Monday, October 20, 2008

The Trollkyrka Folk-Poem

I came across the following most fascinating folk-poem, related to Heathen practices held on the Swedish mountain Trollkyrka. It is dated to the early 17th century, having been collected by Bertil Gösta Carlshult, and many of the lines seem to reflect and build on what we know from earlier lore about how religious ceremonies were conducted, adding what seem like minor bits of detail. But in the attempt to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of our ancient forebears, even minor details are as nuggets of gold.
The procession creeps on a meandering path
preferably unseen to the Troll mountains/hills.
It is no surprise that those who would be undertaking such a ritual so long after the official conversion of the land would do so in secret.
A mass shall be held for three days,
this will be the beginning of the holiday.
"Mass" here should of course be read in its most generic sense possible-- much as the medieval witch-hunters wrote of the "black mass". It is simply the terminology that the author and audience of the folk-song would have most easily understood. The fact that the celebration is said to last three days is quite significant in and of itself; the lore tells us that blót celebrations would last for that same amount of time.
The frock is long, so it reaches down to the ground,
the socks are sharply pointed,
the hood is pulled down so that the holes for the eyes fit.
Everybody looks alike except for the height,
the prelate counts their number.
The password is given in a low voice,
Here we have more description of the clandestine nature of the procession. The worshipers wear robes and hoods to conceal their identities (they are identical) and the prelate (he who is conducting the ceremony) counts the number of worshipers to make sure that no one has attempted to infiltrate the procession. Finally, as another security measure, there is a predetermined password known only to the worshipers.
the prelate blows three times in a horn.
The fire is kindled with nine kinds of wood,
that is old custom.
The sounding of the horn is a common feature of even modern Théodish and Ásatrú rituals, as it is a fairly obvious device to summon the faithful. However, its presence here is somewhat odd; according to the song, the faithful have already arrived at the appointed meeting place. Why, then, would the horn need to be sounded? From the internal logic of the song, there is no reason to sound the horn, and so to take it as a late add seems difficult to reconcile. Thus, I take it to be a bit of ancient tradition which has survived. A similar case exists with the fire of nine kinds of wood; we know of the ancient need-fires, and the role the fire takes in the blot ceremony, but the specific datum that it was to be made of nine different types of wood is a new addition to the lore surrounding it.
A sacrifice is offered to the spirits,
everyone is sprinkled with the blood.
The best part is gifted to spirits,
what remains is to be consumed by the men.
The sprinkling of the assembled worshipers with the blood of the sacrificed animal is well-attested in the earlier lore. So too is the notion that the spirits (Gods) would receive the "best part"; the organs, which were placed on the fire mentioned above as the main offering. The fact that a feast is made out of the rest of the animal is once again consistent with what we know of the ancient practice.
In the midnight hour
when stars glitter,
the prelate asks for silence
and this is obeyed by all the men.
This is so evocative of the beginning of the Havamal that it is difficult to avoid comparison. "For silence I pray all sacred children, great and small, ye sons of Heimdall..." which some scholars have taken as a genuine element of a ritual formula. Here we seem to have confirmation of the spirit, if not the exact language, that this is indeed the case. Note also that we have entered a second phase of the ritual; the blót completed, we now turn to a ritual of divination, once again quite consistent with what the earlier lore tells us was the case during the pre-Christian era.
They fall down onto the ground,
the prelate looks grimly at the heavens.
This echos what Tacitus tells us about the taking of auguries (that the augur would look skyward as he picked up the marked slips of wood), but it seems that the "prelate" is doing something a tad different than that which Tacitus described. Note that the assembled kneel or otherwise prostrate themselves (in contrast to the standard Ásatrú practice of never kneeling in ritual).
And incantations and summons echo in the dells
the prelate is summoning spirits.
Everyone received an answer to their question,
no one heard from another man what the answer was.
This is a particularly fascinating bit, and calls to mind the description of the workings of the seið-worker in the Saga of Erik the Red. A song/incantation is performed by the "prelate", and spirits arrive. The clear implication is that the spirits speak, but in a departure from the seidkona in the Saga, through whom the spirits give their answers, the clear implication here is that the spirits speak directly to the assembled folk. The distinction is relatively important, as it transforms the seið-worker from the summoner of/speaker to the spirits to merely the summoner, with the questioners taking on the role of spirit-speaker directly. This could be an example of either an evolution of the practice or a regional variation on the way the practice could be performed.

All in all, I find this a spectacular source of detail as well as an overall confirmation of the broad outlines of how blót and the subsequent divinatory process were to proceed, at least in a late era and with possible local variation. There are some intriguing differences, specifically in terms of the role of the celebrant and the divination, although the description is a clear enough parallel to that in Erik the Red's Saga as to be able to state that it is a form of seið. All in all, a rich vein for nuggets of lore.

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