Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cauldron Blog Project: Doorways

Loki and Svadilfari by Dorothy Hardy
public domain
I've never been a Roman recon or honored any deities originating farther south than Germany and England, but I must admit I'm a little obsessed with Janus and everything that He represents.  A deity just for doorways?  Weird.  And awesome.  Boundaries, and the thresholds where these boundaries meet, is a recurring theme in Indo-European lore and mythology.  Both Celtic and Germanic sources speak of rituals where people parade objects around the boundary of farmland, of the home, of the town, to bless these spaces.  Establishing the boundary is seen as a sacred act.

I often wonder about the implications of these rituals when considering the story of the walling of Asgard.  Told in the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda and the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, the tale recounts a giant who comes to Asgard, offering to build an impenetrable wall around it in exchange for the hand of Freya, and the sun and the moon.  The Gods give him a time limit that seems impossible, but the giant comes close to completing his task.  Loki is sent to stop him and succeeds - and for the giant's "failure", Thor kills him with his hammer.  Of course, that's a very concise version, but it's the very beginning that's of interest to me.

The being that walls and encircles Asgard, certainly a holy and protective function, is not one of the Aesir.  The threshold of the home of the Gods is not established by its inhabitants or a sacred, appointed spirit - instead, it is built by a giant, a member of the apparent "savage" race that the Gods are trying to keep out.  There's no evidence either here or in later writings that the giant is attempting to trick the Aesir with shoddy building or a hidden door so he can later attack - he is the honorable one in this exchange, serving a sacred function for the Gods who unfortunately prove themselves unworthy.

Another Jotun, a giantess named Gerd, is said to have later married the God Frey and is listed by Snorri as one of the Asynjur.  The etomology of Her name is an interesting one, with many concluding it means either 'walled field' or that it simply denotes the action of walling (from Rudolf Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology).  How fascinating that She also is so linked to this bounding of space, separating the inside from the outside, while She is really a product of both.  While of course I honor Gerd in my garden, I see Her also as a deity of these boundaries, and I offer to Her when I ward my doorways and the edges of my land.

It's clear that doorways and boundaries were very important to the ancient Indo-European peoples.  How interesting that two spirits strongly associated with these boundaries are giants, so often overlooked or pushed aside in modern Heathenry.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Week 4: Álfablót Anytime

photo by Aymi and Laurel
creative commons license
One of my favorite things about Heathenry - and possibly what initially drew me to the path - is the emphasis on honoring ancestors and land wights as much, or more than, the deities.  Don't get me wrong, I like the Gods, but being able to go out and sit in the garden and connect with the land wight there is so much more concrete and immediate than reaching out for a deity that travels this world and the otherworlds.

Álfar is an old Scandinavian term that is a subject of some controversy in Heathen circles - whether it refers to the spirit of a male ancestor, a land spirit, or some mix of the two is under some discussion.  The old holiday  Álfablót was a time of sacrifice to these beings, held individually in the autumn at each farmstead.  Since there aren't actually any grave mounds on my property, I chose this time to do a special sacrifice to the land wights.  But one day a year is not nearly enough, in my opinion.  Honoring the land spirits had to become a major practice for me, simply because they are such an ever-present part of my life.

And so every Friday, I go out to the altar in my garden, bringing a bit of food or drink for the land wights.  It doesn't have to be an elaborate blót - in fact, it rarely is - all that's needed is to call the spirit's attention to the offering.  This consistency is important towards building a relationship with a land wight; it establishes a mutual hospitality where gifts are given on both sides - and a land wight's gifts are not to be underestimated.

Spirits of the earth and soil,
of things green and growing,
expanding and entwining,
rooted deep in the dark,
hear me now.
Spirits of the lithe and limber,
of wandering wings and fleet of foot,
sprinting and spry,
digging and devouring,
hear me now.

Hail to the land and the wights of the land.
A gift is given, and another is given in turn.
May we meet again on the dark earth.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Thorrablót Ritual for Thorri

Photograph by Ian Capper, shared via Creative Commons License
As Vanatru or Earth-centered Heathens, it's easy to love the Vanir.  They're flashy, they're green, they grant prosperity and fertility - usually thought of as warm and friendly in contrast to the more 'stern' of the Norse deities such as Odhinn and Tyr.

Where I live on the Midwest prairie, it's hard to forget about winter.  And yet I think many Pagans often forget about honoring this time of darkness and cold.  In my many gardening adventures, one important thing I've learned is that many of the plants that grow in my home state can't grow farther south, where the winters are short and warm if they exist at all.  They require this period of dormancy, of rest in the cold earth.  And yet, it's important that the land doesn't become too cold - below zero temperatures for weeks at a time can spell disaster for many plants typically grown in Nebraska.  As a person who honors this land and its weather, not recognizing and encouraging a natural, normal winter takes away from my practice and my relationship with the land.

And so we come to the old Icelandic holiday of Thorrablót.  Last year, I addressed some etymological questions about this day as Thor's, and came to the conclusion that as an Earth-centered Heathen, this day and season more appropriately belong to Thorri, a spirit of winter and cold.  Anglo-Saxon Heathens may choose to honor Jack Frost, who has similar folklore origins.  This year, I've taken the time to write a small ritual to propitiate this king of frost, that the spring may come in a timely fashion.

First, prepare a small feast or special meal that can be shared with the spirits; if you want to go all out, there are many traditional Icelandic dishes associated with the holiday.  Also have a special drink on hand - preferably mead, but any alcohol or 'fancy' drink will do.  In fact, if you prefer the non-alcoholic route, hot cocoa or mulled cider would be a particularly suitable offering!

via Creative Commons License
Once the meal is ready, make up a small plate and take it and the drink outside with you, into the cold.  If you have an outdoor altar, perform the ritual there - otherwise the threshold of the home or natural place that calls to you are good options.  Call out and address Thorri, saying:

"Hail King of the Frost, son of Snow-King,
You rule this icy winter.
The chilling winds that blow are Yours,
the gray clouds that hide the sun are Yours,
the frozen crystals that cover the ground are Yours.
I come bearing gifts for the Frost-King,
food for the spirits to warm Your heart,
to turn aside the winter winds,
to relent in the cold that covers all."

Set the plate of food on the altar or ground, and raise your glass.
"Hail Thorri, great King, who gives the world rest,
Ancestor of my heart, bringing sparkling frost,
I honor Your gifts and welcome their return
in their due course, in Your right season.
Hail to Thorri!"

Drink half the glass and pour the other half out.  You may eat your feast outdoors, or if weather or other circumstances prevent, inside looking out at the winter landscape.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Pagan Experience Week 3: Deity and the Divine

Nerthus by paintedflowers on deviantart
creative commons license
 I have really enjoyed the Pagan Blog Project the past few years, and was very sad to hear that it wouldn't be continuing for 2015.  Robin over at The Pagan Experience has taken over the idea, and will be posting prompts and collating links of Pagan blogs throughout this year.  I'm listed in the blog list as Heathen in the Grove - a little more descriptive of a title for those first visiting the site!  I'll be tagging these posts to make them easier to find, and also listing them under the Pagan Blog Project tag to make all my community posts accessible.

This week's topic is Deity and the Divine.  I feel I must start with Nerthus - my patron deity who has been with me since the beginning of my spiritual journey.  From the J.B. Rives translation of Tacitus's Germania:

"There is nothing noteworthy about these peoples individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she designs to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed in clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and pious reluctance to ask what the sight can be that only those doomed to die may see."

This is all we know of Her, a brief note in a book written by a Roman around 100 CE.  Linguists link Her name with Njordh, noting they have a similar masculine/feminine naming dynamic as Frey and Freya.  This has led many in the Heathen community to the conclusion that Nerthus is Njordh's unnamed Vanir wife, the mother of Frey and Freya.

I believe that the true nature of the Gods is fairly unknowable for us - perhaps incomprehensible is a better word.  But I can tell you who She is to me; how She has shown Herself and what She asks.  I have always felt called by the most wild of places: the deeps of the forest, the midst of the river, where one can wander without seeing any signs of civilization.  I didn't feel safe or comfortable in these places.  They gave me a sense of deep excitement; like stumbling onto an alien land where I am not particularly welcome (though I'm not immediately ejected either - it's more of a low-grade, cautious hostility).  I didn't have many friends growing up, and I spent most of my free time in these places - being in a very small town granted me a lot of 'wandering in wilderness' opportunities.  It was in these places that I met Her.  Just like the land, She at first seemed hostile; but also thrilling.  She was the strongest presence I'd ever felt, a spirit far more concerned with the protection and well-being of the land than with yet another human.

As I grew, I became closer and closer to Her, this presence in the trees and streams.  I didn't have any idea that Paganism was a thing, that there were those who would call Her a Goddess.  When I discovered Wicca, I thought for sure She must be the Earth Mother others talked about; though I soon discovered that my Goddess was very different from the loving, all-embracing Gaia that so many described.  Nerthus is deep, She is ancient - She is angry, at times, a righteous rage at those who would defile the land.  She is sacred, She is hidden, She is veiled - too holy to be looked upon by those who do not understand.

And yet!  In Tacitus's description, we hear that when She visits, it is a time of great feasting and merry-making.  She harbors and loves all the land; even the tame agricultural fields, to which She brings bounty and prosperity.  It is my UPG that She is not commonly found in these places so worked over by human hands, but She will come if invited - and when She does, that is a good day.  Each spring, right around this time, my children and I perform a ritual to invite Her into the garden and bless our land and crops, and despite our presence in the suburban Midwest, we feel Her presence.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Boasts, Oaths, and Asking of the Gods

Almost a month ago, I had the opportunity to attend an intimate, informal Yule sumbel - one of the highlights of the ritual year for me.  Surrounded by friends, some Heathen and some not, we drank to the Gods, our ancestors, and spent a few rounds boasting and oathing.

Just a few days before, I had run across a real treasure online - a vintage organ with a full pedalboard, in brilliant condition, for a pretty reasonable asking price.  I'm something of a music nerd; I play several instruments passably well and am always excited by the prospect of something new and beautiful - and this organ was certainly beautiful.  The owner wasn't getting back to me, and I was getting a little anxious about it.  Organs aren't exactly in high demand, but this was a great price and a unique instrument.

From my research, it seems we don't have a lot of examples of exactly the form an oath would have taken during sumbel.  But thinking about that organ I was inspired to make an oath to the Gods - in exchange for Their assistance.  I promised offerings of music and song, practice sessions dedicated to deities, if only the Gods would help to make this instrument mine.

Now, I'm not one to place at the feet of the supernatural what can be attributed to good old fashioned work.  But the next morning when I woke, an email was waiting for me agreeing to my bargained asking price and asking me to come get that organ as soon as possible.  I called the movers and the instrument was in my house the very next day!  Of course it could just be coincidence, but I'm not about to short my deities on offerings if They were the driving force behind this sudden contact; and so nightly practice sessions have begun at my house.

I've had people doubt the fitting nature of music as an offering.  "Singing a song is so easy," they've said.  "It's hardly as good as a nice bottle of mead."  I couldn't disagree more.  Sure, singing a song is pretty simple - but first you have to learn it (maybe write it!), practice it, polish it so that it's fit for performance - we're talking hours of work and pre-planning.  Besides, I like to think that the Gods and wights (and I know my ancestors!) like a good song just as much as they like a good bottle of mead.  My deities know how to have a good time.

So that's the story of how my unconventional oath turned out amazingly for me, and the Gods and spirits got Their due in return.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Making the Transition from Family to Ancestor

My husband's grandmother is in the hospital right now - she's been there for a few weeks already - and things have been busy and scary and bittersweet.  The doctors have told us that it's pretty much time to say goodbye. I wrote a more general post over on the Patheos Pagan Families blog about talking to my children about their great-grandmother's passing - but here I want to specifically address how to make this transition as a Heathen and a Heathen parent.

Earlier this year, my own grandfather passed away, and it was an incredibly difficult time for me.  I loved him very much, but I wasn't able to say goodbye.  I feel like this made the transition so much more difficult than it needed to be - I finally felt some connection with him when I visited the place where his ashes were scattered, keeping vigil during the night and meditating on my memories of him.  So here's my recommendations for Heathen kids (or any Pagan path that values ancestor worship) - or really anyone who is going through this difficult time.  These are only recommendations, things that have made this time easier for me; and of course everyone's grieving process will be different.

First, spend as much time as you can with your loved one while they are still physically with you.  Holding their hand, brushing their hair, just being able to talk to and touch them is such a valuable experience, and something you will treasure forever.  This end-of-life time is so important for both people - it is comforting to most who are facing their own death, and it eases the transition from member of the family to ancestor for those who will survive them.

After the person passes, begin talking and making offerings soon afterwards.  If you have the opportunity to stay with their body for awhile, do so - the practice of sitting out on the grave mound seems to imply that the ancient Germanic peoples believed in a connection between body and spirit even after death.  Talk to them just as you would have before.

If there is a service held in their memory, attend it.  It can be difficult for many of us to attend religious services that remind of painful times, but don't let a few Our Fathers or the evangelical pastor scare you away.  This time is about sharing memories and communicating with other loved ones of that person, a tradition that in my opinion couldn't be more Heathen!  Tell stories, laugh and cry, talk to people about the sides of your loved one you may not have known.  Don't get defensive about others' beliefs - just steer the conversation back to the person you both love.

Make adding their picture or things to your ancestor altar into a ceremony.  Address your loved one's ancestors and your own, and ask them to be welcomed in that group.  Address your loved one directly, talking much as you did before, perhaps leaving a favorite beverage or treat out.  When I did this for my grandfather, I told him about his funeral - we hadn't planned to invite anyone but immediate family to scatter his ashes, but as more people heard, more people began planning to show up, until we had a gaggle of cousins and aunts and uncles I hadn't seen in years.  He was so fun, and so generous, and so well-loved; nobody wanted to miss a chance to say goodbye to him.

Remember to grieve.  I see this a lot in my Christian friends - they'll say "he's with God now," as if that makes everything okay.  Yes, as Heathens we love our ancestors and they hold a very special place in our hearts - but it's alright to mourn the relationship you had before their passing.  Things are not the same, and it's important to recognize that.

Tell stories.  To keep the memory of your ancestors alive, the younger generations need to know about them.  My mother and father never really tell stories of their youth or their grandparents, but my grandmother loves to talk family history with me - and I repeat every single word of it to my own children.  To find their own place in the world, they need to know where they came from.  It may be painful or difficult at first - but that's okay.  Remember it's alright to grieve, and it is essential that we preserve the legacy of the ones we love in our hearts, and in the hearts of those who come after us.