What is Heathenism? Part 1

Some who have stumbled onto this blog may be wondering what, exactly, is Heathenry/Asatru/Teutonic Recon?

That is a very good question and one that I will attempt to answer here and now.

Heathenry is an umbrella term that describes the pre-Xtian (I have omitted the “Christ” from this word as it is offensive to me) practices of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Asatru is a slightly more specific term, and it infers the practices of many modern day reconstructionists as derived from the Icelandic Sagas and peoples. I prefer the term “Heathen” since I draw from many sources other than the Icelandic. As well as Asatru, a student of Heathenry will come across the names “Forn Sedr” meaning Ancient Way or “The Way”, a simple term that adherents in Scandinavia are often apt to use, and Theodish, referring to the Anglo-Saxon Heathen practices. These are only a few, but they are the most common terms in the community as of now.

Now, readers may be questioning the word Heathen. Many believe this word to mean godless and barbaric, as this is the common vernacular amongst English speaking peoples. However this word means neither. Dictionaries define the word as, among other things, “Being of non-Judeo-Christian values”. This is close but is not the full definition. Heathen literally means “of the heath”, and was a term used to refer to the hardy Northern European peoples who lived “on the heath”. It does not mean devil-worshipper or evil one. It is simply a denotation of geographical relation.

Heathenism is considered a decentralized, individualistic spirituality. The Nordic peoples were renowned for their fierce non-conformism, and it has reflected in their religion as well. The Heathen tradition is a patchwork of cults and sects that were based on local spirits and deified heroes. Each tribe had their own culture specific folktales and mythologies, all united loosely under a general understanding of two divine tribes of gods, the Vanir and the Aesir.

The Vanir, according to many historians and scholars, are probably an older family of Gods. They represent the Agrarian practices of the Bronze Age. Their chief concern is the fertility of the stock animals and the fecundity of the fields. However, only a few are mentioned, which has lead many researchers to believe that this more ancient cult of the Vanir was absorbed by the Warrior invaders and their cult to the Aesir. The Vanir are:

NJORD: God of the Coast and the Fjords. He seems to have been a Father God, ensuring bountiful hauls of fish and calm weather for the fishermen. He was the father of Freyr and Freyja, male-female twins. There is no hard and fast reference to who his consort was, but many reliable scholars believe that she was probably Nerthus.

NERTHUS: An Earth-Mother, Nerthus seemed to have been a local deity, and her worship was not widespread. She ensured that the fields gave forth a full crop. Little is known as to the specifics of her cult, however there is information from the Lore about one of her major festivals. Once a year her icon would be paraded through the tribelands on a cart. The folk would come out to lay offerings on her cart and make supplications for bountiful harvests. Once the Goddess had completed her circuit she would be returned to her temple, where animal and human sacrifices were made to feed her and ensure the fields were fat with grain. Mythologically it has been presupposed that Njord and Nerthus split after the war between the Vanir and Aesir, when the two tribes of Gods exchanged prisoners. Nerthus refused to leave her homelands, so Njord left with their children to live in Asgard, the home of the Aesir. This cannot be taken as gospel truth as this is unsubstantiated, yet it makes sense in a mythological context.

FREYR: Freyr is the male twin child of Njord and (possibly) Nerthus. He is a fertility deity, but there is evidence from the Lore that prior he may have had hunting and war attributes as well. The justification for these elements come from the sagas that refer to his mighty sword which flamed and fought on it’s own and ensured victory to whomever held it. He also is depicted as riding a golden boar, an animal that both represented the warrior ethos and a prize hunting trophy. He represents masculine virility and was asked to bless stallions, bulls and other male stock animals. He may have correlations to Cerrunnos in the Celtic tradition, as the later is depicted with antlers and Freyr is said to do battle with an antler.

FREYJA: Freyja is the female twin child of Njord. She is an elusive figure, and seems to cover a wide range of attributes. She, unlike her brother, is not related to Fertility, but rather moreso to war, death, sex for the indulgement of it, witchcraft and the honored dead. She, like her brother, often rides a boar, but seems to prefer her chariot pulled by two cats. Many read of Freyja’s association with cats and assumes this is referring to domestic housecats. This could not be further from the truth, however in modern days it has seemed that she has adopted these minature felines into her affections. The cats that pull her chariot are most likely Siberian Tigers, or Mountain Lions. These are wild cats that are predatory and allude to her sexual and battle prowess. She is a powerful sorceress, possessing a majik cloak made of falcon feathers which allows her to change into the bird of prey, with which she can traverse the Nine Worlds.

These are the only Vanir mentioned by name in the Sagas, however it is believed that there are more, perhaps local gods that were not widely known enough to be canonized.

The Aesir is the other tribe of Gods that Heathens owe allegiance to. The Aesir are believed to have come later than the Vanir, as they represent ideals of a more advanced society. These are the Gods of law, warcraft and kingcraft. These Gods are concerned with morality and justice and the more philosophical ponderings of an Iron Age culture. There are many more Aesir directly mentioned than there are Vanir, but due to time constraints I will only make reference to the key players in the Aesir. The reader is encouraged to read the Poetic and Prose Eddas as well as the Voluspa for more information regarding the many Gods of Heathenry.

ODIN: Also known as Woden, Odhinn, and Wotan, this is perhaps one of the most complex Gods of all mythologies. He has 49 epitaphs, each of which describe is many attributes and purposes. He is the Cheiftain of the Gods, a brilliant warrior and leader. He is cunning and an information junkie. He is always followed by his two wolves, Geri and Freki (Greedy and Voracious) and his two ravens Huggin and Munnin are constantly patrolling the Nine Worlds, observing all things and bringing the whispered rumors of goings on upon their shadowy wings. Huggin means Thought, and Munnin means Memory, and of the two he fears losing Munnin the most. Odin knows more than any other demigod or spirit in the Norse cosmology. He is the wisest of beings. Upon his High Seat he can see everything that happens in the Nine Worlds. He is one of the patron Deities of the Skalds (poets similar in function to the Celtic Bards), as well as the patron of sorcerers, seers and berserkers. He is said to be the distributor of the four Rages or “Gangs”; the rage of the seer who is consumed with visions of things to come, the rage of the poetic shouting torrents of song and verse, the rage of the warrior who cannot be slain, and the rage of the sorcerer who directs curses to their enemies.  Among other things he is also a Psychopompos, a leader of the dead. In some local cults he is said to be the leader of the Wild Hunt, a seasonal procession of the restless dead who ride through the winter skies in a great shrieking procession, scooping up the unwary to ride eternally with them. He also accepts those who have died courageously into Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain. This warrior’s paradise consists of battles all day long at the end of which, the fallen rise again and gather to feast upon pork and quaff mead all night. They awake to do it all over again. This appealed to the wild Nordic warriors sentiments, and all brave men and women lived in hopes to be granted entry there. Those inducted to Valhalla were called the Einherjar, the Holy or Honored Slain. They were Odin’s elite forces that he sought to surround himself with in anticipation of the Ragnarok, the doom of Gods and Men; a final “armageddon”-type conflict where the forces of the Aesir and Vanir would do battle against the forces of entropy and chaos. Odin knows that he will lose this conflict, but is determined to die with valor.
      Odin, as I said, is a very complex God, and I have not even come close to exposing his multi-faceted character, more can be found in the Sagas.

FRIGGA: She is the wife of Odin, but much more. She is the patroness of the home and hearth. Married women prayed to her for domestic peace and prosperity. Her symbol was the distaff and loom. She is attributed to weaving the thread that the Norns (Fates) spun into mens’ destinies. She knows all things but will not speak of them. There is a Cassandra element to her foresight. She remains silent (much to Odin’s chagrin) about her clairsentience for she knows that nothing can change these matters of destiny. The only time when she attempts to interfere with Fate is when her knowledge foretells of her son, Balder’s death. Yet even this mighty Goddess is thwarted by Fate and her son still dies. She is a cunning woman, and the perfect role model for any woman who devotes her life to domestic concerns. She and her husband are often at odds and engage in battles of wit and wile that she most often wins. Frigga blesses marriages and oversees matters of the home and family. She is a mighty protectress of children, and I have often prayed to her for my own childrens’ safety and well being. 

BALDER: Balder is the son of Frigga and Odin. Very little is known about this God, but most agree that he represents the Summer Sunshine. He is referred to as the Bright and Beautiful God, and the runes of eloquence are cut upon his tongue. All the Gods loved Balder dearly, but he soon became morose, weeping and having horrible nightmares presaging his death. Despite Frigga’s best efforts, Balder does die, struck down by his hapless blind brother with the help of Loki. His death heralds the beginning of the end for the Gods, for Balder will not return until the Gods die. He now languishes with his loyal wife in the halls of Hel, the Norse underworld.

THOR: Thor was perhaps the most beloved of Gods. He is a jolly red-haired giant of the God. His mother is Jord, the Earth Giantess, and his father Odin (Yes, Odin is a philanderer as well). Many mistakenly think of Thor as a war God, this could not be further from the truth. While Thor often fights and makes war on the behalf of the Aesir, his true role is as a protector. He is called the Friend of the Folk, and Defender of Midgard, the world of Men. He blesses the crops with rain, and fights off the Giants of Ice who would destroy the crops with hail and unseasonable snow. He carries with him his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, which always returns to his hand when thrown. His chariot is drawn by two goats, and thunder is said to be the sound of his wheels upon the sky, lightning the wrath of his hammer. Mjolnir is the symbol that modern Heathens use to identify themselves. They tattoo it on their skin and wear pendants around their necks. A hammer pendant is said to be a powerful charm against misfortune and invokes Thor’s aid and protection. His two goats can be slain, eaten, and then revived the next day, so Thor is also a God of plenty and prosperity. It is he who blesses Marriage rituals, and the Ritual Hammer is often placed in the bride’s lap to bless her with many offspring.

TYR: Tyr is the one-handed God of justice. His weapon is the sword, and all warriors’ swords should have Tyr’s rune – Tiwaz – inscribed twice upon the blade. However, despite Tyr’s reputation for honesty and justice, he lost his hand in an act of treachery. One of Loki’s monster children, Fenrir, a giant wolf, was becoming far to unweildy and untrustworthy, so the Gods devised a way to chain him. Fenrir is cunning however, and would not allow himself to be chained unless one of the Gods ensured that he would be able to break the bindings by placing their hand in his powerful jaws. Tyr was the only one brave enough to do so. When Fenrir saw that he could not break the chains, he took Tyr’s hand in vengeance. 
    Tyr is invoked when going into battle, his aid is called upon when facing unjust persecution and legal problems. However, the practitioner should be sure that they are in the right before calling upon Tyr, as he is unbiased and will rule against the one invoking his aid if he sees that they are in the wrong.

IDHUNNA: Idhunna is the beautiful maiden of apples. Scholars are not sure if she is Vanir or Aesir, but it is she that tends to a tree in Asgard that grows golden fruit. These apples grant eternal youth to the consumer, and this is how the Gods live as immortals. Very little is said in her regard, there is only one story where she plays a central role, when a Giant kidnaps her and deprives the Gods of her apples. The Gods grow old and weak and she must be rescued by Loki (who seems to be beyond the need for her fruit). While she seems to be a sideliner, her role is imperative to the Gods’ well being. Young women in the flower of their youth should honor her with offerings of apples, and she is often celebrated during the Rites of Spring.

SKADI: Skadi is not necessarily of Aesir or Vanir stock. She is a Giantess, the perennial enemies of the Gods and men. Her father was a frost Giant named Thiazi, who Odin killed. She storms Asgard seeking vengeance for her father’s murder. The Gods admire her courage and strength and make a pact of alliance with her by allowing her to marry one of their number. She falls for Balder’s beauty, but the Gods devise a game where she must choose her husband by his feet only. The male Gods line up behind a curtain barefoot. Skadi assumes that since Balder has the most beautiful face that his feet must follow suit. So she chooses the God with the most beautiful feet, which is in fact Njord. The marriage is doomed, as Skadi cannot tolerate Njord’s seaside home with the cawing gulls and roaring waves, and Njord cannot handle the ice and cold of Skadi’s mountain stronghold. So they decide that Skadi will dwell with Njord half of the year, thus bringing the snow and ice to the coasts in winter.
     Skadi is the Goddess of skiing, hunting and mountainous regions. She should be placated when venturing into the mountains in winter, and with the proper offerings will protect those from avalanches.

ULLR: Ullr is not a well-known deity. He seems to a winter masculine counterpart to Skadi, being pictured with skiis and archery equipment. He is the God of winter hunting, and some local cults say that he takes the throne from Odin during the winter, when Odin rides with the Wild Hunt or wanders the earth in the wizardly Vegtam guise. He is not the nicest of Gods, and it was considered a bad thing when he took over power in the winter.

BRAGI: Bragi is another son of Odin’s, and it is not clear if Frigga is his mother or Saga (perhaps another aspect of Frigga). Bragi is the God if Poetry par excellence. The runes of inspiration are on his tongue and he teaches the mystical art of music and story to his devotees. All storytellers, poets and writers should make friends with this God, as he has much wisdom and inspiration to give to those who love him.

SAGA: Saga is another Goddess that seems to be breezed over by the myths. However it is obvious to the student of the Lore that she is important. Every day Odin drinks mead with her and she tells him the sagas of the Nine Worlds. She is one of his most important sources of knowledge. Those attempting to reconstruct the Old Ways will find her an indispensable source of gnosis.

There are many more lesser Gods and Goddesses, spirits, elves, dwarves, Giants, and monsters in the cosmology. The last God I will explain in this posting will be Loki.

LOKI: I have decided not to include him in either tribe of Gods as he seems to be an Outsider. He is of neither tribe and varies in occuptation from prankster to source of evil. Loki might even be older and more powerful than the Gods, as there are some recorded accounts of the Creation Story that place Loki in the beginning before the Gods had proliferated and become strong. In these accounts he was there in the formative moments, attempting to outpace the Gods by creating offspring of his own that outmatched the beauty of the Gods’ creations.
    In the mythic origin of the Folk two trees, an Ash and Elm were pitied by the Gods and given attributes of life. Odin gave them breath, Hoenir gave them Blood or Strength, and Loder/Loki gave them beauty and vital spark. Loki often causes problems for the Gods, and is always the one to bail them out as well. Loki to me represents Chaos. Without chaos we would never evolve or grow. It take tribulation to make us stronger, and it is Loki’s function to provide these things. He has been the source of great gifts to the Gods, bringing Thor his mighty hammer, Odin his majik spear, and Freyr his foldeable boat.  However he often causes the Gods great insult or puts them in harms way. From accusing Thor’s wife Sif of adultery to causing Balder’s death, he is a trickster that cannot be trusted. Eventually his list of crimes becomes great enough that Gods punish him by tying him to a rock in the middle of the sea with his son’s own entrails. Skadi hangs an adder above his head that drips burning poison into his eyes. Loki’s devoted wife dwells in exile with him, catching the poison in a bowl. But when she must empty the bowl the poison drips into Loki’s eyes, causing him to scream and shake the earth in agony. It is from this that earthquakes are said to ensue. Loki’s presence in the world is hampered by this exile, yet his lips are not bound, and it is in his voice where his true power resides, so he continues to effect the world of men, though in a diminished way.
     When Ragnarok begins Loki will free himself, Hella shall break free from Hel and the doomed dead shall rise against men and Gods. 

Next posting I will discuss the various other beings, as well as Loki’s monstrous children. These beings are not generally worshipped in modern Heathenry, however they are often placated with offerings so that they do not effect our lives adversely. Hella, Loki’s daughter, is perhaps one of the exceptions to this rule. However all that shall be covered in the next post.

I hope that this was informative, but please understand that these writings in no way seek to define these Gods or Folkways in their entirety. There are many differing schools of thought, and the views expressed only represent my own understanding and experience with these Deities.

Frith, Worth, and Might,

Bjorn Odinsson

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2 Responses to “What is Heathenism? Part 1”

  1. Very informative post Bjorn! Go raibh maith agat.

  2. This was well done, Bjorn, I and II. Have you thought about doing something similar concerning wights (vaettir–elves, trolls, ancestral spirits and the like)?

    In my recent reading, I’ve become more aware that my Northern ancestors possessed a great deal of knowledge about the beings, habits of and proper interactions with wights. I’m learning that for the smaller affairs of daily life, folk relied on the boon (or feared the bane) of spirits *smaller* than that of our god/esses. I’d like to learn more.

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