Friday, December 4, 2015

An eyewitness account of a 10th century blót

The following comes from the Risala of Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim traveler who wrote of his adventures north of the Black Sea in the 10th century CE. Here, he is speaking of the Rus, a group of Norsemen who came from Sweden down the various rivers of western Russia as traders and eventually settlers, and who gave the land its name.
The moment their ships arrive at this wharf, every one of them disembarks, taking with him bread, meat, onions, milk, and nabidh [alcoholic beverage], until he arrives at a long wooden post fixed in the ground which has a face resembling that of a man. Around it are small figures, behind which are long stakes fixed in the ground. He approaches the large figure, prostrates himself before it and says: “O lord, I have come from a far land. With me there are such and such a number of slave girls and such and such a number of sable skins,” until he has enumerated all the articles of commerce that he has. He then says: “And I am come to you with this offering.” And he leaves what he has with him in front of the wooden post. [He then adds]: “I wish you to provide me with a merchant possessing many dinars and dirhams [Arabic coins], one that will buy from me all that I desire, and who will not disagree with what I say.” He then departs.
If sale [of the merchandise] proves to be difficult, and the days of his sojourn are prolonged, he returns with a second and third offering. If [after this] what he wants proves to be difficult of attainment, he carries a gift to each one of the small figures and asks for their intercession, saying: “These are the wives of our lord, his daughters and his sons.” He continues to appeal to one figure after another, imploring their intercession and humbling himself before them. Perhaps the sale of his merchandise is facilitated and he sells it. He then says: “My lord has answered my need, and I must repay him.” He then takes a number of sheep or cattle and slaughters them, giving away a portion of the meat as alms, and carrying the remainder and placing it in front of the large wooden figure as well as in front of the small ones around it. He hangs the heads of the cattle or the sheep on the wooden stakes fixed in the ground. When night sets in, dogs come and eat everything. He who has made the offering says: “My lord is pleased with me and has eaten my gift.” 

Now, as in all things, one needs to bear in mind the prejudices and predilections of the observer, but this first-hand account of a Norse sacrificial offering is fascinating in a number of details.
  1. It makes reference to god-posts; wooden images of deities. This god-post was already there, indicating this trading spot, and the accompanying holy space, was well-established among the Rus.
  2. In this case, the god-post has a number of smaller god-posts around it, representing the family (perhaps servants, as we see in the case of Frigg's handmaidens named, but barely described, in the Prose Edda), to whom offerings are also made if the main offering does not prove efficacious.
  3. The Norsemen "prostrate themselves" before the god-post. That is, they kneel on the ground (in contrast to many modern Asatruar, who have a taboo against kneeling).
  4. There is no altar (ON hörgr), nor is there any mention of "hallowing" or in other ways ritually sanctifying the space. The god-post is simply there, and the offerings are placed on the ground before it.
  5. Animal sacrifices are made after the successful conclusion of the business at hand. This is an obvious and blatant expression of the gift-cycle; the petitioner made an initial offering, with the expectation that his appeal would be accepted eventually, and when it is, an additional offering is made in thanks. Quid pro quo.
  6. Some of the meat of the sacrifice is eaten, some is given directly to the God(s) themselves, again on the ground, not on any altar. No mention is made of the disposition of the blood (as compared, for instance, to the vital part the blood plays in the description of the dísablót in Hervarar saga, or when Freyja is bragging about the offerings she has received from Óttar in the Hyndluljóð).
  7. The heads of the sacrificial animals are placed on the god-posts themselves. 
  8. Animals eat the sacrificed meat, which is taken as a sign that the Gods themselves have accepted the offering; the dogs in this case are acting as the agents of the Gods. 
It should be noted that this is a description of an as-needed offering, rather than one of the fixed holiday celebrations at which sacrifices were made. But the wealth of details, and their implications, are a wonderful source to consider when we modern Asatruar are developing our own ritual praxis.

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