Third book review: Hearth Culture

Image from goodreads.

Image from goodreads.

Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964.

The book I chose for the Hearth Culture requirement is Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson. Written in 1964, this book is still one of the most-read academic surveys of Northern European religion and mythology today.

Davidson, a 20th century antiquarian and lecturer at Cambridge, sets out to not only provide a concise and detailed survey of the Northern European Pagan gods and myths, but to draw together common themes, such as “the gods of battle”, “the gods of peace and plenty” and “the gods of the dead” in order to understand the cultural and religious context of the Northern myths.

Davidson writes: “The mythology of a people is far more than a collection of pretty or terrifying fables to be retold in carefully bowdlerized form to our schoolchildren. It is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilization on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons their perception of the inner realities.”

Davidson sets out to bring together the various poems and sagas that make up the myths of Northern Europe, here defined as the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Davidson’s thematic sections present a very comprehensive survey of each of the Norse gods and their main myths and associations as well as the religious observances by which people worshipped them.

A review from the Heathen journal Odroerir says: “The strength of this book and the main reason for its popularity is that Davidson has been able to create an overview of the gods as they appear in myth, and how they were worshiped. She manages to bring the two together to form a picture of heathen belief and religion from a serious approach, in a lively and easy to read manner.”

Davidson writes in an approachable yet academic style and presents a generally well-balanced historic view of the development of both mythos and cultus in Northern European religion from around the time of the fall of Rome to the conversion of the Northern countries to Christianity, as late as 1000 CE in Iceland.

Davidson’s work is of its time, and sometimes this shows through, especially in the final chapter where she discusses the “passing of the old gods” and the adoption of Christianity. At times, Davidson sounds uncomfortably triumphalisitic, glossing over forced conversions and conflict, and suggesting that people flocked to the new faith because “the old faith could no longer offer men what they needed” and “the Christian conception of the relationship between God and man was immeasurably richer and deeper”.

Despite this, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is an excellent introduction to the world of the Norse myths and presents both the stories of the gods and the religious practices of the people in an accessible and engaging way, drawing parallels and suggesting lessons we can learn from these old tales for today, which make the book a useful addition to any modern Pagan’s collection.

References:

Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964.

Odroerir, “Book reviews: Gods and Myths of Northern Europe” [Online: retrieved from: http://odroerirjournal.com/gods-and-myths-of-northern-europe/ 27/03/2016].

 

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Nine Virtues: Hospitality

The Dedicant Handbook, Our Own Druidry, defines hospitality as “Acting as both a gracious host and an appreciative guest, involving benevolence, friendliness, humour and the honouring of a gift for a gift”. The Oxford Dictionary online defines it as “the friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors and strangers”.

Michael J. Dangler points out that the word “hospitality” comes from the same root as both “guest” and “host”: the proto-Indo European word *ghos-ti. The * denotes that the word is reconstructed by linguists and not attested to in literature or archaeology. The word *ghos-ti has been adopted in ADF for the central concept of a reciprocal guest-host relationship. This relationship is central to the format of ADF ritual and ethics.

Hospitality was universally recognised as a virtue in pre-Christian Pagan cultures around the world. In many cases, hospitality was essential for survival, especially for the poor, hungry or those travelling afar. Hospitality, the sharing of food, shelter and comfort, was reciprocal, either directly or via reputation. It was expected that a gift be repaid with a future gift, and people known to be generous and hospitable were much more likely to also receive hospitality when they were in need.

Alyxander Folmer writes that “The ancient Norse and Germanic tribes had a strong ethic of Hospitality, which eventually permeated almost all aspects of those cultures. The idea of Hospitality came to influence their politics and religion just as much as it shaped their day-to-day lives. The concept encompassed personal generosity, reciprocity, and even what we today might term “social justice”. By the end of the Viking Era, this had become a highly ritualized practice and a core part of the their worldview”.

Hospitality depends on being both a generous host and a good guest, knowing not to take too much or over-stay your welcome. The Havamal has several stanzas relating to the virtue of hospitality, including:

Image from Hugin's Heathen Hof.

Image from Hugin’s Heathen Hof.

Hospitality today seems devalued in modern society, especially when it comes to people on the margins such as the homeless and refugees. While I don’t believe we need to open our homes to people we don’t know, the virtue of hospitality should make us think about donating money and food to shelters and food banks, and, on a political level, should make us consider how we treat immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Hospitality also should extend to our relationships with the other-than-human community and with the land itself. Are we being good guests on the Earth, taking only what we need and sharing resources fairly? Are we hospitable to the wildlife with whom we share our space, by feeding the birds and leaving wild areas in our gardens for hedgehogs, snakes and other creatures?

The virtue of hospitality reminds us that we are not isolated individuals, but are constantly in relationship with other people, with nature and with the planet itself. Living this virtue means striving to make those relationships generous, friendly and beneficial.

References:

ADF, Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009.

Dangler, Michael J. The Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010.

Folmer, Alyxander. Wyrd Words: Pagan Ethics and Odin’s Rites of Hospitality. 2014 [Online: retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2014/07/wyrd-words-pagan-ethics-and-odins-rites-of-hospitality/, 17/01/2016]

 

Third book started: Hearth Culture

Image from goodreads.

Image from goodreads.

As well as reading about Indo-European studies and Modern Paganism, the DP requires you to study one particular “hearth culture”. I decided a while back on exploring the Norse hearth culture for my DP, and so the book I have chosen for this requirement is Gods and Myths of Northen Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson.

Davidson was an antiquarian and academic writing in the mid-20th century and is noted as having contributed greatly to modern studies of Norse mythology. The book is a survey of the pre-Christian beliefs of Germanic and Scandinavian Pagans, and also provides a detailed account of each of the Norse gods, both the big names and those lesser-known.

While my personal Paganism may be starting to shift from a Norse focus at the moment, I am still fascinated by the myths of the Norse gods and very much looking forward to exploring the historic and social background that led to the development of these old tales.

A full review will appear shortly, I hope!

Eighth High Day recap: Winter Solstice

Home shrine set up for Yule. Image by me

Home shrine set up for Yule. Image by me

For the Winter Solstice, I celebrated a Norse Yule, using the Yule rite from Egelhoff’s Sunna’s Journey: Norse Liturgy through the Wheel of the Year. My home shrine was decorated with holly and mistletoe, traditional evergreen plants used in many Pagan celebrations of the season.

Since I was unable to have a Yule log, I adapted the rite to us three tea-light candles instead, lighting one for each of the Three Kindreds addressed in ADF ritual. The gatekeeper for the rite was the Jotun and goddess of the winter hunt, Skadi, while the main offerings of the rite were to Mani, the moon god. This was particularly auspicious since there was a full moon on the night of the ritual (24 December), which shone brightly in the clear night sky as the ritual was conducted.

As with the Samhain/Winternights rite, the ritual featured a story, this time telling the tale of Odin and the Wild Hunt, a ghostly hunt which ride the winds on the darkest and coldest nights of the year.

Offerings were made with German wheat beer, and the omen was taken using runes. The reading was very positive, with runes indicating gifts, reciprocity, and guidance.

Following this, Yule was celebrated with feasting, presents, drinks, good cheer and a long winter walk (as well as the obligatory Doctor Who Christmas special)!

Rune reading and kindred candles. Image by me

Rune reading and kindred candles. Image by me

Seventh High Day recap: Samhain/Winternights

Home shrine set up for Samhain/WInternights. Image by me

Home shrine set up for Samhain/Winternights. Image by me

For Samhain/Winternights, I decorated my shrine with pumpkins, pine cones, and symbols of death, and celebrated with my first ritual from Nicholas Egelhoff’s Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year, which includes full ADF Core Order rituals for each of the eight High Days in a Norse hearth culture.

It was nice to not have to worry about writing the ritual myself this time, having a pre-prepared script took a lot of the leg work of planning and preparation out of things, and Egelhoff’s wording is beautiful throughout. The three kindreds are addressed as Forfedur (ancestors), Landvaettir (nature-kin) and Gudir (deities) respectively, and the offerings section to them was longer and more involved (though still simple enough for a small rite) than what I had done previously, which helped get me into the flow of things a lot more.

The gatekeeper for the rite was Hel, the Lady of the Underworld in Norse myth (and daughter of Loki).It took a lot of effort to overcome my residual Catholic programming and not wince when making offerings to Hel (“Hell”). I used a lovely Santa Muerte (Holy death) statue I got at a Dia de los Muertos event last year to represent Hel, as her skeletal face and flowing robes seemed fitting.

The main focus of the rite revolved around recounting a story of the first humans, Askr and Embla (Ash and Elm), who were carved out of driftwood by Odin and his brothers. The story told of the death of Askr and his afterlife in Hel’s hall. While I don’t believe in an afterlife, it was a beautiful tale and I interpreted it as saying how we all return to under the earth after death, and also live on in the memories of those still living.

Telling a story mid-rite was a new one for me, but it felt authentically Norse, with the tradition of the skalds and sagas, and made the central offering to Askr and Embla more meaningful for knowing something about them.

Guinness, skulls and candles. Image by me

Guinness, skulls and candles. Image by me

Offerings were also made to honour the ancestors, especially those close to us, which in my case was my mother who died last year, and my grandfather, who died some years before. As my family is Irish (albeit from the Viking-founded cities of Cork and Dublin), the offering was a bottle of Guinness…well, it had to be!

All in all, the rite was very moving and I look forward to doing more rituals with Sunna’s Journey in future.

Sixth High Day recap: Autumn Equinox

A candle lights the way. Image by my other half.

A candle lights the way. Image by my other half.

Autumn Equinox has always been one of my favourite seasonal celebrations, marking as it does the start of my favourite season, a time of blustery days and still-warm sun, of golden leaves and crunchy woodland walks.

This year, my local village green held an Equinox Labyrinth, an interactive art installation by Kay Barett, of Kay’s Pathway. The Labyrinth was marked out in birdseed (so it would be eaten by wildlife once used) on the grass, in a Celtic spiral and after dark, was illuminated by dozens of candles in glass jars to mark the path. Visitors took a conker (horse chestnut) from a pile outside the Labyrinth and walked the path to the centre, to lay it down in the middle, forming a “conker cairn”.

The night was calm and clear, and the candles on the Labyrinth emulated the stars overhead, and the whole experience was very peaceful and beautiful. I saw the conker as an offering to Nerthus, the Earth Mother, and I briefly knelt and touched the Earth as I lay it down on the central cairn.

The Labyrinth seemed to bring a lot of people from the village together, from older folks slowly walking the path deep in thought, to young kids running in circles.

Labyrinth path. Image by my other half.

Labyrinth path. Image by my other half.

Once my wife and I returned home, it was time for an ADF  druid ritual for the Equinox. I used the Core Order of Ritual to create a short, stripped-back ritual outline suitable for a home shrine rite. Keeping to the Norse hearth culture, I honoured Nerthus, the Earth Mother and Njord, the god of the sea and shore. Njord was chosen because in traditional British druidry, the Autumn Equinox is known as Alban Elued, the Light of the Shore, and is seen as a liminal time, so celebrating both Earth and Sea, personified as the (possible) siblings Njord and Nerthus, seemed to fit well. Offerings were made of honey ale and seasonal apples.

All aglow. Image by my other half.

All aglow. Image by my other half.

 

Heathen Round Table: September

The Norns as depicted by Marvel Comics. Image from Marvel Wiki

The Norns as depicted by Marvel Comics. Image from Marvel Wiki

I thought that the Heathen Round Table had stopped, but turns out it’s just moved from WordPress to Tumblr and is now HERE. This month’s prompt: Somebody requested a discussion of Wyrd and Orlog. what do these concepts mean to you? how do they fit into your practice?

I had heard of “Wyrd” before, mostly thanks to Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters and also Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen. In both cases, “Wyrd” usually means something equivalent to “fate”.

In Norse myth, it is spun by the three sisters, or Norns, who tend for Ygdrassil, the world-tree. Their names, Urdh, Verdandi and Skuld, translate as “had been”, “becoming” and “will become”, showing how Wyrd is affected by time.

Luckily, I have just finished a chapter in A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru by Patricia Lafayllve which discusses Wyrd and Orlog (the latter of which I had never heard of before). Lafayllve says:

Taken together, Wyrd and Orlog are very similar to a tapestry – one set of fibers is horizontal, the other vertical, and they are so interwoven that they form a larger picture. This tapestry, if you will, has a beginning, but is constantly being woven at the other end. Orlog, which translates as “ur-law” is the point at which all things begin.

“Ur-law” means first or primal law, and refers to laws by which everything in existence is bound. In a scientific sense, then, Orlog can cover the laws of gravity, time, genetics, evolution etc., which create and to an extent limit our circumstances in life. Orlog also refers to fundamental moral laws, such as caring for kin and practicing reciprocal altruism, laws which evolutionary psychologists are increasingly showing to be instinctive evolutionary adaptations.

Orlog cannot be changed. As Lafayllve puts it, a Blue Morpho caterpillar will become a Blue Morpho butterfly, and it cannot become a Gypsy Moth.

Orlog, then, for us, was originally laid down by the first of our ancestors, and we cannot change it. A mundane example would be the families we are born into – we cannot escape our DNA, no matter how much we may wish to.

Wyrd, on the other hand, is based on your own individual circumstances, and as you are the one “weaving” your Wyrd, you can change it. Going back to the caterpillar example, while two Blue Morpho caterpillars may share the same Orlog, each one’s actions will affect their own Wyrd: which direction they take, what food they eat, how they avoid predators, all will lead to a different outcome. We create our Wyrd as we go through life. So Wyrd is really rather unlike “fate” or “destiny” as it is not out of our hands.

This doesn’t mean we “create our own reality” as New-Age nonsense popularly states. We are bound by Orlog, and also limited by the fact that our Wyrd interacts and interconnects with the Wyrd of everyone else around us. Other people, both familiar and strangers, impact our lives and we impact theirs, our Wyrds entwine even if for a brief moment. Other animals and plants we share our space with also have their own Wyrd, and how we act in relationship to them affects both their Wyrd and our own. As Lafayllve writes:

Wyrd impacts every entity, both seen and unseen. Every moment we encounter people, pets, rocks, trees, ancestors, descendents, and even gods. Every time any encounter happens, it changes all of the entities involved.

In practice, the concept of Orlog reminds us that we are rooted in the past, that we have limits, and we share those limits with everyone else, both human and non-human. Wyrd reminds us that we can change our “fate” and determine our own path, but at the same time are connected with everyone and everything around us in a vast tapestry of life.

The Norns spin the web of Wyrd and Orlog. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Norns spin the web of Wyrd and Orlog. Image from Wikimedia Commons