Unwanted preservation

Another still wanted to call himself Mercury, the inventor of all theft and all deceit, to whom greedy men offer sacrifices, as if he was the god of profit, forming heaps of rocks when passing through crossroads. (De Correctione Rusticorum, 7)

So wrote Saint Martin of Dume in the second half of the 6th century. Of course, he meant it as a condemnation of pre-Christian practices, though how far they were prevalent in northwest Iberia at the time is unclear. But as so often happens, when writing about what you think people shouldn’t do, you end up preserving the memory of it, thus offering the possibility of resumption of those practices later on. Which is exactly the case here: the text gives a clear account of road-side rock piles as a form of tribute to Mercury and so I do just that. As in the photo above, where you can see a cairn I erected yesterday next to a crossroad. Thank you, Saint Martin!

Also, if you’re a heathen and you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed how his description of Mercury resembles that of Loki in Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning 34, where Laufey’s son is called the “originator of deceits” (Faulkes’ translation). Pretty much in line with the character of the Greek Hermes, who’s described in his Homeric hymn as “very crafty” and “thief”, even “Prince of Thieves”, though that didn’t make Him any less godly or unworthy of worship. It did, however, make Him more prone to comparisons with the deceiver-in-chief of the Judeo-Christian tradition – aka, the devil – and you see some of that in Saint Martin’s words. I’m not saying that Hermes and Loki are the same god – it’s not something I believe in – but their resemblances, both in traits and the way they were treated by Christian authors, should be taken into consideration before arguing that Laufey’s son isn’t to be worshipped because He’s a liar.


A travelling Freya?

Last Sunday, May 1st, was the Dominalia, my annual feast to Freya. After ritually burning the usual offerings to Janus, Juno and my Lares, as is customary on the Calends, I prepared a new fire for the ritus aprinus. Practice makes perfect, so it went better then my first attempts, and I offered the Vanadís small portions of homemade caramel, barley, cinnamon and cherry liquor, plus libations of wine to Her and Her family. I also asked Her to bless a small bowl of flowers mixed with barley, which I took with me in the afternoon and casted on a farm field and a seaside hill top on my way to the beach. And then at some point, my mind produced a question I had not yet considered: is Freya a Lady of Roads or Travellers?

Freya 08

There’s certainly no obvious reference to it in the surviving lore, where She’s presented as a goddess of love and sex, wealth and beauty, seiðr and war. Her connection to the boar, both in stanza 7 of Hyndluljóð and in the name Sýr or Sow, which is listed in Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning 35 and Skáldskaparmál 75), points to that triple nature: swines are symbols of fertility, prosperity and, in the case of the boar, of military valour. Which also gives substance to the occasional allusions to Freyr’s warrior side, though that tends to be ignored due to an anachronistic use of the three functions theory, a simplistic equation of friðr with “peace” and a focus on more obvious deities of conflict. Anyway, while there’s no reference to Freya as a goddess of roads and travellers, there are a few hints in the lore that may suggest or, at the very least, give some traditional basis for a modern development of that aspect of Hers.

The clearest clue is Her connection to Odin, whose role as a wanderer is well established. It is said that they share the fallen ones on the battlefield (Grímnismál 14), that She taugh seiðr to the Aesir (Ynglinga saga 4) – thus presumably explaining Odin’s expertise and Loki’s accusation of unmanliness in Lokasenna 24 – and Her husband is said to be an obscure god named Óðr (Gylfaginning 35 and Skáldskaparmál 20), which is the root of the name Odin or Óðinn in Old Norse. And like the One-Eyed Himself, Freya too is said to have wandered through the world, though not in search of knowledge, but Her loved one (Gylfaginning 35). Also, Her falcon cloak is one of the tools used by Loki to travel to Jötunheim, in what is no doubt an allusion to spirit journeys, but journeys nonetheless. It should be pointed out that elsewhere in ancient Europe, gods of roads and travellers were also connecters of worlds, like the psychopompic Hermes or the oracular Apollo. And then there’s Mardöll, one of Freya’s several names listed in Gylfaginning 35 and whose meaning is disputed, though one interpretation is something like “sea light” (marr and dallr), which could be anything from a lighthouse to a star. There are actually modern polytheists who see in Mardöll a goddess who aids or rescues sailors, which is hardly surprising if you consider who Freya’s father is.

Now, again, none of this is an obvious reference to a side of Hers as a goddess of travellers, be it on land or sea. But religion is not static – unless it’s a dead one – so at the very least, there’s enough material to place the possibility and explore it in modern polytheism. On that note, I honestly don’t know if others, heathens or devotees of Freya, have thought about it, but if not, consider this a heads-up. Granted, I may be looking at it from the perspective of a Roman polytheist, which probably explains why I thought of Hermes and Apollo a few lines above. But that too is nothing new in the world of ancient religions, since there was plenty of cultural exchange and reinterpretation between the Latin and Germanic worlds along the Rhine a few thousand years ago. No reason why it shouldn’t be so today and new aspects of the gods shouldn’t be explored.

And no, I’m not thinking about pairing Freya with Mercury as queen and king of byways, if nothing else because I’m already exploring a similar possibility with Ilurbeda. Of course, there is something mercurial to all of this, in that if I’m putting something new on the table, it’s perhaps no surprise that a Mercury devotee noticed Freya’s potential for a goddess of roads and travellers. So at the very least, I may take it up as a task of sorts and yet another case of “liminaling”.

There’s another classical parallel that can be made here: in southern Europe, deities of magic can also preside over travellers and roads. Hermes/Mercury again is a clear example, but so is Hecate. And similarly to both of them, Freya too is a psychopomp, even if specifically tied to the battlefield.

Notes on the ritus aprinus

So it seems my Latinized rite has generated a bit of bitter debate in some heathen circles. Normally, I’d let it be, as I have no intention of pleasing everyone, but in the words of a Terry Pratchett character, the best way to get something done is to give it to someone who’s busy. And since I’m writing a book on Norse mythology (yes, I have formal education on the subject), a paper on the same topic, my first article on Polytheist.com (yes, I’ll be joining the fold) and a book chapter on Vikings in the Iberian Peninsula (also formally educated and a PhD on the matter), I decided to write four notes on the boar rite. Not so much to convince the critics – some people are beyond that – but to clarify my ideas and options, as well as a few details, which may seem puzzling or obscure.

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.

ADKINS, Lesley and Roy. 2000. Dictionary of Roman Religion, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

I wonder…

Ullr genealogy

Let me be clear: though there are suggestions of a connection between Freyr and Ullr in academic circles, the above genealogical table has absolutely no academic value! It is purely based on a dream and some subsequent thinking. It’s meant for modern religious consumption only, though it’s not even remotely clear if it has any value whatsoever as modern lore. Still, there you have it and there’s more going through my mind as I write this. As if I didn’t have enough topics to brainstorm on.

Dreaming of half siblings

At the start of this month, I had an idea for my Freyr shrine that involved redecorating and expanding it to include up to five statues, in essence making it a place where I can concentrate the northern part of my religious practices, which has been expanding from a few Vanir to a more diverse group of deities. Not sure if it’s just me feeling more secure about it and therefore less hesitant about increasing the number of Norse gods in my domestic pantheon or if it’s like opening a floodgate and once you start Latinizing one of them, you end up having others in line.

In any case, since the shrine has been Freyr’s for over a decade now, I naturally want to preserve his focal status. This means that his statue should be at the centre and on a higher level than all the others, but it also amounts to making a new and smaller image of Freyr, as the current one is too big for a shelf that may house as many as five. Currently, the other gods I’m considering are Freya and Njord, which shouldn’t be a problem, plus Thor and Ullr. The former has been under consideration for some time now, but the latter is an old soft-spot of mine who has so far remained outside my practices. That may change in the near future and I wonder if there’s an element of intra-divine relationships to it, for if my devotion to Freyr brought his father and sister into my domestic pantheon, it is perhaps unsurprising that worshiping Thor results in his stepson stepping in.

So, in order to know if I have his approval for all of this, for the past few days I’ve been asking Freyr if He is willing to share his shrine with the aforementioned deities and if a centre-stage position is agreeable to Him. And for the past two nights, I’ve been having dreams about clay statues of the gods breaking or falling apart, which could be my mind fabricating things out of current thoughts or it may have a meaning that I’m not yet sure about. Tonight’s however was an exceptionally intriguing dream, because it included a piece of information that’s not in the known lore: that Ullr is Freyr’s half-brother.

I did not see that one coming! Is there anyone out there with a similar UPG?

If you narrow it, you miss it

There’s been some online discussion on multiple aspects of reconstructed or revived forms of ancient polytheism. It started with Galina Krasskova’s piece on modern Heathenry, which generated a debate in the comments section. Edward Butler added more thoughts on the matter on Twitter, followed by Galina’s own further considerations and Sarenth’s take on what it means to place the Gods first.

Many excellent points have already been made in this discussion, some of which I can relate to personally. Among modern Roman polytheists, there are some who harbour a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, for anything that goes too much into personal religion and instead expect individuals to deal with the Gods in the same emotionally sanitized way as a public cult. They’d argue there can be no personal devotion or patronage, because that’s either monotheistic baggage or a form of superstition, i.e. the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession. Or so those modern cultores claim, but their reasoning is flawed, because it is based on the assumption that we have all the information on ancient Roman experiences of religion. We don’t! We have a sample of what some in the elites thought, but not a full range of views and even less so when we consider the lower classes. And most of the information refers to public religion, which is naturally formal and emotionally neutral, because that’s how things are when one deals with an institution. What those modern cultores do is to assume that what was valid for the State should be equally valid for the individual. In other words, they take data on part of the ancient Roman religion and assume it for the whole, so if public cults were emotionally sanitized, that should also be the case with individuals in their daily dealings with the Gods. It’s what happens when you try to revive an ancient religion on which you have only partial and poorly diverse information and fail to consider the full range of human experiences: you mistake the part for the whole. And you screw it big time as a result. Especially when the sources still give you glimpses of personal religion and individual devotion towards specific gods: Augustus took Apollo as his patron, Domitian was a devotee of Minerva, Apuleius went everywhere with a figurine of Mercury.

Now, I’ve addressed this topic more extensively in another post, so I’m not going to expand on it today. Instead, I’d like to briefly address something else brought up recently when Galina shared this post in which Nicholas Haney claims that he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead. And that, I’d argue, is misreading the notion of god in polytheism.

What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Check what ancient polytheists left us: Romans called the deceased Di Manes or Divine Dead; the god Silvanus is in one occasion called Lar Agrestis (CIL VI 646), even though the word Lar was also used for one’s ancestors (the Family Lares) and spirits of the roads (the Lares Viales); in England, one inscription addresses a Dea Nympha Brigantia or the Goddess Nymph Brigantia (CIL VII 875), while another mentions a Deus Genius Choguncis or God Genius Choguncio (RIB 119). Which shows that the divine status was not restricted to a specific group of higher beings. Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview. So just as in the former you have god at the top followed by strata of non-gods (angels, saints, prophets, etc.), in the latter you end up with multiple gods on the top followed by non-gods (landwights, nymphs, elves, dísir, ancestors, etc.). In other words, it amounts to organizing a polytheistic pantheon according to monotheistic standards. Yet polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. It has its own set of theological rules and dynamics, because divine diversity and multiplicity have theological consequences. Focusing on landwights and ancestors is being god-centric too, because landwights and ancestors are gods as well. Minor, local, family or tribal ones, but gods nonetheless. And I’m not the first person to say this: back in 2010, Cara Schulz addressed the same issue in a post called Regulating the Gods: A Hellenist on Hubris. Go and read it, people. Seriously! We live in a society where religious discourse is dominated by monotheistic assumptions, but if we want to understand and revive ancient religions in today’s world, we need to understand them on their own terms and, through that process, deeply review today’s conventional wisdom on religious issues. And that means confronting and ultimately dropping ideas like landwights not being gods or, for that matter, Heathenry or Roman polytheism being defined as a “faith”. I know it’s not always easy to do this sort of mental work. I’ve been through the experience multiple times and question my own assumptions often. But it needs to be done if we’re serious about reviving ancient religions in the modern world. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods.

In America as in Scandinavia

Long story short, when the Europeans navigated along and settled in the African continent, they came across native religions, which were then taken to America via the slave trade. Ògún, Osun or Yémojá, these are African gods worshipped throughout today’s American continent under variations of their names. Another one of those deities is Eshu, whom the Europeans saw as the devil. Well, they considered any non-Christian god the devil, but Eshu was so in a particular fashion. Why? Because He’s a trickster, a prankster, indecent, playful, astute, sly, provocative and sensual. He basically ticks almost all of the satanic boxes. Yet Eshu is an African god of crossroads, movement and communication, which is why He’s often given the first offerings in African-Brazilian ceremonies, so that all other offerings flow and reach the other Gods. And this is no surprise if you think that He’s… well, a trickster.

See, tricksters are usually subversive figures. They’re transgressors who have the ability to move freely through geographical, social, moral and even sexual boundaries. That’s why sometimes they’re also deities of creativity, because they excel at thinking outside the box and breaking with the routine. It’s creative chaos, baby. They make things move, make things flow. Idleness is not their thing, movement is! Fluidity, an offshoot of which is slyness, is the cornerstone of the trickster. Because what is fluid is not fixed and can therefore assume whatever shape is necessary to get things done, to get things going. And that’s what Eshu is: movement, fluidity, creative chaos. That’s also the case with Hermes, the divine messenger, god of trade and thievery, inventor, prankster, father of Hermaphroditus, the one who can enter and leave the Underworld freely. And that’s also the case with Loki, the trickster who often travels from one world to another, the bringer of gifts via chaotic pranks, father and also mother.

Why am I writing this? Because too many modern heathens do to Loki what Europeans did to Eshu: they equate Him with the devil! Which is ironic, since one would expect polytheists to be a lot more open-minded and avoid the simplistic view of good against evil that is so common in monotheism. But though ironic, this is not unexpected. For one, because many modern heathens had a Christian upbringing or live in a society where Christian philosophy is pervasive. And secondly, because too many Norse polytheists take the Eddas at face value; even worst, some will read them like a Bible. And that’s just wrong! Plain and simply wrong! As wrong as saying Loki is evil and should not be worshiped.

Loki by Hellanim

Loki by Hellanim

The thing about knowing how Europeans saw Eshu is that it gives you a clue as to how Norse Christians saw Loki. How could a sly prankster who does not conform to social norms on morality and sexuality be anything but a Satan-like figure? How could He not be confused, identified or influenced by tales about the Christian devil? And as such, how could He be anything but the devilish enemy of the Gods in the eddic poems or Snorri’s work? Ever wondered why his binding until the end of the world resembles that of Satan?

If by now you’re thinking that the Eddas contain genuine pagan myths and therefore what they say are pagan views on Loki, think again! What we know as the Poetic Edda and Snorra Edda were written roughly two hundred years after Scandinavia became officially Christian. The tales they contain are certainly rooted in pagan traditions, but the form those narratives have today were fixed no earlier than the 1200s. This means that what we have are stories that were transmitted during two hundred years of Christian dominance. They were told at a time when monotheistic theology was preached at every mass, people prayed to the Christian god on a daily basis and organized their lives around Christian thinking and practice. By the time the Eddas we have today were written down, this would have been going on for two hundred years or more. And every time a story is told, it is adapted by its narrator. Not sure about that? Then go ahead and open your copy of the Poetic Edda: the two poems on Helgi Hundingsbani are essentially two versions of the same tale; the lays on Sigurd’s adventures do not match entirely with the narrative of the slightly later Völsunga saga (and Carolyne Larrigton’s notes make that abundantly clear); Grimnismál speaks simultaneously of one hart eating from Yggdrasill’s branches (stanza 35) and four such animals (stanza 33), suggesting that either there were different traditions or that someone added an innovating stanza without eliminating the older version. These things happen because tales are fluid. They’re fluid when committed to writing and even more so when committed to memory by word of mouth. Every time they’re told, two things happen: one is conservation, in that the narrator is not creating a brand new story, but passing down an old one; but the other is innovation, in that by telling the story, one opens it to influences and changes by the narrator or his audience. And after two hundred years of that process in a Christian context, don’t expect the myths to be accurate renderings of pre-Christian tales. The Eddas are not an Old Norse Bible! They are fragments of pagan traditions that were last transmitted and adapted by Christian authors roughly two centuries after Scandinavia’s official conversion. They contain multiple pagan elements, yes, because conservation is one of the dynamics in the passing down of traditional stories. But there’s also innovation in them, a lot of it derived from Christian thinking and classical traditions. They’re not accurate accounts of the Gods’ deeds and most certainly not Their word!

So to claim that Loki is a devil or evil being unworthy of worship because of what the Eddas say is as ridiculous as claiming that Eshu should not be worshipped because Christians saw Him as the devil. Both gods were reinterpreted from a Christian perspective, which naturally painted them in very dark tones. Know your sources, people! And by that I’m not saying you should memorize them so you can quote them like Evangelicals often quote the Bible (though that is a useful tool). When I say you should know your sources, I mean you should keep in mind when, where and who wrote them. Time, place and the author’s beliefs are not indifferent: they shape what is written. Imagine what two hundred years or more of that in a Christian society must have done to the Norse pagan trickster.