of that mortal, is thus acting in a benevolent capacity. This holds even if their benevolence manifests as benign neglect or condescension.

[4] J.M. Bremer, “Greek Hymns”, in Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pg. 194

[5] Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymns, (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2004), pg. 53

[6] On certain online fora, it has become trendy to argue that Heathens go “first to their ancestors, then the wights, then the gods” or that the “gods only care about the group, and not the individual”. Prayer formulas from other related Indo-European religions would position this attitude as an incorrect one.

[7] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg. 15.

[8] Calvert Watkins, How to Kill A Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford University Press, 1995), pg. 69.

[9] Watkins, Dragon, pg. 246.

[10] Watkins, Dragon, pg. 250.

[11] Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003), pg. 173.

[12] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, Scandinavian Studies, 60:2 (Spring, 1998): 119. It is important to note that earlier scholars, such as H.M Chadwick in the 1930s and 1940s, had already made this association between these extant texts and Homeric hymnals in the tradition of the Heisod.

[13] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, from Finnur Jonsson, Skjaldedigtning, B1:166, pg. 121
Translation from Gabriel Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, (Holt, Reinhart, & Winston: New York, 1964) pg 85.

[14] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg 133.

[15] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 134.

[16] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 131. Vetrliði is known in a number of sources: Landnamabok, Heimskringla, Kristni saga, Njals Saga, and the Longest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. His raising of a nið is probably what the man is best known for in history.

[17] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 131.

[18] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 135

Updates from the Shed II

•August 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Amidst the drama and brouhaha of Paganism, polytheism, and Heathenry, I’ve been trying to work on some behind the scenes things here.  It keeps me out of trouble, you understand.

As I put more “professional” focus on my writing, such as it is, I find myself to be caring more over the form and function of the blog, instead of focusing exclusively on content.  A lot of this space was established and then not completed, and I’ve taken it upon myself to try to rectify this.  I’m tired of my theme, but I don’t like the WordPress themes available currently, so I’m in the process of trying to make this space more engaging.  We’ll see what comes from it.

A big addition is me actually fleshing out my Books, Links, and Resources page, which has largely sat unchanged for the past three years.  I’m in the process of adding links to the works that I mention, if I can find them.  Otherwise, this is a partial bibliography of what I use in order to establish the foundations of my practice.  I don’t think it will ever be exhaustive.

Otherwise, I’ve updated my blogroll, with a few new voices that I had lapsed in adding finally being done.  I’d really like to run two lists of links – one for active blogs and the other for legacy or archived blog links which are no longer being updated but are nevertheless still being hosted.  Unfortunately, I am unable to include a second link widget.

That is all.  Carry on.