Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Gods and Goddesses - Personal Practices

I've written a lot about our kindred and about living in a tight-knit heathen group. But, I wanted to write some essays that discuss a Heathen's personal practices. Things he or she does on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Obviously, what I write here is not the only correct way to do things. Just some ideas to spark more discussion and exploration of the topic.

Our Gods and Goddesses

Heathens tend to have different understandings of our Gods and Goddesses. Some view them as very literal beings. Some envision them as manifestations or personifications of forces in nature. Some view them as psychological or spiritual archetypes buried deep within, and springing forth from, all the members of our Folk. Some view them as all and none of these things. For me personally, the Gods and Goddesses are beyond understanding, and difficult to categorize or define simply. I believe that the stories we read in the Lore of our Gods and Goddesses represent the human understanding of our Ancestors. I believe these stories are revealing, enlightening, and even entertaining. But, I do not see the Gods and Goddesses as limited or restrained by these stories in any way. When it comes to your personal practices, your personal understanding of the Gods and Goddess is what is important.

For this reason, one of the first things you must do is learn about our Gods and Goddesses. Read as much as you can. Read the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Read Saxo Grammaticus. Read H.R. Ellis Davidson and other authors of secondary sources. You will find much of the information is incomplete. You will also find many contradictions within the sources. Don't let this frustrate you. What you are reading is various human understandings of the Gods. You aren't reading scripture. You aren't reading the supposedly "literal word or message" of our Gods and Goddesses. You aren't reading material created by a modern church in order to present the "official church version" or dogmatic understandings of the Lore. You are reading what various skalds and authors have believed about our Gods and Goddesses. Of course these understandings of our Gods and Goddesses are imperfect. Of course they contradict and disagree with one another. If you think about it from the right frame of reference, it is completely natural for there to be this diversity among the human understandings of our Gods and Goddesses.

Over time, as you honor our Gods and Goddesses, your understanding of them will grow. Over time, you will fill some of those gaps in information through your own spiritual growth. Over time, you will solve some of the contradictions for yourself. Heathenry is not just a scholarly exercise. It is a living, advancing Folkway. We are not simply "recreating" or "role-playing" some ancient rites and understandings of our Gods and Goddesses. Through our honoring, gifting, and interaction with the Gods and Goddesses we learn more. We learn in the same way that our Ancestors learned what they learned about our Gods and Goddesses. This idea that our Folkway can have new understandings, or that we can advance our understandings of our Gods and Goddesses makes many Heathens very uncomfortable. The very thought of modern Heathens building upon what our Ancestors knew is sometimes derided as "making stuff up." This sort of frozen-in-time approach, treats our Folkway as a dead religion that we are simply re-enacting. Perhaps for those that have this point of view, that is true. But, for those of us rebuilding our Folkway as a living, breathing religion and world-view...this is not the re-enactment of a dead religion. This is our lives. As the descendants of our Ancestors, we learn as they learned. We advance forward in our understandings, personally building upon what they understood.

Understanding what has been described above, do not get angry or upset when another Heathen has a different personal understanding of our Gods and Goddesses.  It is only natural that our human limitations lead to differences in understanding.  Considering the many different ways our ancestors viewed our various Gods and Goddesses, it is not only natural but healthy that we have similar differences.  When you see others getting upset and attacking people over these differences in understanding, stop and consider exactly why they are so upset.  Consider what psychological or emotional needs cause them to insist that their understandings are the only correct understandings.  Then shake your head a bit, and move on.

On the other hand, there are methods of filling in the blanks and resolving contradictions in the sources that can lead you away from an understanding of our Gods and Goddesses that would be recognizable by our Ancestors.  For instance, mixing and mashing in information from the Folkways of other cultures.  Stirring in New Age elements that are not consistent with the traditional ways of our Folk.  Or shaping your understanding of our Gods and Goddesses in a way that fits or serves your own personal political agendas.  It is important that we carefully consider our personal understandings of our Gods and Goddesses to ensure we are not distorting or twisting our understandings to serve some purpose other than honoring them respectfully.

As a personal practice, it is rewarding to establish an altar to the Gods and Goddesses in your home. It is good for this altar to be given some prominence in your home, and this can be done in a number of ways. For instance, a table or bookshelf in the main living room of your home would denote the importance of the altar. If you had a spare bedroom or office in your home, setting up your altar there would give it its own space, in a sense. There is no right and wrong answer to where you place the altar, unless you are considering sticking it in some musty corner of your dark basement. Personally, I think it is good to have your altar dedicated to the Gods and Goddesses in a location where you see it often. The altar can take many forms. It can be established on a beautiful table, a set of shelves, the fire-place mantle, or you could even build a free-standing altar out of wood, bricks, or stone. I know folks with cats or other pets, that establish their altar to the Gods and Goddesses in a standing cabinet with glass or wooden doors, to prevent their animals from disturbing the items on the altar.  Really, your options are limitless.

What you place on your Gods and Goddesses altar has practically infinite possibilities and is personal to you. Consider that you are creating a space to honor and gift your Gods and Goddesses, and attempt to give it the attention they deserve. In whatever way possible, you should make it dignified, beautiful, meaningful, and focused on our Gods and Goddesses. When first starting out, it may be as simple as a table with a nice table-cloth, a Mjolnir or Valknut symbol, and perhaps a few images of our Gods drawn or printed out on paper or in frames. Over time, you can add things that personally represent the Gods and Goddesses for you. Often you will see ornately carved hammers, statues of specific Gods and Goddesses, a beautiful wooden, metal, or horn bowl for presenting offerings, a spearhead or full boar spear leaning up against the altar, runes, amber jewelry, or other symbols of our Gods and Goddesses. Ultimately, your personal altar is "correct" if it serves the purpose of connecting you and your family with our Gods and Goddesses, allowing you to give them gifts, honor them, and represent their spiritual presence in your home. The exact means for doing this is personal to you.

Besides an altar to the Gods and Goddesses, many Heathen homes have many decorations throughout the home that represent their Heathen beliefs and practices. Many of these decorations are connected with our Gods and Goddesses. Wall-hangings, statues, wood-burned plaques, cross-stitched designs, framed images or posters, spears, hammers, axes, a single gloved-hand, an ornately painted shield, banners...really, the options are limitless. These decorations in our home rarely happen over night. They are usually collected over time. You might buy one at the latest Heathen gathering you've attended. Some might be gifts from other Heathens you've met. Many may be items you've made with your own hands. These decorations set a tone in your home, and serve as a reminder of who you are and what you believe. They can inspire and strengthen you during those times when you need it. If you have children, they can spark conversations and help increase their own understandings and belief in our Gods and Goddesses.
Another personal practice for honoring our Gods and Goddesses involves making wonderful objects that symbolize their importance to us as Heathens. I am always amazed at the talent and skill among those who use their craft and art to honor our Gods and Goddesses. There are Heathen wood-carvers, wood-burners, makers of chain mail, blacksmiths, painters, spinners, knitters, cross-stitchers, nalbinders, bakers, weavers, musicians, poets, writers, sculpters, mead-makers, and many more. As a personal practice, it is enormously rewarding to make something that represents or honors our Gods and Goddesses with your own hands and skill. Many folks are their own worse critic regarding their talent to create things. But, most of the personal value in creating things is the act of creating...not the perfection of the item created. If you are creating a holy item for your own home and your own use, don't constantly beat yourself up over the end result. Instead, focus on doing your very best, whatever that skill level may be. Put thought, time, and energy into what you are creating and take pride in bringing something new into this world that honors our Gods and Ancestors. I know Heathens that Galdr (an ancestral magical practice involving the singing or incantation of verse-form spells) while crafting objects. I know other Heathens that recite specific runes or rune combinations while crafting objects. But, if you do not know these methods or are not comfortable attempting them, there are other ways to honor our Gods and Goddesses as you work. As you are making the item, keep the God or Goddess you are honoring in mind. Consider as you craft what that God or Goddess means to you. Speak with that God or Goddess, letting them know who you are, what you believe, and why you are making the holy item you are making. Ask the God or Goddess to accept the gift of honor you are offering.

Heathen kindreds, hearths, families, and other groups will often perform blots or fainings to honor our Gods and Goddesses. It can be difficult and a bit unwieldy for a Heathen individual to blot or fain in this same way as part of his or her personal practice. Much of the blot or faining structure we normally see works specifically for group worship. By definition, our personal practices can be much more personal in nature. Direct conversations or prayer to the Gods and Goddesses fit into the personal practice of the individual more easily than these group forms of worship. For instance, if an individual wished to honor Thor, they could do the following. Set aside a time and place where things are quiet, and you can focus on what you are doing without interruption. Pour yourself a quality beer or ale, and pour one for Thor as well in a second mug or glass. It can be an excellent ale you have purchased, but better yet if it is something you have brewed yourself. Sit at a table or in your living room across from an empty seat, and welcome Thor as a guest into your home. Present the gift of the ale to the empty seat. Then talk. Tell Thor what his deeds and his presence in your life means to you. Express how important he is to you and how much you appreciate what he has done and will do for your Gods and your Folk. Share with him what you have learned from him and the stories of his accomplishments. If you are dealing with some problem, describe the problem, as well as how you intend to work hard to resolve the problem for yourself.

During this sort of personal approach to one of our Gods or Goddesses, don't feel like you have to speak in some special way. Do not "put on airs" or attempt to be something other than yourself. Approach them honestly, from the heart. Be exactly who you are and share that with the God or Goddess you are honoring. As a personal practice, this can last 5 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, or however long is necessary. As a personal practice, you can change what I've described to be whatever works for you. Over time, your approach and methods will very likely evolve and possibly become more complex. But the whole point of personal practice, is the fact it is personal to you. In a sense it is also personal to the Gods and Goddesses. What I mean by that, is your method for approaching and honoring Thor will likely be different than how you approach and honor any other God or Goddess. They are distinct beings, with their own stories, their own likes and dislikes, and their own ways of dealing with our Folk. So, put some time into reading about our Gods and Goddesses, and considering what sort of honor they would most appreciate receiving. But, do not let yourself be paralyzed by uncertainty or an unreasonable expectation of perfection. It is better you honor our Gods and be somewhat awkward in your approach, than to not honor them at all out of some fear of being awkward or not doing it exactly "right."

One of the best ways you could personally honor our Gods and Goddesses, is to live a life of which they are proud. We do not beg our Gods and Goddesses for help. We do not expect them to solve our problems. We do not bow to them in expectation that they will lead us or guide us in our actions. Heathens live their lives well, with strength and honor. We raise our families, we're loyal to our friends, and we get things done. We are our deeds. Some say that we fall beneath the notice of our Gods and Goddesses, or that they have better things to do than to notice us. But, I personally believe this to be false. I believe the Gods of our Folk watch us. They watch to see what we do with these lives they have given us.  If they are proud of who we are and what we do, I believe that, on occasion, in times of need they will give us a nudge, or a bit of wisdom, or some much needed Luck. We should never count on them to do this, but I do believe it happens sometimes. So, part of your personal practice should be living according to values and a world-view that will please our Gods. To do this, it is important to learn the values and world-view of our Heathen ancestors, and to internalize this learning. It must go beyond intellectual knowledge, and become an integral part of who you are and what you do.

I am sure there are many other methods of honoring our Gods and Goddesses as part of your personal practice. But, I've described here what I know.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods

1 comment:

  1. Hail Mark a comment from the steward of IMVU House of Heathen Reality; If you honor thy ancestors it doesn't take much of a logic leap to associate heathen living with honoring the history, the prose & runes which were just simply journals of our elders; what they accomplish spiritually is subject to interpretation. What do we call a god today; our heroes. If the elders of old attained that status, I'd erect a effigy to my grandfather and George Carlin everywhere I went to.