1. It’s not historical
Let’s start with the no-brainer: this is not an historical rite! There’s no record of the Vanir being worshipped west of the Rhine before the Migration Age, so a Vanir-focused Latinized rite to Norse gods will naturally be a new thing. It is, however, historically inspired, in that it takes into account traditional practices from both cultures and blends the two following the historical precedent of Romanized cults. For instance, I considered how the ritus Graecus was, in the words of John Scheid, “a very Roman ritual form”, “an extremely Roman category that would certainly have seemed exotic to Greeks” and “an official category, more or less artificial” (2003: 37). In other words, a ritus Romanus with a few foreign elements thrown in for a sense of “Greekness”. I also took note of the Gallo-Roman culture, which was the result of the Romanization of Gaulish customs under Roman rule – including religion! Native gods were identified or paired with Latin ones, depicted according to the artistic conventions of Roman culture and worshipped in temples that combined classical formulas with native features.
If the Vanir had been worshipped west of the Rhine, they’re cult would probably have taken a Roman guise similar to that of Gaulish religion. Of course, since it didn’t actually happen, any attempt to create an historically inspired Latinization will always involve options that will be different for each person. In other words, how I did it may not be how others would do it. And that’s okay! We’re not all the same and this is not an effort at creating the ultimate and definite Latinization of Norse cults. It’s just one individual’s take. Which is why I didn’t want to call it ritus borealis or northern rite: not only is the name too broad for something that’s Vanir focused, what I constructed is also just one out of several possible historically inspired combinations of customs.
Is it legitimate? Why not simply honour them the Norse way? That was certainly a possibility and it’s something I did for several years. But as my religious identity cemented itself as Roman polytheist, at one point I decided to try and bring into the Latin way the few devotions I had left from my days as a heathen. Yes, I used to be one. And one of the reasons why I left was precisely the sort of narrow-mindedness that is unfortunately common in modern Heathenry and which claims, for instance, that Norse gods should only be worshipped the Norse way, that anything else is appropriation, that heathens should follow a particular theology or avoid honouring non-Germanic gods, either for the sake of historical accuracy or cultural purity (whatever that is). Compare that with Roman religion, which has a strong precedent of syncretism and inclusiveness, of multiple theologies and philosophical schools, and once you get past the re-enactor’s mentality, there’s freedom in being able to practice an ancient and diverse religion in today’s multicultural world without the constant chorus of “cultural purity” or religious fossilization.
So as a Roman polytheist who was born, raised and currently lives in southern Europe, I wanted to bring into the Latin world my long-standing devotion to a few Norse gods. To harmonize it with the rest of my religious practices, thereby simultaneously maintaining my worship of the Vanir and strengthening a sense of Romanitas by following the ancient Romans’ example. And on the back of my head, I also had the knowledge that in the 5th century, the still-pagan Suebi made a home for themselves in the west of the Iberian Peninsula. There’s little record of their religious practices, but one wonders if they initially Latinized them, just as they did with most of their way of life. As I said, while this is not an exercise on historical reproduction, it is nonetheless historically inspired. And it has been a very rewarding experience, one you may or may not agree with, but which has ample historical precedent: same gods have been worshipped differently by different people and cultures throughout History, in Europe as in Africa and Asia, and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be so today. If I were to limit myself to what was done and available in the ancient world, I’d be merely re-enacting a fossilized religion because it stopped evolving in the Middle Ages.
2. Who goes first?
Traditional Roman rite opens with offerings to Janus, the god of beginnings. In De Agricultura 134, Cato adds Jupiter and Juno to the opening and Ovidius speaks of Vesta as presiding over the beginning of the ceremony, since She governs the fire through which the offerings reach the Gods (Fasti 6.303). In my version of the Roman rite, I honour Janus, Vesta and Jupiter in both the opening and closing sections, but when creating a Latinized rite for Norse gods, the immediate question was who should play a similar role.
For that, there were several options. Thor was an obvious one, given the hallowing ability of His hammer, as was Heimdall, since the god who watches over the borders of Asgard seems like a clear choice to mark the ritual limits of a ceremony. I also considered Loki due to the possibility that He’s a Norse equivalent of Agni (see here and here). Odin too was on the list, as He was historically identified with Mercury. There’s a trace of that in the weekdays, with the Latin dies Mercurii becoming óðinsdagr in Old Norse and wodnesdæg in Old English and from which the modern Scandinavian onsdag and English Wednesday derive (Sonne 2014: 189). Another possible trace of that, according to Rudolf Simek (2000: 78), can be read in stanza 48 of the eddic poem Grímnismál, where Odin calls himself Farmatýr – god of cargo or burdens. And Tacitus may be referring to Odin or rather Wodan with he says, in Germania 9, that the Germanic tribes gave special worship to Mercury. There was also Njord, who as a divine hostage is not outside the role of intermediary, and Ullr, who’s mentioned at the end of stanza 30 of the eddic poem Atlakviða with the words at hringi Ullar – by Ullr’s ring! Which ring is unknown, but it could be an oath one, similar to those mentioned in the Icelandic sagas, as in chapter 4 of Eyrbyggja saga and chapter 25 of Víga-Glúms saga. It’s true that Ullr is a minor figure in the surviving mythology, but the keyword here is “surviving”: a look at placenames will show you a very different picture and that’s exactly was Stefan Brink does in his How uniform was the Old Norse religion. It shows that there’s a considerable abundance of Ullr theonyms, particularly in eastern Scandinavia (2007: 117), suggesting He was an important god either at an earlier age or in a different region from that where most of the written sources come from. And since Atlakviða is part of the Sigurðr cycle, whose origins predate the Codex Regius by several centuries, it’s not impossible that the reference to Ullr’s ring is a relic from a different time or place in the transmission process.
Whatever the case, I had two other options on my mind: Freyr and Freya. The former is tied to the idea of friðr, as in Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning 24, where it is said that it is good to pray or call on Him til árs ok friðar – for abundance (ár) and peace (friðr). The same idea appears in chapter 14 of Hákonar saga Góða, where a toast is made to Freyr and Njord for prosperity and peace. However, the word friðr also carries the notion of truce, quarter, personal security and even inviolability (e.g. friðhelgr). As D. H. Green states, the pre-Christian idea of peace meant not merely a passive state of no hostilities, but an active one of protection and assistance (1998: 60). Much like the Roman notion of pax deorum implies the protection of the gods and hence the well-being and prosperity of the community. So if I want to start a ceremony by calling on peace between those present, visible and invisible, establishing inviolability or holiness and hint at the bond-nurturing purpose of the rite, it seems like a perfectly good option to start and end the ceremony with Freyr. Furthermore, his role as keeper of peace or guardian is reinforced once you place Him in a Latin context: a phallus was a well-known apotropaic symbol (Adkins 2000: 178), as evidenced, for instance, by this 1st century Roman wind chime or the mano fico sign, which has a sexual origin (Adkins 2000: 140) and is still used in southern Europe. And Freyr, at least according to Adam of Bremen’s History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen IV:26, is a phallic god.
Then there’s Freya. In the Old Norse sources, apart from having a warrior side, as suggested by Her getting half the slain (Grímnismál 14) and perhaps the name Sýr or Sow in Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning 35, She’s also presented as a cup-bearer. When Hrungnir visits Asgard, says Snorri in Skáldskaparmál 17, Freya is the only one brave enough to serve the giant his drink. It’s a task that could be interpreted today as one of servitude, but which in the ancient world was not outside the role of someone as high up as a queen. Consider how in Beowulf the hero is given his drink by his hostess, queen Wealththeow (verses 611-628). Freya is also a Mistress of Seiðr, a type of magic which, according to chapter 4 of Ynglinga saga, originated among the Vanir and was first introduced among the Æsir by Her. And one of the uses of seiðr was divination, as in the case of the seeress in chapter 4 of Eiríks saga rauða, who manages to contact spirits who tell her the future. And finally, consider Freya’s falcon cloak, which is used by Loki in two instances – in Snorri’s Edda, Skáldskaparmál 56, and in the eddic poem Þrymskviða – when he travels to the world of the giants. Judging from other types of shamanic practices, and seiðr does seem to be at least partly rooted in the circumpolar culture of northern Scandinavia (Price 2010: 247-8), the cloak appears to serve the same purpose as the ceremony performed by the seeress in the saga: to travel to or contact the otherworld, much like a shaman journeys in animal form. As such, by being the goddess of seiðr and the lady who serves a drink, Freya is not outside the role of bridger of worlds. That of the guest and host, the visible and the invisible, this realm and the other. Even as a deity of love, a side of Freya Snorri mentions in his Edda, Gylfaginning 24, one can see an ability to join or link two sides. And no, this is not a far-fetched interpretation that would have no place in the ancient world: the goddess Diana, who’s known for Her chastity, was sometimes turned to for matters of love, because the literal hunt She normally stands for was seen figuratively as a pursuit for love (Green 2007: 122-3).
It was based on this that I considered Freyr and Freya for the opening and closing sections of my Latinized rite. And while I could have chosen any of the deities mentioned above, I opted for the Vanir Twins. It wasn’t just the appeal of the brother-sister dynamic, which creates a good balance; it was also a consequence of the Romanization of the two deities: freyr is actually a title, as is freyja, meaning “lord” and “lady”, words that in Latin translate as dominus and domina, the master and mistress of the domus or house. And yes, this is an acceptable rendering of the Old Norse words. As pointed out by Stefan Brink in a lecture he gave in 2005 and which was published three years later, “the Germanic family or household was very similar to the Roman familia” and the head of the household was called hêrro, truthin or frô in Old High German, having “a similar role to that of the paterfamilias in the Roman familia” (2008: 13). Even the etymology of the English words “lord” and “lady” is not outside a paralel, since the former comes from hlaf-weard (bread warden) and the latter from hlaf-dighe (bread kneader) (Brink 2008: 7). He is the head of the family and therefore the one who guards its sustanance while she attends to its production; the paterfamilias governs the house, the materfamilias manages its domestic affairs – pantry and hearth included. In the Roman world at least, Freyr and Freya could have been divine equivalents of those human roles. And hence, in the Latin rite I constructed, He establishes peace and inviolability while She attends to the transformation and transfer of offerings.
Now let me be clear: I am not syncretizing Freyr and Freya with Janus, Vesta or Jupiter. If that’s how you’re reading it, then you’re missing the point. This is not a matter of direct equivalence, but of finding gods who can fulfill the role of, shall we say, “ritual brackets”. There were many options, as mentioned above, some much closer to the Roman model, but I picked one that I enjoy particularly. Again, given that the Vanir were never worshipped west of the Rhine before the Migration Age, a modern Latinization following historical patterns will always produce different results depending on who’s doing it. This is my version, yours may be different and that’s okay.
3. Wreath, bell and hazel
The three ritual tools require an explanation, so as to make sense of why I included them and their meaning. The wreath is the simplest: following the precedent of the ritus Graecus, which adds a few Greek or Greek inspired elements to what is essentially a Roman rite, I wanted to replace the head covering with a garland. A good Norse option would be pine, not only because of its symbolic connection with life, virility and immortality, but also due to the reference to twigs used to sprinkle sacrificial blood in chapter 14 of Hákonar saga Góða. But I also wanted the rite to be practical and since pine isn’t available everywhere, nor does it last long, I opted for wheat. Which is also highly symbolic, both as a symbol of prosperity (well within Freyr’s realm) and of sacrifice, since it was and remains one of the most basic offerings to the Gods. Plus, you can get sheaves of wheat in a flower shop and they’ll last for many years.
The bell is derived from a passage in Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum, Book 6, where a character named Starkather witnesses the heathen sacrifices at Uppsala and is shocked or disgusted by effeminate body movements (effeminatos corporum motus) and the gentle clatter of bells (mollia nolarum crepitacula). This is in many ways a problematic piece of text, since Saxo is far from being the ideal source due to his religious agenda and what appears to be a very liberal treatment of Old Norse sources he never clearly identifies. So there are no certainties on the actual validity of the description of what seem to be theatrical performances during the Uppsala sacrifices. That said, effeminacy would not be out of place in a cult of the Vanir and assuming Saxo’s description has anything to do with Freyr: think of Freya’s lustfulness, which is appropriate for a love goddess and made very clear by Loki in stanza 30 of Lokasenna; think of incest, which Loki accuses Njord of committing (Lokasenna 36) and is a Vanic custom in chapter 4 of Ynglinga saga; and think of how seiðr brought accusations of sexual ambiguity or homosexuality if practiced by men. These are things of the Vanir, so it’s not a long stretch to imagine that their cult should include an element of “womanish body movements”. And if you’re not sure, because for some reason the Norsemen had to be all machos, consider chapter 43 of Germania: the Naharvali honoured gods named Alci, whom Tacitus identifies with the Dioscuri, and their priest wore a female dress. Cross-dressing, it seems, was not outside the religious practices of the Germanic tribes.
Of course, none of this proves that there’s any truth in Saxo’s “tinkling of bells”, let alone that it’s connected to Freyr, so ultimately, the inclusion of the bell was a choice of mine. I’ve been using one during my morning prayers to the Vanir for several years now, so it was a natural addition to mark different stages of the rite.
As for the hazel wand, it’s based on several references in the sagas to hazel poles or höslur being used to mark hallowed ground or peace enclosures. For instance, in chapter 56 of Egils saga, a court of law gathers inside an area marked out by sacred ropes and hazel poles. And in chapter 10 of Kormáks saga, the poles are used to limit the area where a duel is to take place. It was, in order words, a type wood used to set aside, to consecrate or hallow. Which is why I use a hazel wand to make the offerings sacred, i.e. property of the gods and thus set them apart from the mundane world.
4. The flow of it
What is the purpose of the rite? To formalize a transfer of goods between humans and gods. It is the protocol by which something is given or shared and something asked for in return, thus nurturing bonds and ensuring pax deorum. Hence, as in any formal ceremony, there’s an initial call to silence and setting of things in place, just as there’s a gesture of gratitude and departure at the end. And in-between, the purpose of the ceremony is stated, its players are introduced and welcomed and offerings are exchanged. When only small portions are offered, they’re set apart from the human world by being destroyed through fire, thrown into the water, damaged or poured. But when there’s a more obvious element of commensality, in which you partake of what is offered to the Gods, the entire offering cannot be disposed of permanently. It must be marked out as sacred, yes, but in a manner that can be reversed once the deity has received a portion. Hence the salted flour and the hazel wand, used to make something property of the Gods, followed at a later stage by a profanation that returns part of the offering to the human world. This is mentioned in Cato’s De Agricultura 132 and thus one receives food from the deity, eats at His/Her table or shares a meal with Him/Her. There’s an exception to this: offerings given to infernal gods are entirely theirs and must never be shared. What belongs to the dead is not meant for the living. And because the Gods are not mere archetypes, but individual entities with a will of their own, one can never assume that what was given was simply accepted. Divine (dis)satisfaction must be made clear through divination or, at the very least, an expiatory offering must be made to ensure the Gods’ contentment. It’s not that they’re out to get you, but it is a matter of basic courtesy.
BRINK, Stefan. 2007. “How uniform was the Old Norse religion?” in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World, eds. J. Quinn et al. Medieval texts and cultures of northern Europe 18, Turnhout: Brepols, pages 105-136.
_________ 2008. Lord and Lady – Bryti and Deigja. London: University College London.
GREEN, D. H. 1998. Language and History in the Early Germanic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
GREEN, C. M. C. 2007. Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
PRICE, Neil. 2010. “Sorcery and Circumpolar Traditions in Old Norse Belief” in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price, 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge, pages 244-248.
SHEID, John. 2003. An Introduction to Roman Religion, trans. Janet Lloyd. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
SIMEK, Rudolf. 2000. Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall, 3rd edition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
SONNE, Lasse C. A. 2014. “The Origin of the Seven-day Week in Scandinavia. Part 1: The Theophoric Day-names” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 10, eds. Russel Poole et al. Turnhout: Brepols, pages 187-209.