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Asatru is the modern name given by some to the worship of the gods of the Norse people, who are popularly and somewhat inaccurately known as vikings. It literally means "true to the Aesir". The earliest written records we have of these people date to the height of the Roman Empire, with such travelogue writers as Tacitus. He described tribes of what he called the Germani, which is simply a Latin word that means "foreigner", or "barbarian". They lived on the borders of the Roman Empire, which sometimes was an enemy to them and sometimes an employer, for many Germani made much of their money from hiring themselves out as mercenaries. Tacitus describes religious beliefs that seem consistent with the later Norse mythology as recorded by Snorri and the author of the Poetic Edda. He describes tribes that, by modern standards, lived in a highly primitive fashion not unlike that of the native inhabitants of America before the "settlers" came. The long contact of these tribes with the Roman Empire seems to have had an effect on their beliefs, and their religion evolved over time, as such things do, picking up elements from Roman paganism as well as Greek.
When the Empire collapsed (due in part to Germani invaders from outside and insurrection from all those employed within Rome as mercenaries), there began a period known as the Migration, where many of the tribes rushed to conquer the former Roman lands. Around this time the Angles and the Saxons colonized England, and brought their religious practices there with them. On the continent the various Gothic tribes, and others such as the Vandals, settled various parts of Europe and commenced warring with each other. As this happened groups of warriors and free men united together under various princes and war-leaders (and emperors and so forth, one of the things the Germani adopted from Rome was a love of grandiloquent titles). Nations of various degrees of stability were formed. This was the height of the heathen religious period, and saw a development of the religion's ideas and practices (fueled in part by the highly mobile nature of their societies, which assured a constant exposure to both new ideas and new perspectives on old ideas). It also saw the formation of a tradition of stories, myths, and history passed along orally.
The sixth century saw the beginnings of a strong attempt by the Christian church of the time to convert all those in continental Europe and England. By the eighth century while England was still heathen the Christian church was a strong presence there. On the continent many tribes had already ceased most heathen practice. Sweden and Norway and Iceland were the countries to longest resist the Church. But eventually the people of Norway were forcibly converted, first by Olaf Tryggvason and then by that Olaf who was later titled Saint for his efforts at eradicating heathenism. They waged an unceasing war against the heathen faith, destroying idols, burning temples, defiling holy places, and killing those who resisted them. "St." Olaf was particularly enthusiastic in his pursuit of a Christian Norway. While he could be good and even fair-minded to those who obeyed him, with heathens he was, even by viking standards, ruthless. He tortured, maimed, and blinded them, drove and burned them from their homes. He doused them with pitch and lit them on fire. He was such a tyrant and a bloody-minded zealot that he became known to those he sought to eradicate as "Olaf the Lawbreaker". Iceland was colonized in great part by those who sought to escape these persecutions. (Though to be fair, Iceland was first colonized by those who sought to escape the tyranny of certain heathen monarchs.)
By the dawn of the eleventh century Iceland was in the middle of a great social turmoil. The Christian minority and the heathen majority refused to live under the same set of laws. This was slowly tearing the fabric of Icelandic society apart. One thing both the heathen and Christian Icelanders had in common was a strong sense of the societal bond. For this reason the schism that had formed was anathema to them all. A great Althing was called (the Icelandic legal assembly). The result of the Althing was that Iceland decided to adopt Christianity officially, in order to stop the eventual fragmentation of their country, as well as to ease growing economic sanctions placed on them by other, Christian, countries, who would do no business with heathens. And by the twelfth century the last symbolic bastion of the heathen faith was gone, and Christians ruled in the old temple at Uppsala, in Sweden.
But of course this wasn't quite the end of the heathen faith. The peaceful nature of the Icelandic conversion helped preserve the heathen faith a while longer. Early churches were often attended on Sunday by those who still practiced the old heathen ways on other days. Much of the rituals, holy days, and nature of the early Icelandic church were thinly disguised heathen rituals, holy days, and nature. No record exists of how long the heathen faith continued to be practiced after this in secret. It seems likely that it survived, in one form or another, in at least a few isolated areas, for quite some time. It had been an oral tradition and enough of it was still around for Snorri to find and record, as well as others. In the sixteenth century the gods and wights of the old faith were still prayed to at least by magicians, as the Galdrabok, Huld Manuscript, etc. attest to. While it can be argued this is not likely a particularly deep form of religious practice it is religious practice nonetheless. The old faith quite obviously survived in mutated form as practices in folk traditions. All over Scandanavia there is a tradition, stretching back to heathen times, of the yearly ride of the Wild Hunt. Even to modern times there are traditions that it can only be heard, and not seen, and that when heard certain ritual behaviors must be engaged in. The Master of the hunt is still called Wode. Midsummer and May Day celebrations have always contained many old "traditional" practices that can be traced back to heathen religious observances. The Yule log dates back to heathen new year practices, and the Swedish Christmas tradition of baking a hog-shaped bread dates back to Frey's Yule sacrifice.
Sacrifices were still left to Odin, or his horse, under various names in the tradition of tying up the last bundle of rye from the harvest and leaving it in the field for them to ensure a good year to come, up to modern times. This too, while undoubtedly not thought of as such, is also religious practice. It's a sacrifice. And as a late as about 1750, so Benjamin Thorpe (noted scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, law, and customs) tells us, a priest complained that many of his parishioners secretly attended a church that worshipped the alfs, headed by one of his parishioners. Thorpe also tells us that there are still altars being set up to the alfs, with sacrifices being offered, in his own time. At around the same time new traditions concerning Odin and Thor were forming, including a reference to recent (at the time) worship of the old pagan gods. The nineteenth century found an incantation in use in England that called upon Wod and Lok. The name Thor figured in a charm found used in rural America not that long ago. Do all these things point to a surviving tradition a la Margaret Murray? Hel, no. It was survival of an indirect sort, survival by inference, by custom, by story. But it was survival nonetheless. The old religion did not completely vanish.
Asatru is a reconstructionist religion. This means that Asatruar, when deciding any matter of faith, look to records such as the Eddas, the Sagas, and folk traditions of Scandanavian countries. Any new idea is compared to such sources, and if it does not match them it is discarded. In this we are like Hellenism (the reconstructionist Hellenic, or Greek, pagan faith) and unlike such neopagan faiths as Wicca (a newly created religion done, in some degree or other, in a manner "like" a general mishmash of some of the pagan faiths). Asatru is not an Earth-based religion, though Jordh or Nerthus is a great and important goddess. But unlike the situation in Hellenism, those who seek to reconstruct the paleopagan faith of the ancient Norse are left with very little source material to work from. And most of what we have was written decades or centuries after the major part of the heathen faith had passed out of existence, recorded by Christian scribes as an attempt at historical preservation. And this marks a difference of approach to research that defines many Asatruar. Some think that the date of the Eddas and Sagas, as well as their Christian authorship, invalidate them as sources of information, or at least restricts their usefulness to simply drawing upon general trends. They would also argue that at best the Eddas are a synthesis of ideas from over wide areas, and couldn't possibly represent the beliefs of any one people or person. This approach also doesn't tend to use folk traditions in Scandanavian countries as a source of information either, for similar reasons. This marks a particularly conservative approach to Asatru, and reliance is placed only on those very few sources of information that have been verified in multiple ways, archaeologically. This is a very safe way to reconstruct the faith of our paleopagan ancestors, in that few points of belief will be likely to be very dissimilar from what they held.
The other approach is to look at Asatru as an evolving tradition. Those holding this point of view would think our paleopagan predecessors would find it very odd, trying to reconstruct things as an exact replica of how they were in another world, 1000 years ago. Times, after all, change and people and religions change with them. This is the only conclusion possible to draw from history. This approach to Asatru sees the survival of the faith in folk tradition and Christian history as a survival. The religion had changed before, in point of fact, when it came into contact with Greek and Roman religions. This is part of the evolution of any tradition. This point of view sees the Eddas as a synthesis of ideas to be sure, but a form representative of those ideas nonetheless. This is the point of view I favor myself, particularly because I think that what we have for information as it stands is too little. To draw from too restricted a pool of information is to worship in an incomplete and unbalanced way, which is definitely not something our predecessors did. (For one thing, goddess lore is almost entirely lacking.) Though to be sure I know a good many solid Asatruar who are more of the first sort; I certainly don't mean to disparage anyone's mode of practice.
There is another debate in modern Asatru, as well as in other reconstructionist faiths, and that is the matter of language and translations. Some advocate the point of view that only by reading the original language source material, as opposed to translations, can the material be truly understood. They say that translations are too inexact, and miss too much. The other point of view says that the point of practice in modern times is to practice the worship of those gods in the fashion and language of the culture of modern times. Thus it is acceptable from this point of view to read the translations and rely upon the material as seen through the lens of their own culture. (Though if this is being done, care should be taken to read several different translations, and so infer what the original must have been more like.) I think that one of the good things about our position as Asatruar is that while it clearly will be more enlightening to read the original language, we in America speak a Germanic language, and come from a culture derived in great part from various Germanic cultures. This allows us to look at our own language versions as a natural evolution of the stories, making translations a valid tradition of their own.
One of the first things to appreciate about Asatru is that it is a religion of the holy, as opposed to the sacred. (Keep in mind that although these words are used synonymously in modern English, their meanings are actually opposite in nature.) Sacred means "set apart". The concept is that a thing is dedicated to the gods or numinous powers by keeping it away from the mundane, the profane, the things of this world. An example of this kind of religion is Christianity, and it is why their holy places are buildings, called "houses of God". This gives them a god set apart from the world, unreachable. Holy means simply "whole". Summer and winter, night and day, health and sickness. A thing is the sum of all those things which affect it, and everything is a part of some larger whole, and affects everything. Thus everything is seen as holy, and our holy places are groves, and springs, and rocks. This gives us a concept of "imminent deity". Everything has a spirit, a minor god. And this is one of the pillars of the Asatru religion.
This holiness gives us a rather different perspective than that found in many other religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Wicca, or New Age. There is no "problem of evil", for example. The universe was once void. From this fire and ice, polar opposites arose, and from these the worlds did. This is because a thing is only itself relative to its opposite. There is no light without dark. (Think about it. You are just as blind in a place where all things are equally bright as you are in darkness. Contrast is needed for discrimination.) There is no health without sickness. There is no good without evil. The universe was once void, and we have creation because the undifferentiated nothingness split into pairs of opposites that CAN be discriminated. This gives rise to the pragmatic point of view that ignores such rarified and useless concepts as "good or evil" and focuses on the more immediately useful "harmful or helpful". We have no concept of original sin. We need no redemption. We do not need to be saved. There is nothing to be saved from. We do not need healing, we are all basically healthy to begin with. Everything is part of a greater whole, and our faith, appreciating this, has no complex and arbitrary set of standards to define "morality". Instead as part of a harmonius whole world, we are more concerned with how best to conduct ourselves within it, to profit from it.
The land-vaettir, or land-wights, are the spirits of the land. The land-vaettir are sometimes pictured as Trolls, living below the ground in mounds which are hence called vaette-houer. They are also sometimes pictured as women, or as young boys. In their more unbalanced and harmful aspects, the land-wights are seen as thurses, jotunns, etins, and trolls, and are the powers of frost, and fire, and storm, and avalanche. In Ulfliot's law the dragon prows of viking ships had to be removed before sighting home, lest they frighten the land-wights. When Egil Skallagrimsson wanted to remove King Eirik from Norway he directed a curse at the land-wights of Norway, to give them no rest until they drove him out. They were also sometimes seen as identical with the huldra-folk, the people of the goddess Huldra. They are a kind of fairy that looks like a beautiful woman in every detail, but for a cow's tail. Other huldra-folk are called wood-wives, and look like beautiful women from the front, but from behind can be seen to be hollow wood. The vitality of the land-wights is the vitality of their land. As such, worship given to the land-wights, to ensure good harvest and prosperity was an important part of old heathen religious practice.
Practically identical with the land-wights are the alfar, or alfs. There are several types of alf. The ljossalfar, or light-alfs, are capricious yet potentially beneficial powers that were ruled by the god Frey in Ljossalfheim. They sometimes stole into human dwellings at night and knotted horses' tails, and rode them. They might beset lone travellers and shoot darts at them, or lead them astray. They might also lead them home. The beauty and rapture of their music and dance could sweep a mortal up into irresistible dance that ended only in death. They might also aid certain other households, and perform small chores about the house at night, such as sweeping or baking bread. (This is where the fairy tale of the shoemaker and the elves comes from.) The alfs might be propitiated, and as such could offer good luck, assistance in times of trouble, good harvest and the like. The ceremony of propitiation was known as the Alf-blot, and involved leaving out a bowl of milk or honey. Certain alfs were worshipped as household divinities and their images were carved on doorposts of the households they were attached to. These household gods sometimes travelled with a family, showing them where to settle as colonists in new lands by having their images thrown over the side of the ship, and followed ashore. Many alfs were tied to certain plants, such as trees, and would die if the plant were killed. Alfs were often said to live underground, in mounds, and might kidnap human beings they fell in love with or just took a passing fancy to.
The Svartalfar, or black-alfs, were also called dwarfs. They lived deep under ground, and their home is Svartalfheim. Sometimes their habitation is said to be in stones, and for this reason certain stones are holy, and the dwarf within is worshipped as the spirit of the land around the stone. Dwarfs are great miners, and craftsmen, and the works of certain dwarfs comprise some of the dearest held of the gods' treasures. They were also sometimes worshipped as household divinities. In truth, the distinction between light-alfs and dark-alfs is somewhat arbitrary, and not completely accurate. There was a lot of overlap in how they were looked at. Dwarfs are often highly motivated by self interest, and are little given to interacting with other peoples. Many dwarf names have something to do with death, or the dead, or with speaking to the dead. Thus the dwarfs were also connected with worship of the dead, and possibly with the practice of necromancy. Sometimes dwarfs are said to turn to stone if exposed to sunlight. They seem to be also somewhat identical with Trolls and Kobolds (a form of spirit associated with both mines and households). There are dwarf names that refer to the waxing and waning moons, and the four cardinal points of the compass are named for the dwarfs that stand there. Thus the worship of the dwarfs also was related to the worship of the subordinate powers.
Dokkalfar, or dark-alfs, is a more ambiguous term that seems to have been used in a number of ways. Sometimes it seems to refer to the dwarfs, and sometimes to alfs who dwell in forests, and sometimes to the dead, ancestors who dwell in their burial mounds and continue to look after the welfare of their families. As such they are somewhat synonymous with the drow, or draugar, who are the dead (either in the form of spectres or animate corpses). This confusion of alfs or landwights with the dead is typical of many Indo-European societies. Thus ancestor worship is blended with worship of the alfs/land-wights.
A related aspect of the old heathen faith was the worship of the disir. A dis is simply a mythic female being, and such were considered to be attached to certain family lines, or certain houses, or even to certain individuals. A dis might be a dead female ancestor, or a minor goddess, or an alf, or a troll, or even a valkyrie. A dis attached to an individual was referred to as a fylgja (which term could also describe an animal spirit attached to an individual). A fylgja is something like a tutelary spirit, an attendant. They offer protection, but also bring death when it is time. They were usually unseen for the duration of an individual's life, appearing only as a harbinger of death. But certain individuals might develop a deeper relationship with them, and learn and benefit from their aid. A dis approached for aid in fortune-telling was referred to as a spadis. The holy festivals in their honor were called disablots. One such was the first night of the Yule holiday, called Mother-night.
A spirit akin to the fylgja is also known, called the thusbet, which is a sort of dark totemic spirit. A thusbet also follows each mortal, as a fylgja does, and looks ever to his death or undoing.
The worship of land-wights, alfs, ancestors, and personal spirits was one of the most important parts of old heathen worship. It was perhaps an even larger part of the average heathen's life than worship of the gods was. Some might center their worship around their own personal spirits then, or around a local holy rock. The spirits of prominent local rivers and mountains were also much venerated. These things, as well as the personal relationship one might develop with a particular god (called a patron) lend Asatru, both ancient and modern, a highly individual flavor. One person's form of worship was (is) not necessarily much like his neighbor's, though both were (are) aspects of the same system. For this reason UPG's, or Unusual Personal Gnoses, form a stronger part of Asatru worship than they do in many other faiths. (A UPG is a revelation from a god or spirit of information that is either not known to the body of lore as a whole or even runs contrary to it. UPG's are looked at, generally, as a sign of individual understanding. As such, and because no one has the right or even the ability to dream for the entire people, UPG's are generally kept private. While a worshipper might adopt a UPG into his or her own practice, it would never be mentioned to another, much less would it be expected that others would adhere to it or even look at it as valid. Thus the handling of UPG's in Asatru is very different from the handling of UPG's in Wicca, where they are customarily given precedence even over larger bodies of actual lore.)
The worship of the various gods forms the other major part of the Asatru religion. Certain holy days were given to the rites of the pantheon of the gods as a whole, other holy days were for certain gods. An individual worshipper would be expected to take part in certain ceremonies to the gods as a whole. This might be the extent in his or her involvement with the worship of the gods. But the individual might also have a particular patron, and then other rites and holy days, holy to that particular god, would become important. There seems also to have been at least a few mystery cults, where secret rites were conducted that involved a deeply personal relationship with the god in question. These mystery cults were ecstatic in nature, and involved intimate contact with the divinity through ecstatic rite. Examples of these mystery cults are to be found in the berserkers, who were a mystery warrior cult of Odin, and the Perchten, who were revelers who worshipped the goddess Perchta, and became possessed by the dead, or by the goddess herself in rituals reminiscent of Vodoun, and in the spaewives, who were priestesses who became possessed by spirits such as spadisir for the purposes of fortune telling. There are two chief tribes of gods, the Aesir (largely relating to the crafts of war, magic, society, etc.) and the Vanir (largely relating to the Earth, and fertility, and agriculture), though certain giants such as Loki, and Mimir, and Shadhi are also spoken of as being gods. It seems that at some point the Aesir and Vanir warred, inconclusively, and to enfore the peace treaty at the end of the war they exchanged hostages. Thus certain of the Vanir are worshipped along with the Aesir. A listing of the names and natures of the chief divinities follows.
Odin: Information on Odin is listed in a separate article.
Thor: The strongest god, son of Odin and Jordh, the Earth. He rules over the realm of Thrudheim, and his mansion is named Bilskirnir. He drives a chariot pulled by two flying goats, Tanngniost and Tanngrisnir. He is god of the rain (and as such is also a god of the crops), and the thunder, and the lightning. He is the protector of gods and men alike, and is the eternal enemy of the jotunns (giants), thurses, etins, and trolls, who seek ever to destroy the lands of gods and men. In fact Thor has a piece of whetstone imbedded in his forehead from a particularly great battle with a giant armed with a whetstone club. Tales told of Thor often involve his travels to the lands of these beings, for purposes of adventure and slaughter. A companion in his travels is often Loki, and there is a mystery in this, for Thor is the only power Loki really respects (fears) and as such is the natural counterbalance to him. (This also works in reverse as well, for Loki's sharp wits and wily ways are often of benefit to Thor as well, and serve in ways brute strength cannot.) Thor's wife is Sif, who is looked at as a goddess of the crops. Thor possesses three chief treasures; the hammer Mjollnir, which is the lightning, and it never misses (almost) and nothing can stand before it, and it returns to its wielder's hand after being thrown, and he also possesses the iron gauntlets needed to handle the great heat and power of the hammer, and he possesses a magic girdle that doubles the strength of the wearer. Thor is often pictured in modern sources as slow of wit, something of a redneck of a god. This shows a certain lack of understanding of him. He is a very wise and intelligent being. After all, he was able to keep a dwarf he could not kill for social reasons in conversation about deep cosmic matters for an entire night, until the sun arose. It is just that Thor's wisdom is a practical kind of wisdom, rather than the showy kind seen in Odin. Thor was perhaps the most popular of the gods, and while Odin's people are jarls (noblemen) or wargs (outlaws), Thor's people are carls, freemen, the ordinary people who loved him best. Thor is god of farmers, and common folk, as well as fighters. One would pray to Thor for strength, and protection, and for land, and for rain. It is also said that mere mention of Thor's name aloud can cause the god to take notice, and suddenly appear. More on Thor is available in the section on runes, under the Thorn rune.
Tyr: Another of the chief Aesir, he is said to be the bravest. A person who exceeds all others is thus called Ty-brave. He is also a very wise god, and so the highly intelligent are called Ty-wise. He is identical to Teiwaz, described by Tacitus in his study of the Germani. As such it seems he was the original sky-father, and ruler of the pantheon, and god of war before Odin took over these attributes. He is a god of social order, and of justice. He would be prayed to for skill in combat, for it was an art he was most skilled in. He would also be prayed to for victory in legal matters, though this is usually a matter of praying for strictly interpreted justice. He is not a god of peace and is said to be one who is not known to settle quarrels amongst men. He is a god of honor, sticking strictly to the word given. There is more on Tyr in the section on runes, under the Tyr rune. Tyr's men and Odin's men are famous for not seeing things eye-to-eye.
Njord: He dwells in Noatun, by the sea, and rules the course of the wind, stills the ocean, and quenches fire. He is prayed to by fishermen and sailors. He is a Vanir, and is said to be so rich that those who desire a superfluity of wealth also pray to him. He was married to Skadhi. His sister is Nerthus, and he may have been the original male deity sacrificed to her yearly. They are the parents also of Frey and Freya.
Baldur: Odin's son by Frigga. His name means "warrior" and he seems to have epitomized the best aspects of the warrior class. He is the most fair of aspect, the most beautiful god. He is one of the wisest and most eloquent, and none are able to pervert his judgements. He is friendly in nature, and no impure thing is able to enter his realm of Breidhablik. He is married to Nanna. He was killed by a plot of Loki's (as part of a deeper plot of Odin's to ensure the continuity of the world past Ragnarok) who guided the hand of a blind god to hurl at him the one weapon that could kill him. He was then forced to remain in Hel by another trick of Loki's. It is notable that Baldur goes to Hel and is then forced to remain there, for it is the one place that will be safe from the ravages of Ragnarok. Indeed, because of this the Voluspa tells us that after Ragnarok Baldur will return and take the dead Odin's place. Every treachery of Loki's ends up ultimately to the benefit of men and gods both, for this is Loki's nature. Because of this, and because Baldur goes to Hel rather than to his father's own realm of Valhalla, which would seem much more natural, most Asatruar see it as part of Odin's eternal struggle to stave off Ragnarok, and to preserve something through it, by sacrificing his own son for the benefit of all the worlds. (Some scholars thus try to see Baldur in a very Christ-like light, but this is error. The sacrifice is coincidental and has more to do with reincarnation doctrine than redemption.) And note: BALDUR IS NOT A SOLAR DEITY. There is a lot of misinformation floating around out there about this point, perpetrated mostly by scholars overly influenced by Frazer and his like who got "solar deity happy" and tried to see every male deity as a sun god. But Baldur's death and eventual return is clearly spoken of as part of a world-cycle, not a year-cycle.
Heimdall: Called sometimes an Ase, sometimes a Van. Said to be a son of Odin and nine mothers. He is also called the White God, or the Bright God, for he is said to shine. He is the watchman of the gods, and stays mostly in his home Himinbjorg, next to the Bridge Bifrost, the way to Asgard, which he guards. He is a most faithful watchman, and is often rained on. He needs less sleep than a bird, can hear the grass grow all the way in Midgard, as well as the wool on sheep. He has a horn called Gjallarhorn, which he will sound when the giant-hordes approach and Ragnarok draws nigh. There are also scholarly arguments that say certain sources tell of a sacrifice Heimdall made similar to Odin's, where he sacrificed an ear for a drink from Mimir's well, which is how he got his hearing. This, if true, is such a close parallel with Odin that it may be that Heimdall is a well-developed heiti of Odin's, that has become an hypostasis. Heimdall, under the name Rig, also fathered the three races of man (thralls, or slaves, carls, or freemen, and jarls, or nobles). As such he is also a god of social order. He is also the only god other than Odin who is said to teach the runes. He would be called on by guards, police, and such like. He would also be called on by runic students as well as those who seek transcendence (as god of Bifrost, and possibly as god of social-climbing).
Bragi: The god of eloquence. He is also known as a patron of the art of poetry. From him comes the rite of Bragi's cup, where those performing the rite take turns to speak proudly of their accomplishments. We get the word bragging from this, but the old Norse did not seem to necessarily see o'erweening ego in this practice. It seemed more their point of view that a person should be able to be honest in all things, to speak poorly of him or herself when deserved and to speak well of him or herself when deserved. False modesty seems to be looked at more as a form of hypocrisy and lying, as well as denoting a weak ego that needs a certain kind of feeding.
Hod: This name also means "warrior", and he is very strong. But he is also blind, and it was his hand that Loki guided to the killing of Baldur. Hod was afterwards killed, and resides with Baldur in Hel.
Vidar: The Silent God. Also the god of the really big shoe. He is the son of Odin and the giantess Grid. He never speaks, and has a giant thick-soled shoe he got from his mother. This is made from the scraps that are discarded when humans make shoes and is continually being added to. The shoe is so that when Odin is killed by the Fenris wolf at Ragnarok Vidar can avenge his father by tearing the wolf's jaw off by bracing against it with the shoe. Thus all who love the Aesir must take care to discard scraps from shoe-making, rather than saving them for future use.
Ullr: God of the winter. He is the son of Sif and the stepson of Thor. He is god of archery and snowshoeing and skiing. All those sports and arts of the wintertime are his. He is also god of single combat, and those who go into it should call upon him. He might also be viewed as god of those things requiring precision. He is sometimes the consort of the goddess Holle, or Huldra.
Forseti: Son of Baldur and Nanna, he dwells in the mansion Glitner, and he settles all quarrels. No one, god or man, knows better judgements than his.
Loki: Information on Loki is in a separate article.
Frey: Frey means "Lord" and is more of a title than a name. The real name of this god may have been Ing, which means "Hero". Frey is a Van, and son of Njord. He may actually be synonymous with this god, and been the god sacrificed to Nerthus during certain of her rituals. (Two separate traditions might have given the god different names, and when the traditions came together again it was decided they were father and son.) He is the god who taught agriculture to men, and is known as "God of the Earth". He is prayed to in matters concerning crops, and virility. His quest for the giantess Gerdhr, the Earth, cost him his sword. For this reason he will be forced to fight at Ragnarok with a stag's antler, and it will cost him his life. He may be identical with a series of semi-mythical kings known as Frodhi, and as such legends about them may be taken as legends about him. But I have not yet talked with enough Frey's men to make up my own mind on this matter. Frey is lord of peace, and plenty, and good harvest. He owns a marvelous ship that can fly and folds up so small as to fit in his pocket. (It is thus possibly a symbol of virility, a phallic symbol.) The horse is sacred to Frey. He rides upon a golden-bristled boar, who may be the sun, which would actually make Frey a solar deity. There is more on Frey in the section on runes under the Ing rune.
Frigga: Queen of the gods, wife of Odin, ruler of his household. Her habitation is called Fensalir. She is a patron of marriage. She is said to be most wise, and to know the destiny of all men. She keeps silent on these matters to all but Odin, whom she advises. She has definite interests in Midgard and can get into power struggles with Odin over just how things should get resolved. In these struggles Odin seems to inevitably lose. She also seems to have a rivalry with some of Odin's other wives and lovers.
Freya: Sister of Frey, daughter of Njord and Nerthus. Freya is not so much a name as a title, and means Lady. She is called Vanadis, and is a dis of the Vanir. She may be identical with the goddess Nerthus, in the way Frey might be identical with Njord. Her realm is Folkvang, her hall Sessrymnir. She is goddess of seidh, and taught that art to Odin (while learning galdr from him). She is also a goddess of war and is called Valfreya, Lady of the Slain. This may refer to the fact that she recieves half those warriors slain in battle (getting first choice, even before Odin). This may also mean she is head of the Valkyries, Odin's warrior women. She is goddess of the Earth, and the crops. She is a goddess of fertility, and sex, and passion. Part of her worship in pagan times involved writing erotic poetry dedicated to her. It was said to so inflame the passions that even in pagan times it was illegal for a man to read Freya's poetry to an unmarried woman. This poetry was the reason that Christians were so thorough in eradicating any of Freya's lore. She is in many ways a female form of Odin (though not a female side of Odin). She possesses a falcon's plumage cloak, which turns its wearer into a falcon. She is married to Odin under the name of Odhr (though "married" might have been a Christian term, used because a scribe was uncomfortable with the idea of a consort, which seems to more accurately describe her relationship to Odin). But Odhr's wandering nature sometimes stirs him to leave her, and wander the worlds. When he does this, she seeks ever after him, in her chariot drawn by cats, weeping tears that become gold. For this reason gold is sacred to her. It seems likely that she was a birch goddess. She is one of the two goddesses the giants are always trying to abduct. She has a magic necklace, which is called Brisingamen, which may be identical, symbolically, with the whole earth. The "Valentine's heart" was originally a symbol of Freya, and actually represents sex more than romantic love (it is a representation of the vulva). The ladybug (freyabug) is also a symbol of her.
Idunn: The wife of Bragi. She tends the youth-giving apples the gods must always eat in order to remain alive and young. (The Norse knew that all things die; men, worlds, and gods alike.) Her dwelling is in Brunnakr, and she is the other goddess the giants always seek to kidnap.
Sif: Thor's wife. Goddess of the crops. She was said to have beautiful hair, which Loki is said to have cut off. But cutting off a woman's hair was a Norse punishment for adultery, and many scholars agree that this was a gentler way Christian scribes recorded the myth. They say it is quite likely Loki slept with Sif, and Thor found out, and things were not right again until Loki got the dwarfs to make her a new head of hair. This would likely be a yearly cycle, where Sif is Thor's wife in the summer, and her hair is the plant life of the world. In the winter she becomes Loki's lover, and is shorn of her hair, and the plants of the world die.
Hel: Daughter of Loki, queen of one of the realms of the dead, also called Hel. Hel (the goddess) is half livng flesh, fair to behold, and half decaying corpse. This is because she wears the two faces death has for humans, the fair and the terrifying. Hel (the realm) is the polar opposite of Valhalla in many ways. As Valhalla is the height of activity, Hel is the height of inertia, a dark, still, resting.
Saga: Goddess of history. Wife of Odin. Her home is Sokvabek, where cool waves murmur, and she and Odin while away many a pleasant hour there.
Skadhi: A giantess, daughter of Thiassi, whom the gods killed. She went to the gods seeking vengeance, but Loki prevented this by making her agree to drop her claim if he could make her laugh then tying his balls to the beard of a goat (rightly judging she was a wight who could appreciate the humor of pain). She became a goddess by marrying Njord, but they were unable to live together, as he preferred the sea and she the frozen mountains. She is said to have later married Ullr, with whom she had more in common. She is a goddess of hunting, and skiing, and the winter.
Gefjon: Goddess of virgins. Young women who die virgins go to her. She is not necessarily a virgin herself.
Eir: Goddess of healers.
Fulla: Handmaid of Frigga.
Gna: Messenger of Frigga.
Hlin: Guardian of those humans Frigga wishes to protect.
Lofn: Goddess of lovers. She brings them together, even in difficult circumstances.
Vor: She hears the vows of lovers and punishes those who break faith.
Syn: A goddess who guards the doors of the hall. She also protects those destined to lose a court case because of another's perjury.
Snotra: Goddess of elegance and manners. She is very wise.
Ostara: Goddess of spring.
Bertha: The White Lady, a birch goddess. (For more on the nature of birch goddesses see the section on runes, under Berkana.) She is supposed to dwell in a hollow mountain, and the souls of unborn children were in her keeping. She is patron of spinning and every Yule she went to every house where this art was practiced. Good spinners were rewarded with the goddess' own flax, but bad spinners, or those who failed to honor the goddess by eating enough of the right cakes at Yule were punished by her. She was also supposed to travel the world during Yule, followed sometimes by the dead or the souls of the unborn children and tradition credits her with leaving gifts for good children and with either leaving birch twigs to punish the bad ones or to take them away with her in a sack.
Perchta: A birch goddess. She was a patron of spinning, and led the Wild Hunt during the winter. Some of her worshippers comprised a mystery cult, and were called Perchten. They became possessed by the dead, or by the goddess herself, in a ritual apparently related to her procession as leader of the Wild Hunt. She seems almost certainly to be another name for Bertha. Both names are derived from the name for birch.
Huldra or Holle: Another birch goddess. She is patron of household chores and duties, such as spinning. Her realm is sometimes found by going down a well. She is helpful to young women who perform well their cleaning and chores, and punishes those who don't. She also is said to lead the Wild Hunt and during the winter, is said by some to be the consort of Ullr. She is leader of the huldrafolk, a sort of land-wight.
Nerthus, or Eartha, or Jordh: The original birch goddess. Tacitus describes her as living in a holy birch grove. Twice a year she is supposed to leave the grove and go on a procession about the land, bringing prosperity and good harvest. These processions take place at the beginning of the summer half of the year and at the beginning of the winter half. At the end of the ritual the priest leading the procession brought the wagon the goddess symbolically rode around in and her holy symbol, back to the grove. Slaves accompanied him and ritually they washed everything. The slaves were then killed, either by drowning or strangling. Some scholars hold that the slaves might represent a male fertility deity. It was recorded that during her procession was a time of peace. No one took up arms, and there was no quarreling.
Unfortunately most of the lore relating to the goddesses was lost, either not recorded or destroyed by Christian scribes. It therefore falls to us, this generation, to begin the process of recovering it. The easiest way to begin this is to try to pull together similar but disparate sources of information, and via similarities infer what practices or beliefs may have existed. Arguments can be bolstered, lacking any traditional information, by comparison to similar traditions in similar cultures. This is something some Asatruar would look at askance, as it cannot be certain the reconstruction is accurate or if it contains only outside lore. But we do not actually have the information plainly stated, anywhere. If we are not to spend forever stagnant, unable to grow beyond the unbalanced stage we are at now, we must simply reconstruct as best we can.
Scholars are as sure as they can be that Bertha, Perchta and Huldra were different names in different places for the same goddess. The names and traditions also seem to all be descended from the traditions of Nerthus, the oldest birch goddess (or Eartha or Jordh as her name is given elsewhere). So what do all these birch goddesses have in common? What things do we know that would, when put together, enlarge our information of the birch goddess?
1)All these goddesses have processions. Huldra, Bertha, and Perchta are said to lead the Wild Hunt. Nerthus has her twice yearly processions to bring fertility to the earth.
2)All are birch goddesses. All have functions related to fertility.
3)Huldra's procession includes the huldrafolk, land-wights. Odin's Wild Hunt is said, in many, many traditions, to be hunting the huldrafolk, or hunting alfs, in an effort to eradicate all of them. These land-wights are often identified with plant-life.
4)Odin's Wild Hunt includes hounds or wolves. One of the most common elements associated with birch goddesses is the hound or wolf. In both these cases this is because there is a close symbolic connection with the hound or wolf and the dead.
5)Bertha and Perchta are spoken of as goddesses of those not yet born.
Putting all these elements together gives us the following picture:
The birch goddess is the earth, married to Odin. At the break of summer, at May Day, she brings forth life on the earth. She processes, travelling across the earth to do this, following after Odin. But all things die, and the harvest must come at last. At this time her consort, Odin goes amongst the dead. When harvest happens, the birch goddess has nothing more to give. Then the spirits she brings to the earth are dead, and have no benefit for mankind. This must be why Odin seeks to kill them, and only does so during the winter. He is the psychopomp, and they must be brought back to the realms of the dead, and as Drighten of Draugs he leads the forces of the dead on a hunt across the earth, seeking the birch goddess and her people, to bring them where they belong. This is the meaning of the leading position of the Wild Hunt given as both Odin and the birch goddess. Odin is Master of the Hunt. The birch goddess is its quarry. At this time of year she also takes Ullr as lover, as he is god of winter. He eventually overtakes them, and kills them. Then it is the goddess who descends into the world of death. She is reborn (possibly due again to Odin's aid, as psychopomp). She is then the nourisher of life again, and as mother of the unborn and, by extension, of reincarnation, she can bring back her folk as crops and trees and grasses again. She is then in a position to bring Odin back, and take him again as consort.
This reconstruction certainly fits everything we know of the birch goddess(es). It is also consistent with many other Indo-European traditions, which involve a yearly descent of a goddess into the underworld (such as Persephone or Innana). Myself, I worship the birch goddess as Nerthus, wife of Odin (and Ullr alternately), sometimes chasing him, sometimes fleeing him. This gives me a whole picture that relates Odin, Nerthus, the year, the crops, other gods, the dead, etc. into one story. It may never have been practiced exactly this way by anyone at anytime. But I think it does reflect accurately an assortment of practices. And our tradition is living, not dead. It changes as the world does, as our cultures do.
There were several holy days our ancestors observed. No one people likely observed them all, but most observed at least some of them. Here is a list of holy days, and the old heathen practices associated with them, as derived from written descriptions and survival as folk traditions.
Yule: A twelve day festival beginning around the winter solstice. The twelve days of Yule were considered intercalendary, belonging to no year. The end of them marked the new year. The first night of Yule is Mothernight, and is given to the worship of the disir. Presents are given. As the longest night of the year a vigil is kept from sunset to sunrise. During it the Yule log (or at least a Yule candle) is kept burning. Thus the light of the sun is sympathetically kept alive through the darkest part of the year. This log or candle should be saved, and next year's log or candle should be lit from it. The Wild Hunt is particularly abroad at this time, and celebrants might listen for it. If it is far away a good year is coming, if it is near there will be hardship or death. It is particularly important that all gods be pledged on this day. A hog is sacrificed to Frey, or at least a hog-shaped loaf of bread. Oaths are sworn on the bristles of the boar, in Frey's name, boasts of deeds that are to be done in the upcoming year. Places are set at table for the ancestors, and beds are made for them. The dead are welcomed, and are as much a part of the festivities as the living. In some places an old wheel is tied with straw, taken to the top of a hill or mountain, set afire, and rolled down the hill. This is a form of scapegoating, and it carries all the bad orlog of the village away with it. Divinations for the coming year are also done at this time. No spinning may be done for the twelve days. In some places no work of any kind was done for these twelve days, to allow the earth to rest as well as the people. There were taboos known that prohibited the turning of wheels during this time as well.
Charming of the Plough, or Disa-blot, or Offering of Cakes: There were a number of holy days celebrated in different places at around the same time. They would fall around the first new moon after the end of Yule, or close to the beginning of February. In some places this was a Thor holy day, and marked his struggle against the frost giants. In other places the holy day was for Goa, a daughter of Thor, another earth deity. In still other places it was the disa-blot, which may have been for the disir, or may have been a remembrance for a human queen named Disa. The plough, and other farming implements were sometimes blessed at this time, to be readied for the coming planting. In some places cakes might be baked and offered to all of the gods.
Ostara: Ritual celebrating the coming of spring, and thus also the beginning of planting. Dates this was celebrated on varied, but tended to fall around the vernal equinox. Eggs are painted with bright colors, and hidden, and hunts are conducted for them. (Eggs are a symbol of new life, and fertility. Rabbits are a symbol of this day too, for the same reason.) Other games are sometimes played with the eggs too, such as racing with them balanced on a spoon, or rolling them downhill. Eggs are ritually thrown high into the air too, and as high as the eggs fly, that is how high the crops shall grow. A procession, led by an ass, begins festivities which include a game called "Osterball". Dancing is an important part of the celebrations. Ostara bonfires are also lit. No flesh is eaten by mariners this day, to ensure safety from storms.
May Day or Walpurgis: Mayflies and buttercups are gathered. If farmland is not yet turned for the planting, Walburgs are made and set up. A Walburg is a scarecrow with a spade in its hand and seems to be a representation of a land-wight. A May-pole is set up, and woven with bright ribbons. Men and women alternately take up an end of a ribbon and dance around the pole. Young women are chased by young men. If they are caught they are scourged with birch twigs, as this will make them fertile. Birch is placed everywhere as decoration, and this is a festival of the birch goddess. Her procession, described above, takes place. Dancing and revelry occurs, and games. A bonfire is lit. A May-queen and May-king are chose, an bedecked with flowers and greenery so that they are almost completely hidden by it. The Sigrblot (victory blessing) was held, asking Odin's aid in upcoming struggles.
Midsummer: Celebrated on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Different kinds of flowers are gathered, and tied together in bundles of nine different kinds. Sometimes these are hung in the house, to bring prosperity. Alternately, the bundle is placed underneath the pillow, and slept upon. Dreams of a future spouse are supposed to follow. A celebrant may go to a meeting of three roads and there wait for an omen or prophecy to come. Hunts are conducted for the red fern which, if found, will grant a wish. On this day the gates to the fairy lands are supposed to stand wide, and alfs freely walk the lands of humans. This is a holy day of the land-wights. Sometimes a May-pole is erected and danced around.
Horse Holidays: Around the period of August to September, one or more minor holy days, probably dedicated to Frey, were celebrated, that centered around horse racing, horse fighting, and other horse related activities. Fairs and social gatherings were a big part of these festivals.
Harvest Home: Celebrated in the autumn, at various times. For modern celebrants who are not directly farmers the autumnal equinox would suffice. The last of the crops, especially rye, is not taken but tied in a bundle and left in the field, for Odin or for his horse. Cries of "Wod! Wod!" accompany this. (For modern non-farmer heathens buying corn, wheat, etc. and leaving it in a garden or field would be a good approximation.)
Winternights: Celebrated at different times in different places, from the middle of October to the beginning of November. October 31 or November 1 seem most appropriate, as it is then antipodal to May Day. This is another twelve-day holy festival, and it is a period of abandon and wildness much like Mardi Gras or Carnivale. The Wild Hunt begins its ride at this time, and the dead are released to walk the earth. In celebration of this celebrants dress as the dead, or a fairy creatures of some kind, and go from door to door, demanding treats in the form of cakes, sweets, or alcohol. If such are not produced, pranks are played in retaliation on the householder. Divinations are done at this time. This holy festival is dedicated to the ancestors, and they are invited to the festival. Remembrances are drunk to the ancestors, and as many of them are pledged, and their deeds told, as possible. Places are set for them at table. This is a time when some might spend the night sitting on the top of a grave or barrow, possibly under a hood. Either death, madness, or the second sight (or powers of seidh or skaldic ability) will result.
In addition to these days modern Asatruar have several new holy days:
January 9: Remembrance for Raud the Strong. On this day the minni of Raud is given, who was killed for remaining true to the Aesir.
February 9: Remembrance for Eyvind Kinnrifi. Another heathen killed for refusing to convert, by placing hot embers in his stomach.
April 9: Remembrance for Jarl Hakon of Norway. A staunch defender of heathendom in his realm, the western part of Norway, he chased the Christian missionaries from his realm and preserved the old practices awhile longer. His minni is held this day.
Memorial Day: Einherjar Day. Celebration of those slain in battle, who have gone to Odin in Valhalla.
July 29: Death of Olaf the Lawbreaker. Celebrates the death in battle of this tyrant and enemy of heathens (and sane people of every faith).
September 9: Remembrance of Herman the Cherusci. Leader of the Cherusci tribe, he defeated a greatly superior Roman force (three legions) in the Teutonberger Forest in the year 9 CE.
October 9: Lief Erickson Day. Remembrance for the discoverer of America (that he called Vinland), 500 years before Columbus. This is especially important for American heathens, as this brought paleopagan worship of the Norse gods onto American soil.
December 9: Remembrance for Egil Skallagrimsson. Remembrance for bad, mad, sad Egil; berserker, poet, man of Odin.
December 25: Remembrance for Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson. The man who did more than any other modern man to bring heathen religion back to life. It was he who started the first modern Kindred, the Asatruarmenn of Iceland, kicking off a wave of people taking up the old ways. He died on Christmas day, and many heathens see a message in Odin's taking him on this day.
But there is more to religious practice than holy day observances. There is no record of what such things may have been in paleopagan times. However, we can look to other religions, folk practices, and simple logic to determine what these practices should be.
Firstly, we come to daily prayer. Establishing a habit of praying on a daily basis makes us mindful of the gods, and the spirits, and those things we should be mindful of on a daily basis. Such prayers can be supplications, asking the gods or powers for boons. If this is the case, there should also be an oathing, swearing to those same gods or powers things that will be done in payment. Simply hailing or praising is appropriate too, as it shows an appreciation for those things the gods and powers are responsible for. One of the prayers I strive to say on a daily basis (in the interests of honesty, I'm not terribly good about the every day thing) is found in the Sigrdrifumal, spoken by the valkyrie Sigrdrifa.
Hail the day
(Note: speed is an archaic usage here, meaning victory)
I try to pray to Odin daily too. This one I wrote (borrowing lines from other people's prayers that seemed good to me). Keep in mind poetry is not one of the many gifts the Allfather has graced me with, so I have made no pretense at writing it.
All wise Allfather
I also hail the local land-wights in a more simple fashion, such as
(The Saco is the largest local river. Queen Netto is a matter of local folklore. Centuries ago, Celtic and Scandanavian settlers took European folklore with them, and gave names to some local alfs and land-wights. The Presence of Mount Washington is another local legend, and is supposed to be a spirit haunting the tallest mountain in my area.)
Here is one I wrote for a Thor holy day:
Thewy Thor / Thunderer
There are other daily prayers that are appropriate too. Such things include a blessing said over food, which could take the form of making the sign of Mjollnir over the food (like an inverted T) and saying "Hammer hallow this food to my (our) might!" Over drinks containing alcohol, or caffeine (another mind-altering substance) the Valknut might be traced with the words "Odin bring inspiration to this drink!" When sudden need of a god's aid is had, or sudden appreciation wants to be expressed, short prayers work too, that briefly state the attributes of the that god, such as
"Odin, Odin, Allfather, Hail!"
over and over, until the presence of the god fills the mind.
When a god or wight has answered your prayers, or helped you through a difficult time, or you find an unusual need for aid from him or her, or you just want to get closer, sudden spontaneous rituals might be held. These might take many forms. One such is the crogan, a ritual of Odin's (and recorded as a paleopagan practice in a Scottish ballad about vikings). It involved cutting open a small vein and letting the blood mix with ale or mead, and dedicating it to Odin, and drinking it. Another such would be going into the wilderness alone and composing a piece of poetry in honor of Thor, and going to a cliff overlooking the sea, and declaiming it. This is from the Vinland Saga, and is the only detailed heathen ritual known to have been conducted on American soil.
Another way to become deeper in the faith is in the observance of taboos. These are superstitions that may have a religious explanation, or they may be so old no explanation is remembered. But these things are a part of our tradition. Observing such things as performing no work on holy days is a taboo. Turning no wheels during Yule is a taboo. Discarding leather scraps from shoe-repair is another. To follow the taboos is to keep the faith, the ways of our people, always on the mind.
There are other ways to worship and to increase mindfulness too. These include greater acts of devotion such as fasting. Every year, for the nine days before Yule, I eat no food and drink no water between sunset and sunrise, in honor of the nine nights on the world tree Odin spent before descending into Hel. I stay awake at night during this period, and sleep at day. I will drink alcohol at night, also to become closer to Odin, for it is said he eats no food, but lives on wine. (Also, the alcohol will increase my thirst, making the no-water rule even more meaningful.) There is also a practice involving placing small stones in the shoes, as the constant discomfort will keep the mind ever on the gods. Tattooing a symbol of the god or spirit on the body is also an excellent form of devotion, as the pain involved is a strong statement of love and loyalty, and the symbol proclaims your loyalties to everyone. Such practices as these are not necessary to the practice of the religion, but are an excellent way to go deeper with it.
It is not necessary to live off in the woods to be a heathen. Ours is a holy faith: everything is holy. There are all kinds of places in cities, secular and Christian as they are, that can be an important part of heathen life. Any city contains a three-road crossroads, and this is a place where traditionally omens might be seen, or Odin contacted. Any place where someone such as a criminal was once hanged is holy to Odin, and offerings might be left there. Many cities have statues dedicated to victory, often in female form. This is a natural place to make offerings to the valkyries. (In fact, casting such statues in female form comes from the valkyrie tradition in the first place.) City gardens are holy to Frey and Freya, and offerings can be left there, or prayers said. Seacoast cities have seashores, where Njord might be supplicated. Any place where a battle once occurred, or any statue dedicated to war is an appropriate place to leave offerings for any war god. Anywhere lightning has hit is holy to Thor, and cities abound in these. Giving money to beggars and the homeless is not only a good action, it is a sacrifice to Odin, whose people they are in one way or another, as they are outside society. (The goodness is in the act of the giving. What they do with the money is on their own heads. Not giving money because "They'll use it for beer," is both condescending and a cop-out.) Other practices will suggest themselves to those who seek them.
There is much we do not know about our own faith yet. There are many things we do know but do not understand. (Such as: why does every major male god have some permanent injury? Odin lacks an eye, Tyr is missing a hand, Thor has a fragment of whetstone imbedded in his forehead, Heimdall may be missing an ear. This is too prevalent to be coincidence, but no explanation is recorded.) This is a truly exciting time to be Asatru. This is the rebirth of our people, and what we do now, the rituals we write, the questions we answer will set the course of the troth for the rest of its span on the earth. And there is so much to do. What the troth needs now is all kinds of adherents. It needs casual practitioners, who are primarily secular but true nonetheless. It needs great scholars and researchers, who will find more of what our ancestors believed. It needs deep devotees who will develop the troth further, and discover new things, make new connections. It needs as many different points of view as possible.
Wes Thu Hal!