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: Moderation

"Finding Balance". Image by Woodleywonderworks on Flickr (CC 2.0)

“Finding Balance”. Image by Woodleywonderworks on Flickr (CC 2.0)

ADF defines Moderation as “cultivating ones appetites so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health (mental or physical), through excess or deficiency.” The Cambridge online dictionary defines it as “the quality of doing something within reasonable limits”.

Moderation is a concept familiar to me from Buddhism, as the Buddha taught a “middle way” between the extremes of either hedonism or asceticism. The Pagan Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus both taught that moderation was the key to happiness and virtue. While Epicureanism has become popularly associated with fine dining and luxury, Epicurus himself taught that one should enjoy the pleasures of life including food, drink and sex, but that one should do so moderately as excess can cause mental anxiety and physical illness.

For Aristotle, all virtues are a mid-point between two extremes, and it is this balanced middle that we should strive for in our lives. Thus, in his Nicomachean Ethics, he wrote: “with respect to the enjoyment of pleasures,temperance (or moderation)is a mean between the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility“.

In the Norse hearth culture, the Havamal provides many examples of Odin encouraging the virtue of moderation, especially with alcohol. Odin’s advice comes from personal experience, as in Stanza 14, where he says:

I got drunk,Far too drunk,
when feasting with wise Fjalar.
The best kind of feast is the one
that you can still remember the next morning.

Alyxander Folmer writes that “Unlike some other religious traditions, the Lore never tries to BAN alcohol, or imply that it’s consumption is inherently bad. Rather, most Germanic/Norse cultures placed an emphasis of discipline and self control. You could “eat, drink, and be merry”, but you were expected to be able to hold you liquor and know when to stop”.

Throughout the Havamal, this apparently simple lesson about drinking in moderation teaches us about the importance of moderation in general, in all aspects of life. Paganism is a sensual way of life that encourages us to enjoy life and see it as sacred, we should not abstain from pleasures or see them as sinful. However, moderation reminds us not to live lives of hedonism and excess, and to be in balance in all things.

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. [Online: retrieved from http://www.constitution.org/ari/ethic_02.htm#2.6 07/02/2016]

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

Folmer, Alyxander. Hugin’s Heathen Hof. [Online: retrieved from http://www.heathenhof.com 07/02/2016]

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!

Home Shrine revisited

Our Own Druidry states that “one of the most traditional ways to begin your relationship with the inner world is to create a personal shrine of worship in your own home. Pagan religion cannot be contained in groves and temples. It is not owned by priestesses and Druids. The reality of Pagan Druidry is found in the hearts of every Pagan who keeps the ways.”

As such, forming a home shrine is an important part of developing a Pagan practice. It gives you a focal point, a daily reminder of your path. It also serves as a fixed location for use in ritual and meditation, a central sacred space, the heart and hearth of the home.

The shrine doesn’t have to be complicated, however. Dangler suggests you can begin, as he did, with “three bowls and a stick”. The central focus of ADF ritual, and of the home shrine is the Triple Hallows: fire, well and tree. The fire can be represented by a candle, the well by a bowl of water and the tree by a houseplant, model tree or even just a twig.

My shrine. Also pictured: my Dedicant Path textbooks. Photo by me

My shrine. Also pictured: my Dedicant Path textbooks. Photo by me

When I first set up my home shrine, it looked like this (see left):

I had three candles for the fire, a small ceramic bowl filled with water and sea-glass for the well, and indeed a stick from the garden as a tree. The pottery mouse is a trinket I’ve had for a very long time, and he represents the nature-kin. Buddha was there because I read about Buddhism and it influenced my thought and practice, particularly with meditation and my ethics. While not a Druid, he fitted my personal practice.

After a while, the shrine was moved to an upstairs room briefly, but was swiftly restored to the living room because it felt like I was shutting it away or compartmentalising my Paganism from my daily life.

Home shrine. Photo by me

Home shrine. Photo by me

The current iteration of my home shrine looks like this (see right):

The three candles and ceramic bowl for the well remain, but the tree has been replaced by a living tree, an ash from the garden that I’m trying to train as a houseplant. I find it much easier to connect with a living tree than merely a representation of one. Buddha has been retired to live on a bookshelf elsewhere, and the shrine now features a small clay statue of Thor that I bought in a village in Norway. He reminds me of that trip, and represents the Norse hearth culture.

On the left I also have a skull carved with Celtic knotwork to represent the ancestors, so now all three Kindreds have a presence on the shrine. Other items include pine cones, feathers, small stones etc. that I gather and change around as the seasons change.

The shrine gets decorated in different ways for different High Days. Here it is for the Summer Solstice, and for the Winter Solstice:

Home shrine set up for the Summer Solstice with mead offering. Photo by me.

Home shrine set up for the Summer Solstice with mead offering. Photo by me.

Home shrine set up for Yule. Image by me

Home shrine set up for Yule. Image by me

It’s still a very simple shrine, but I find the simplicity effective. In future, I would like to add to it with more greenery and perhaps a Cernunnos statue to go alongside Thor, to represent my interest in both Celtic and Norse Paganism.

References:

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

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

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

Eighth High Day: Winter Solstice

Image from livescience

Image from livescience

The Winter Solstice occurs on or around 21 December, and marks the point of the shortest day and longest night of the year. This is due to the axial tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun. At the Winter Solstice, the northern hemisphere is inclined away from the sun, even though the planet is actually closer to the sun by some 9 million miles than at other times of the year. It is this axial tilt which causes the days to grow darker and shorter until the Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer once again.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin sol sistere, meaning “the sun stands still” as it appears to do so in the sky. The season of the Winter Solstice is celebrated by cultures throughout the world and in many forms, from the Norse Yule to the Christian Christmas.

The date of Christmas was not set until the mid 4th century CE, and may have been deliberately chosen to coincide with, or co-opt, existing Pagan festivals celebrating the birth of the sun at midwinter. Many existing Christmas traditions, including decorating homes with evergreens, lights and mistletoe, feasting and giving gifts, may have originated in Pagan celebrations of the Solstice.

Bonewits states that “while the Celts don’t seem to have paid much attention to it, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic cultures certainly did. Also known as Yule or Midwinter, this is a day sacred to sun, thunder and fire deities”. It is also likely that the pre-Celtic megalithic cultures of the British Isles celebrated the Solstice, as monuments such as Stonehenge and Bryn Celi Du are positioned in such a way as to be illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun at the Winter Solstice.

In some forms of modern Druidry, the day is called by the Welsh name, Alban Arthan, and Hutton points to Welsh literature as providing evidence of a “new year’s feast” celebrated at this time. In most modern Paganism, however, the day is called by the Norse term, Yule, a word that has connections to “wheel” (as in the wheel of the year) and also the word “jolly”.

Higgenbotham writes that “Yule traditions include the burning of the Yule log, which represents the increasing light of the season. It is a common practice to keep a piece of it to light the next year’s Yule log, and to scatter some of its ashes over the fields”.

References:

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

Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel Press, 2005.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-centered Religions. Woodbury, Llewellyn Publications, 2008.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Image from sodahead

Image from sodahead