Sunday, May 24, 2015

Remember

Remember those who gave their lives, that we might be free.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

HUAR doesn't speak for me

I am Joseph, born in the United States, of English, Danish, Swedish, and Ukrainian descent. And “Heathens United Against Racism” (HUAR) doesn’t speak for me.

I think people of every ethnicity, and every nationality, should be free to embrace the religious paths of their forefathers. You can’t have diversity without a sense of identity.

I believe that Asatru is the modern expression of the pre-Christian religion of the people of northern and western Europe. And as someone of (mostly) northern European ethnicity, I should have the same freedom to embrace the spiritual path of my ancestors that I believe my Amerindian, Tibetan, African, and Asian friends do.

I’m a proud member of the Asatru Folk Assembly, and I greatly respect Stephen A. McNallen. He has made great contributions to the growth of Asatru over the years, and the campaign of hate against him personally is both wrong and unseemly.

I can be folkish and not be racist. I can want to spread the faith of my folk without thinking that other folks are inferior, or wanting to harm them, or obsessing about some sort of “racial purity” that nobody in the Asatru community except HUAR seems to be carrying on about.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Thoughts on Midsummer

Midsummer is a holiday I choose to celebrate as an Asatruar. I do this not because, but despite, the fact that it is regularly included in the neopagan "wheel of the year" which places holidays at the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. I also place it not on the actual date of the solstice, but on June 24th, St. John's Day, which is the traditional day of celebration in Scandinavia (and, it seems, throughout the Germanic world).

While it is quite true that Midsummer is not one of the three sacrifices mentioned in Snorri's Heimskringla and Óláfs saga helga (Winternights, Yule, and Summer Meal), the date was most certainly not unknown as significant to the people of the North. We see it mentioned in several places in the Icelandic sagas and other Old Norse sources, such as Grettir's Saga, Grágas (the old Icelandic law code), the Rymbegla (where it is noted as a feast day), and the Saga of the Norwegian king Magnúss Erlíngssonar, wherein we find the word miðsumarskeið, which means "midsummer time", in the same sense that people today still use the word "Yuletide" to mean a span of days relating to Yule:
When King Sigurd came south in Denmark in Schleswig, he found Eilíf Earl, and celebrated him well, giving him a banquet fit for a hero. That was at midsummertime.
Still, only Rymbegla specifically speaks of any sort of celebration specifically associated with the day (or the span of days), although King Erlíngssonar's banquet for Eilíf Earl could certainly have been coincident with such a celebration.

If we move but a little southward, however, we begin to see a more definite pattern emerge. In the Vita S. Eligius (who lived in the 7th century in France, which at that time was well-entrenched in Germanic Frankish culture), we see the following admonition given to the people of northwestern Gaul:
No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [solstice rites?] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.
Here we see a clear linkage between the Germanic Midsummer (centuries of domination by the Franks had lent the land a decidedly Germanic cast, although a Celtic or even Roman origin for the tradition cannot be ruled out) and the performance of non-Christian celebrations. (As an aside, I will also note the reference to dancing and chanting/singing, which is a theme I'm developing as part of my own contemporary Asatru practice.) So, it is most certainly not a Christian invention to celebrate on the date, else Eligius wouldn't have admonished against it.

I would also note that just because the holiday was not mentioned by Snorri does not mean it was not practiced, as his was not an exhaustive list, since we know of other attested celebrations such as Alfablót, Dísablót, DísþingÞorrablót, etc., not to mention the Anglo-Saxon celebrations mentioned by Bede.

That Midsummer is an important holiday in Scandinavia today should be news to no one. Celebrated with fires and drinking, it is a tradition going back at least centuries. I would argue it goes back considerably farther, based on the evidence in Rymbegla and Eligius. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page on Midsummer (never a good source for hard evidence, but illustrative nonetheless) shows traditions of bonfires and other celebrations associated with the day across the Germanic world and beyond.

In Sweden, the midsommarstång ("Midsummer pole") functions much like a May Pole elsewhere, just moved back a month and a half (possibly explained by the differences in climate between Scandinavia and the Continent), and even in Elizabethan England the association of Midsummer with magic and the fey survived strongly enough for Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night's Dream around those themes.

It's entirely possible that the celebration of Midsummer with fire, and its association with fertility, is something that isn't completely Germanic in origin. However, I think the fact that it was noted and celebrated is pretty difficult to deny, and the form in which it is celebrated today in the Germanic and Scandinavian nations is as good as any, in the absence of any definitive evidence to the contrary.

And finally, a guide to Midsummer from the folks who do it best:


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

(UPDATED) THIS will end well...

The Asatru community in the northeastern US is quite robust, and has the benefit that both the folkish and universalist camps are well-represented, so Asatruar of either inclination (or those who don't care) have lots to choose from.

It is also fortunate to have a facility like Camp Netimus, which is a girls camp with cabins, wonderful facilities, and a staff and administration that is most definitely Pagan and Heathen friendly. Over the years they've played host to numerous Asatru and neo-pagan gatherings, and this year will be hosting Trothmoot, Folkish Summer Hallowing, East Coast Thing, and AFA Winternights. It's a great time to be a Heathen who lives an hour away from Netimus. :-)

However, it is the case that the folkish and universalist camps in the area don't exactly get along. It might even be correct to say that, on the whole, they loathe one another, both on ideological and personal levels.

So, when this came to light, it, shall we say, raised a few eyebrows:



For those not "in the know", East Coast Thing is one of the premier universalist gatherings in the region, and Folkish Summer Hallowing is one of the premier folkish gatherings in the region.

As I write this, it's unknown whether the camp has really double-booked that weekend (in which case it will be VERY interesting to see which event moves to another date), or whether one event's website simply has the wrong date. If they are double-booked, then whoever got their paperwork in sooner will probably get the date, but the perception of "we had to move to accommodate them" will still be out there. Either way, I fear that the snafu will serve to exacerbate tensions between the two sides, which have been pretty calm the last few years, which I personally think is a good thing.

Updates as information becomes available.

UPDATE THE FIRST (4/28/15 10:15 PM):

The Folkish Summer Hallowing website just posted the following update on the situation:


It has come to our attention, as of April 28th 2015, that the organizers of East Coast Thing (ECT) mistakenly advertised their event on the wrong weekend, our weekend. (August 20th-23rd)
After re-checking our CONTRACT between The Irminfolk and Camp Netimus, and then reaching out DIRECTLY to the Camp facilitators, we CONFIRMED that our dates are correct and ECT’s contract books them for the following weekend (Aug 26th-30th). 
We understand that some good quality Heathens have already taken off from work and made travel arrangements for the dates FSH will be held, with the intent of attending ECT. 
We are sympathetic to their unfortunate circumstances and will be more than happy to accommodate them at our FSH event. 
FSH is a family friendly event which is open to ALL Heathens, and we hold hospitality and frith in the HIGHEST regard.  All are welcome. 
I'd say that's mighty white of them. Ahem. ;-)

UPDATE THE SECOND (4/29/15 5:15 PM)

The East Coast Thing folks have posted the following on their Facebook page, and have made corrections on the main ECT website:


We would like to firstly extend our deepest apologies to anyone and everyone who took off already and made travel plans for ECT. The dates that we have been advertising are incorrect. The official dates for ECT 2015 are from August 26- August 30.
For those of you wondering what may have happened, we always book the weekend before Labor Day. This year however, Labor Day weekend is a bit later than normal, and the camp forwarded us a pre-contract dating of August 19-23rd. It was their error but we did not pick up on on the fact that this was not in fact, the weekend before Labor Day. In the meantime, another event was contracted for that weekend.
Netimus has allowed us to reduce the price of any and all registrations by 20$. We know, it isn't much.
New registration forms will be made available shortly, in the meantime you can still use the old registration forms if you wish, but pay 20$ less than the asking price per ticket. If you have already paid, send us an email at ectreg2015@pobox.com.We apologize again and profusely for this misunderstanding.
So, basically, it comes down to:

  • ECT and FSH both originally asked for different dates
  • Both events were booked by the campground for different dates
  • The campground accidentally put the wrong date on the paperwork sent to ECT
  • ECT publicly announced the wrong date that was on the paperwork, rather than the correct date they originally asked for
An unfortunate situation all around, but hopefully it got caught early enough that not too many travel plans or vacation days from work will have to be adjusted. Glad it (mostly) worked out.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Religion with Homework

"Asatru is the religion with homework" is a common enough saying in the broader contemporary Asatru community. The expectation is that every Asatruar should be at least conversant in Old Norse, have read the Eddas and as many Icelandic Sagas as possible, and be constantly reading scholarly works on archaeology, philology, history, linguistics, anthropology, and the like. Comparisons of dusty treatises from the 19th century with the latest scholarship are to be regarded as de rigeur. It is thought that it's not enough to simply live as an Asatruar and worship the Gods, and those who are not constantly acting like a PhD student are somehow shirking their obligation.

Speaking as someone who does love that level of scholarly work, I have come to the opinion that this is bunk.

To be sure, there is a place for scholarship, and for those who are so inclined, such scholarly pursuits are worthwhile and admirable. However, for the vast majority of Asatruar, it is simply not necessary to engage in that level of scholarship. As long as there are reputable contemporary works that distill down all the high-end scholarship into easy-to-digest books, that should be enough for the vast majority of Asatruar out there.

Think of it this way - are Christians expected to learn Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew? Do they really pick and choose a church based on its adherence to the 1913 Kansas City Statement of Faith vs. its adherence to the 1927 Evangelical Catechism? Would they even know the difference? Or do they choose a church based on the people that belong to it? Do they study books of religious philosophy from the 19th century? A few do, sure. But the vast majority don't. They have their Bible, which they might read, and they have what they learn from sermons when they go to church, and maybe a couple of popularly-written books that explain Christian thought on a particular topic from a particular point of view.


And that's okay. Everyone doesn't have to be a scholar.

No real Asatruar would skip this book...
That's not to say there cannot be discernment in sources, even when they're written in a popular style that doesn't have a list of sources and footnotes half again as long as the book itself. Even if not everyone is a scholar, those who do prefer a scholarly approach will have opinions about such books, and will write reviews, which others can then use to form their own opinions about whether such-and-such is a book worth reading.

The scholarly ideas within Heathenry wouldn't go away -- far from it. But they wouldn't be expected to be at the forefront of every discussion about practicalities in Asatru, and those who didn't have a relevant quote in Old High German on every subject wouldn't be implicitly looked down on in some circles. There would still be scholarly books published for those who were so inclined, but popular ones too, that wouldn't be looked down on for a paucity of footnotes.

For myself, I'm writing my own "Beginner's Book" for Asatru. What I think I'll do is actually release it in two editions; a Popular Version, which just has the essence of the beliefs and practice of Asatru laid out, with a very small and easily-approachable list of further reading for those who are so inclined. There will also be an Annotated Version, with exactly the same material, except with all the footnotes, citations from the original languages, list of scholarly works cited and so forth. I have a shrewd idea which one will sell better...

Saturday, April 18, 2015

St. Stephen and Freyr

It's well-known that certain Celtic deities were imported nearly wholesale into the Christian pantheon of Saints, with the most obvious example being the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is now known as St. Brigid. However, there are also similar correspondences with Germanic deities. One such is St. Stephen, known from the New Testament as the first martyr (or proto-martyr, since his death came before Christianity was founded, as such; see Acts 6-7). Some sources report an 11th century missionary named Staffan, with whom the Biblical figure may have been conflated. I first became aware of this saint, and his possible connections with the Norse god Freyr, in Pamela Berger's The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint, pp 110-112, although she goes further and conflates him with the goddess Freyja, which doesn't seem all that justified (or necessary).

What's intriguing is that when the North began to be converted, and the saints of Christianity began to enter the public consciousness, they were mapped onto pre-existing Heathen religious and folk-customs. In the case of St. Stephen, this mapping occurred due to the proximity of his feast-day (December 26th, known as Boxing Day in England) with the Heathen Yule (ON Jól) celebration, which was held around the winter solstice.

The winter solstice celebration was associated with the god Freyr. According to Ynglinga Saga (ch. 8), the mid-winter, or Yule, sacrifice was made "for a good crop":
Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.
On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.
While Gylfaginning (ch. 24) makes it plain that it is in fact Freyr to whom such supplications for good harvests were made:
Freyr er inn ágætasti af ásum. Hann ræðr fyrir regni ok skini sólar ok þar með ávexti jarðar, ok á hann er gott at heita til árs ok friðar. Hann ræðr ok fésælu manna. 
Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men. 
The association of the boar with both Freyr and Yule is well-known. Freyr is said to ride a golden-haired boar, named gullinbursti, and feasts of pork around the solstice (originally associated with Yule, and transferred to the new Christmas holiday) were traditional well into the Christian era. In modern Sweden, boar-shaped cakes are a traditional Christmas dish. Even as late as the 18th century, December 17th was called Sow Day in the Orkneys, and the best sow of the herd would be slaughtered, obviously a hold-over from the ancient Yuletide boar sacrifice to Freyr, as described in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (ch. 10):
Ok skyldi þeim gelti blóta at sónarblóti. Jólaaptan skyldi leiða sónargöltinn í höll fyrir konúng; lögðu menn þá hendr yfir burst hans ok strengja heit.
And they would sacrifice a boar in the sonarblót. On Yule Eve the sonar-boar was led into the hall before the king; then people laid their hands on its bristles and made vows.
In addition, there are connections between Freyr and horses. Hrafnkel's Saga tells of a horse, Freyfaxi, that was declared sacred to the god, and which it was forbidden to ride. Skírnir took Freyr's horse, Blóðughófi, with him to woo the giantess Gerd, and there is some hint of an association with Freyr and the Scandinavian custom of horse-fighting.

Now, the association of St. Stephen with these traditions becomes apparent when we see the differences in how the saint appears in the North, compared to the Mediterranean world of his origin. In the Biblical account, Stephen is a deacon, but in the folk-tales told about him in the Scandinavian nations, he is a stable groom, indicating the association with horses (no such horse associations seem to be native to the Biblical character).

One such tale even specifically states that Stephen was bringing in a boar's head for Herod's Yule feast immediately before his untimely demise. The scene is not only recounted in several ballads of the period, but also on the baptismal font at Stänge. (The folktale version of the story also involves a cooked cock coming back to life to announce the divinity of Jesus.) In England, St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, also echoing the association of Freyr with horses, and an English folk-ballad about Stephen reinforces his connection with the boar's head feast of Yule/Christmas:
“Stephen out of kitchen came,
With boarës head on hand,
He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlehem stand.”
So on the one hand, we have the god Freyr, associated with a great Yuletide sacrifice and feast, associated with boars and horses. On the other hand, we have the "northern version" of St. Stephen, whose feast-day is during the Yuletide, and whose folk-tales are associated with boars and horses. It does seem to be a bit more than a coincidence, especially since the associations of Stephen with the boar and the horse are northern folkloric additions, and the proximity of his feast-day with the already-extant sacrificial feast in honor of Freyr gives a positive reason for the association.

In other words, when the Church imported their St. Stephen and imposed him on the peoples' Yule celebration, the people in turn superimposed some of their own folk-beliefs about what the subject of the solstice feast should be like, and that is retained in the various folkloric associations.

On a practical level, I think this gives we modern Asatruar a potential source of color and customs for our own Yule celebrations. Some of the early modern customs associated with Stephen in the northern countries (but not the southern ones) come to mind, but there are doubtless others that are practiced on the saint's feast-day in Scandinavia and England (and sometimes even as far south as central Europe) that do not exist in the Mediterranean nations, and thus might be survivals from pre-Christian times:
  • Horse racing, with the horses "decorated with many-colored ribbons", possibly to a north-flowing stream, with the winner being given alcohol as a token of victory
  • Riding horses and making noise at night or in the morning, which stops only when the home owner gives a gift of alcohol, singing the Staffans Visa (see below) or some equivalent
  • Naming a child or young man "Freyr" for the day and having him riding either a real or hobby horse, and making him a living embodiment of the god for the day
  • Taking horses around the fields, to ensure their fecundity
  • Bringing sick animals, especially horses, to a holy spot sacred to Freyr, for healing
  • Paint or otherwise decorate children's piggy banks with red, to bring prosperity in the coming year
  • Play bandy or other ice-related sports (a bandy match on this day is traditional in Sweden)
  • Bleeding of horses (presumably for their health) was also a custom on this day, but I would not recommend its revival, given modern veterinarian science has pretty well demolished whatever credibility this practice might have had 
Furthermore, the association of the holiday with the practice of guising (dressing up in animal disguises as a celebration of the New Year, which was specifically banned by the early church as they expanded their conquest of the North) seems obvious, but remains I think a topic for a separate discussion.

Additionally, there are a large number of customs associated with "Wren's Day" on December 26th as well, but since there doesn't seem to be any association with either Freyr or the biblical Stephen and the wren, it is possible that that is more a survival of some Celtic practice, and might yield fruit to those who are interested in that side of the aisle.




Yeah, I know it's April, and it might seem weird posting something about Yule traditions, but the time to start thinking about this stuff is now, not two weeks before the actual holiday!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Gods of Place - Hrattá

One of the conceits of polytheism in general is that the world is alive with spirits. In addition to the mighty gods and goddesses in Heaven (whether that be Asgard, or Olympus, or Swarga Loka or something else), there are a multitude of more local deities, linked to specific areas (or specific geographic features) who might also be approached for aid and to whom offerings may be made.

During the Migration Era, the cult of the Matronae was found on both sides of the Rhine, and often tied to the specific locale by the name given to the goddesses on their altar inscriptions. We also see references to practices involving worship of gods of springs, rocks, and trees in later Christian polemics, sermons, and manuals of penance, railing against these pagan holdover beliefs and practices.

Modern Asatru recognizes these beings as landvaettir, or land-spirits, in a generic sense, as well as the house-wight (tomten, nisse, or brownie) and these are attested to in the later written sources. It is sometimes the case that a given stone or tree or spring is said to be the home of a land-wight (such as the famous elf-stones in Iceland), but I find that modern Asatru rarely places these sorts of deities at the forefront of worship.

Here in the United States, it is easy to fall into what I call the Amerindian Trap. That is, the idea that because these lands were settled by Amerindians before they were settled by Europeans, that they somehow "own" the local land-spirits, and that the only way to approach them is to do so on Amerindian terms, with Amerindian rituals.

But the truth is different - those gods of place were here long before the Amerindians came here, and the arrival of Europeans didn't displace them. Those Amerindians may have gotten to know the spirits better because of long association, but that hardly means we Europeans cannot get to know them, too, and honor them according to our own ancestral ways.

In my own case, I happen to live right next to a river that meanders around northwest New Jersey before emptying into the Delaware. Before this land was settled by Europeans (originally English, later Germans and still later Scandinavians), it was inhabited by the Lenape Indians. The name of the river is the Musconetcong, which in Munsee (the language of the Lenape in this area) means "swift river". I've done some studying on the subject, and reached out to the remnants of the Lenape in Oklahoma, and listened to the goddess of the river herself.

I call her Hrattá, which means "swift river" in Old Norse. I have given her offerings of cakes, and ale, and lit candles in her honor. Mostly I just sit by the river and talk with her. Sometimes I will sing to her. On occasion she will appear as a white heron, and answers to questions can be read in the way she flies through the trees above the river.

Now, she's not the only land-spirit around. Far from it, and I still make offerings "to the landvaettir" on a monthly basis. And I make offerings to the Aesir as well. And my ancestors. But there's always Hrattá there, too, the heron goddess of the swift river, who grows strong in the spring as the snow melts and the rain falls, and who brings life to the land, embracing the waterfowl, and fish, and frogs, and turtles, and freshwater clams that the raccoons eat at night, and the children who explore her banks and swim in her pools.

And I sing to her, and bring her cakes, as my Germanic ancestors did with the local goddesses in Europe according to their customs. And the goddess of the river doesn't seem to mind that one bit.