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

Monday, June 17, 2013

House and Land Wights - 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 House and Land Wights

A house wight is a spirit that lives in your home...or in a sense...the house wight is the spirit of your hearth or the spirit of your home.  Some Asatruars/Heathens don't do much with their house wight, or don't focus on it much.  But it is fair to say that the spirits of your home and of your land are very close to you, and are available for daily interaction.  After all, they are right there in your home or on your land.  Your house wight is a roommate of sorts, and your land wight is like a close neighbor.  It is believed that our ancestors would have spent much more time gifting, honoring, and interacting with their house wight and land wights...than they would have their ancestors or the Gods.  They depended on their relationship with the land and the safety and efficiency of their home for their very lives.  So, it makes sense that this is where their focus would be placed.

It can be a worthwhile practice to establish an altar or home for your house wight right in your home.  I tend to believe that a fairly central location is a good idea.  Many of our ancestors saw the house wight as being associated with the hearth or fire in the home, and this was always in a central location.  So determine where the center or "heart" of your home is located.  Where does most of the activity take place.  Where can you place a house wight's home so that its right in the mix...part of the action?  Where is the focus of your home?  For some, it might be the family-room of the home.  For others, it might be the kitchen or dining room.  It really depends on how you use your home.  When you have chosen the right room, then it is time to consider what sort of home/altar you want to create for your house-wight.  Some place this altar on a shelf or table.  Others place it over their fireplace on the mantle.  I've even heard of house wight altars inside cabinets.

Some folks build an actual model home of wood or cardboard or other material.  Some buy a wooden or paper home at a hobby store, and spend a lot of time painting, decorating, and possibly even furnishing that home.  I believe the idea behind this is to show one's appreciation to your house wight and make it clear that he or she is welcome.  You are showing hospitality to the house wight, by providing it a place to reside or live.  An altar to one's house wight can go further of course...and often becomes more complex and full as one gifts your house wight over time.  In my family, we tend to give the house wight shiny pretty things.  Silver coins, bright jewelry, and colorful baubles.  The kids have provided most of these over the years.  We tend to believe our house wight enjoys fun things, so the kids will sometimes loan the house wight their favorite toys for a little bit.  Our house wight altar also has a Thor bobble-head, an Icelandic flag, and other objects that really have little meaning except to us (and hopefully our house wight.)  If the kids have not given gifts to the house wight in a little while, I'll remind them...and they will go on the hunt for appropriate gifts.  We then place them on the altar.

We also give our house wight a taste of beer now and again, and sometimes a shot of honey liqueur.  I've also shared tobacco with the house wight before, giving him a cigar once...and some chewing tobacco another time.  When I make my dad's homemade butterscotch, I will sometimes share a piece with the house wight.  I've heard of other families giving their house wight cream, or honey, or a bit of fresh cheese.  I tend to believe that house wight tastes vary.  So, if you give a gift and it doesn't feel right...don't give that gift anymore.  Try other gifts.  If a gift seems like it is well received, then make a mental note and repeat that gift again.  You may find that a daily gift is appropriate and works for you and your house wight, or perhaps something weekly is more realistic and more appreciated.  Really, it is something you have to experiment with until you find the right answers for your own situation and home.

It occurs to me that some reading this are wondering how they will know whether their gifts have been well received.  It is the act of acknowledging the house wight and honoring them that builds the relationship between you and them.  Obviously, the material gift you leave for them is still there where you left it.  But, the value or meaning of the gift is taken by them and enjoyed.  Determining if the house wight has accepted your gifts or if the gifts are appreciated is something very personal.  How does the home feel to you?  Does the home feel happy and calm?  Are things going well around the home?  Are you feeling comfortable in the home?  There is a tone to things when they are happy...and a tone to things when you may have displeased them or made them felt ignored.  And for some, there are physical results that happen...events that take place that denote their appreciation.  Something long lost, suddenly popping up in a place you know you did not leave it.  Or you are in a hurry and need something, and you turn around and there it is in plain sight.  Some would call these events coincidence or wishful thinking on your part.  But, I prefer to think these are gifts in return for your gifts.

I will gladly admit to also talking to our house wight.  If I've lost something or if I need to find something, I'll sometimes ask the house wight for a little help finding it.  Sometimes, I just talk about whatever's going on...or have a laugh about something the kids have done.  Some people picture their house wight as a spirit...others picture their house wight as some form of hidden folk, like brownies or tomte or nisse.  Some get the idea that their house wight is a male, and some a female.  Some folks come to believe that they have some understanding for the personality of their house wight.  Others find their house wight to be more of a mystery.  Really, I don't think there are any hard and fast rules.  I believe some house wights prefer a neat and tidy home, while others prefer a little bit of eclectic clutter.  Some house wights prefer a bit of quiet, while others seem to enjoy the noise a house full of children brings.  I've heard various beliefs on what house wights feel about family pets, but I tend to think the pets and the house wights give each other a respectful and friendship distance.

What is most important, is finding a way to acknowledge and interact with the spirit or heart of your home.  While this is a spiritual matter, it is a practical one as well.  When you gift and honor your house wight, and attempt to form a relationship or bond there...you will most likely also have a better appreciation for your own home, how it operates, and what makes it work best for you and your family.  Many Heathens that gift and honor their house wight, report concrete benefits from doing so.  Their homes are happier and healthier.  They lose things less often, and when they do lose things...these objects have a way of turning up on their own (with a little help from the house wight, of course).  Children who are taught to appreciate and get along with their house wight, are introduced to a part of our Folkway that many adults new to our world-view have not yet discovered.  By teaching this to our children, we are giving back to them something that was taken from us.

Now let's talk about the land vaettir, or land wights.  Some picture these wights or beings as actual hidden folk (brownies, gnomes, etc.)  Others picture them as the living embodiment or living spirit of the fields or forests.  There are various ways to approach them as well.  What I'm going to talk about is what to do if you live in a suburban home and wish to gift the land vaettir outside of your home.  Much like with the house wight, it is a good idea to establish a place in your yard to honor the land wights and to leave them gifts.  This place in the back yard can be somewhere that you can sit and think and enjoy your back yard.  Or it can be someplace dramatic or central to you backyard, such as a large tree or some other feature that dominates your yard.  You can built an actual home for your land wight.  Though some build an altar of rocks or wood.  It might be appropriate to plant a flower garden, or landscape an appropriate place to honor the land wights.  It is really up to you.

Leaving gifts for the land wights is a similar process to that of the house-wights, except that it is somewhat less personal.  I don't find myself sharing some of my beer with the land-wights, like I do with my house-wight.  I am more likely to simply sacrifice an entire beer of some quality to the land wights, rather than sharing some of my own.  For me, the land wights are a little more distant and not nearly as close or personal as you house wight.  It always feels to me like they are a little bit harder to get along with...and not as quick to give you the benefit of the doubt.  Keeping your yard and trees healthy and well-tended (or at the very least, free of trash and clutter) is pleasing to the land wights.

If one lives on a farm or goes hunting, there are ways of approaching the land wights that may be helpful to your endeavors.  Much of this you learn though experimentation, and seeing what works.  Again, you can gift your land wights, talk with them, promise them certain things (but always follow through on your promises), and generally build bonds with them.  But, you have make the time for it and do the work.  Like everything in life, you get out of it what you put into it.

We have a neatly piled stack of stones in our backyard that is for our land wights.  It is by one of the oak trees we have planted in our yard.  It is hear that we leave gifts.  I keep this pile of stones well tended and neat.  I trim the grass very carefully around it, to show that it is important to me...and to keep it looking nice.

Honestly, this can all sound a bit crazy to the uninitiated.  Many new Heathens tend to focus on the Gods and Goddesses, because they are used to religions that focus on divine powers.  The idea that you share a home with an unseen spirit is not exactly something most of us grew up with in our modern culture.  Giving gifts and respect to the spirits and unseen beings that live on the land you own is not something that your hear much about outside of our Folkway.  But, as strange as it sounds and feels, gifting one's house wight and the land wights on your land, and learning how to interact with these beings can be very rewarding.  Making this a part of your personal practice is the best way to learn.  If something works, use it.  If something doesn't work, let it go.  This is one of those things that feels a bit strange at first, but then feels very natural after just a short time of giving it a try.

So, what are some ways you interact with your house and land wights?

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