Fifth High Day Recap: Lammas

Home shrine with Lammas bread and honey ale. Photo by me

Home shrine with Lammas bread and honey ale. Photo by me

As the name Lammas comes from the Anglo-Saxon feast of “Loaf-mass” and has connections to Hlafmaest, the Norse feast of loaves, it seemed appropriate to bake bread to celebrate the day. I celebrated the day with my lovely other half, and we baked a loaf of pumpkin seed bread (which was delicious).

The ritual was held at our home shrine as always, and was one I wrote myself based on the work of Michael J. Dangler, and the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I like simplicity in ritual, so I kept the essential features of the ADF Core Order of Ritual, but cut a lot of the “optional” steps. The gatekeeper was Ratatosk, the squirrel of Ygdrassil, and the three kindred were hailed with ale.

The rite was held in honour of Thor and his wife Sif. Some myths suggest that Thor and Sif were married at this time of year, which was the time of the great Thing (part civil meeting, part harvest festival). Sif has associations with being a grain/fertility goddess due to her hair, “golden as the fields of wheat”, and Thor can be seen in his Thunderer role as bringing the late summer rains that ripen the crops, so together they fit a harvest festival well.

The main offerings were honey-ale for Thor and the first slice of our home-baked bread for Sif. The bread was later taken and scattered outside around the four corners of the home, a traditional Anglo-Saxon custom of blessing for good harvests ahead.

The omen was taken by Ogham (since I don’t yet have a rune set), and the general overview was one of new beginnings, strength and movement, which I took to be a very positive outcome.

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Heathens Against Hate

Image by Karl E.H. Seigfired from norsemyth.org

Image by Karl E.H. Seigfired from norsemyth.org

Iceland Magazine recently published a great interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the leader of Ásatrúarfélagid, the Icelandic Asatru association, described as “the fastest-growing religion in Iceland”. Asatru is now the sixth largest religion in Iceland, and the largest non-Christian religion. It has grown by over 600% since 2000, and is currently building the first pagan temple in Scandinavia for over a thousand years.

I’ve mentioned my admiration of Ásatrúarfélagid , and Hilmar, before, especially in relation to their openness to non-literal approaches to heathenry and their stalwart support of the LGBT community and marriage equality.

The Iceland Magazine interview goes into more detail, especially about Hilmar’s reaction and the global response to the recent hate-mail Ásatrúarfélagid received from conservative right-wing heathens in the US and other countries, who threatened to come to Iceland and “reconsecrate” the temple with blood rituals (Asatruarfelagid, like ADF, explicitly forbid animal sacrifice in their rites).

Icelandic Asatru seems not to be all about the “viking warrior” bravado that one sometimes sees online. Hilmar said:

Ásatrú is not a religion which celebrates machismo, militarism, or bloodshed, contrary to what many seem to believe…This misreading of Ásatrú comes from the fact that many seem to view it through the lens of 19th-century German nationalism.

He also spoke about the non-literal interpretation of the myths espoused by Ásatrúarfélagid :

I have said I do not believe in a one-eyed man, riding an eight-legged horse, and some consider this blasphemy. There are always people who want things to be set in stone. But the Poetic Edda is fundamentally about how life changes, and how you must be prepared to respond to the changes it brings.

It’s a short little piece, but a very nice and well-balanced article that shows Asatru in a very positive light. As always when I read about these guys, I wish I lived in Iceland!

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Book Review: The Gospel of Loki

the-gospel-of-loki-joanne-harris-gollancz-628x953Joanne Harris’ Gospel of Loki is a more-or-less faithful account of the major Norse myths, from the frankly weird creation story involving a primal cow called Audhumbla, to the last battle of Ragnarok. The difference is that here, the stories are all seen through a being usually viewed as the villain of the piece: the Trickster God Loki.

Referring to himself as “Yours truly, your humble narrator, otherwise known as the Trickster, the Father of Lies, Loki, Lucky, Wildfire, Dogstar and various other epithets, not all of them flattering”, Loki declares himself fed up with how he’s portrayed in Odin’s “Authorised Version” of the myths, which cast him in a “rather unflattering light”.

So he sets out to tell his own story: the Lokabrenna, the Gospel of Loki, the moral of which basically boils down to “don’t trust anybody”.

Loki is at turns sarcastic, arrogant, selfish, conniving and full of morose self-pity and emotions even he cannot understand as he spins his yarn, portraying himself as a tragic hero and the real catalyst behind practically every event of importance at Asgard. Harris creates a brilliantly witty and dryly comic figure in her Loki, the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Pulled from Chaos by Odin and used as Asgard’s special agent (with plausible deniability built in), Loki goes from a wild-eyed and ultimately well-intentioned mischief-maker to an angry, bitter enemy of the Aesir, with a “ball of barbed wire” in his heart.

Loki is not a likeable character, by any means. His schemes often hurt innocent people and he seems indifferent to anyone’s suffering but his own. Yet Harris somehow manages to make the reader like him despite (or because of) his utter amorality.

To be fair, none of the other gods are shown as being particularly likeable either. Odin is just as scheming as Loki, Thor is brash and boorish, Freya is vain and so on. In fact, this is one of the things I love about this book: the Aesir and Vanir, and all the supporting cast of frost giants, dwarves, humans and others are flawed characters. There is no clear “good” or “evil” and by the time you get to Ragnarok at the end of the book, I honestly had no idea whose side I was meant to be on, if anyone’s.

I don’t want to give much away, but I definitely recommend The Gospel of Loki to anyone with even a passing interest in Norse mythology. Darkly comic, it speeds along at a brisk pace and really engages the reader in Loki’s version of events.

For Norse pagans and Heathens, this book can be seen as another version of the myths from the Eddas, a modern take on the old tales which makes them vivid and vital once again, and brings them to life for a new audience. And whatever your views on Loki himself, that’s got to be a good thing!

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Fifth High Day: Lammas

Lammas, not Llamas! Image from Google.

Llamas, not Lammas. Image from Google.

The August “cross-quarter” High Day is often known as either Lammas or Lughnasadh. While the two terms are used interchangeably in neo-paganism, they are not generally considered to be related.

Lughnasadh is the Irish name for the festival, held in honour of the god Lugh and his foster-mother Tailtiu. The festival is one of the great “Fire Festivals” of the Celtic year and is often celebrated with bonfires, the ashes of which would be used to bless the fields and give thanks to Tailtiu, who died after clearing the plains of Ireland for agricultural crops. The festival has a harvest theme, and celebrates the abundance of the fields. As Lugh is referred to as “many-skilled” it is also a time for sports and games of skill and strength.

The name Lammas refers to the Anglo-Saxon festival of “Loaf-mass” that was also held around this time. The first loaves of bread from the Summer’s grain harvest were baked and blessed at this time, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Lammas as the festival of “first fruits”. Hutton writes that the festival is very likely pre-Christian in origin and was celebrated “in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon and Norse Britain”. While etymologically unconnected with Lughnasadh, Lammas is also a great harvest festival, a time for coming together and sharing the bounty of nature and hard work.

In some Asatru sources, this time of year is also the festival of Freyfaxi, dedicated to the god Freyr, who as one of the Vanir can be seen as a god of nature, of fertility and the harvest cycle. ADF states that this was also the time of “Thingstide, also known as Hlafmaest” and was the time of the great Thing, a gathering of the people to discuss matters and to share fellowship.

In all cases, the festival is associated with the general concept of the harvest, and is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and the farmers who labour in the fields to provide it.

Harvest. Image from Pixabay (CC3.0)

Harvest. Image from Pixabay (CC3.0)

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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Second Book Started: Modern Paganism

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Having finished the first required book for the ADF Dedicant Path, on the topic of Indo-European Studies, it’s time to move on to the next.

The second topic to study is Modern Paganism. Michael J. Dangler writes that “the main idea is to help you understand where Neo-Paganism has been, because you will be part of where it is going through your work in ADF”.

The book I’ve chosen for this topic is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton. I’ve read some of Hutton’s works before, and highly recommend them, especially The Druids and The Stations of the Sun. Hutton is an academic historian at the University of Bristol with a deep interest in modern and ancient paganism and how it interacts with culture.

The book’s focus is British Wicca, and the reason I’ve chosen it from the reading list is that many of the other books focus on American pagan movements, which are not as relevant to me here in the UK. While I am not Wiccan, Wicca is the source of much of modern paganism, and its ideas and symbolism have percolated popular culture to an astonishing extent. Yet some of it is rooted in outdated scholarship and debunked theories of witch-cults and goddess-worshipping matriarchies.

According to Our Own Druidry, Hutton’s book “serves as a counter-balance to much of the information and theories that are likely to be encountered when reviewing Neo-Paganism in general”.

So, I just need to finish Joanne Harris’ Gospel of Loki, which is brilliant by the way (srsly go read it!), and then I’m going to work through this.

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Non-literal heathenry

Himar Orn Himarsson leads an Asatru procession. Image from humanistic paganism.

Himar Orn Himarsson leads an Asatru procession. Image from humanistic paganism.

So there’s often a lot of talk in some (usually American) pagan and heathen circles that a literal, “hard” polytheism is the natural, proper or even only way to be a “real” heathen. The belief in literal gods existing out there somewhere and acting on the world through some supernatural force, often confidently asserted without any compelling evidence, seems to me to be quite naive and does not fit with a modern, scientific understanding of the world.

Sure, our ancestors probably thought that, but our knowledge has moved on. I don’t see paganism or heathenry as an attempt to go back in time and ignore centuries of scientific (or moral) progress. It’s inspired by the past, but not enslaved by it.

For some, this difference of opinion is enough to cast damning vitriol on humanistic/naturalistic pagans and heathens, calling us “peddlers of garbage” and accusing us of “blasphemy” or “poison”. Those are all quotes from real internet comments, by the way and no, I won’t link to them.

However, I am not alone in holding to a non-literal form of heathenry. When I was looking at the recent hate mail Asatruarfelagid have been recieving from US far-right heathen groups who oppose their blessing of same-sex marriage (now overpowered by a wave of support I’m happy to say), I was reminded of something else I like about their approach.

In an interview earlier this year, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the chief priest of Asatruarfelagid, stated that:

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

This brought about the inevitable over the top backlash from some hard-polytheist heathens, who wrote about how “disgusted” they were that Asatruarfelagid had “sh*t on our faith”, but this goes to show that a leading figure in arguably the world’s most successful heathen religion (hey, they’re the only ones to have overwhelming popular approval and the first heathen temple in over 1,000 years), can hold to a non-literal, metaphoric belief about the gods.

Hilmar’s view is very, very close to my own and if he can be a non-literalist heathen, then so can I! You don’t have to believe the myths and the gods are “really true” in order to see value, beauty and meaning in them.

I’m not one to tell people what to believe and if you want to be a literalist polytheist, if that makes sense to you, then good for you (but please don’t denigrate those who aren’t), but it is reassuring to see prominent pagan and heathen leaders show that there is another way to interpret the myths of the gods in a heathen context.

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“Humanistic Heathens defend their support of marriage equality” by John Halstead

Ryan:

Their LGBT positivity is of many reasons why I love the Icelandic Asatruarfelagid. It saddens me that other Asatru groups could be so closed-minded and fundamentalist as to send them hate mail.

Originally posted on Humanistic Paganism:

This past February, I shared a report that an Icelandic Heathen group, Ásatrúarfélagið, also known as the Ásatrú Society of Iceland, was building the first pagan temple in that country in 1000 years.  The report was of interest to Humanistic Pagans, because the high priest of the group, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, had been criticized by both theists and atheists — including some Pagans — in the U.S. for his statement that the the gods are “poetic metaphors” and “manifestations of the forces of nature and human psychology,” a sentiment which resonates with many Humanistic Pagans.  This was something of an embarrassment for some of the more dogmatic Polytheists in the U.S.  Some further investigation revealed Ásatrúarfélagið is a non-dogmatic faith, and that the beliefs of its adherents may range from atheism to pantheism to a tepid sort of theism.  It was clear though that the group’s high priest, Hilmarsson, wished…

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