A twisting (and sometimes twisted) exploration of devotion, seership, hearth witchery, and spirit work.
Baby Polytheist: the Heathen/Odinist sequel
A few days ago, my friend Lykeia posted a brief guide to setting up a Hellenic altar for the fledgeling polytheist, demonstrating how easy it can be to start practicing even for the brand new devotee on a budget. For the new heathen, whether devoted to Odin or another god in the pantheon, it's even easier: because of the simplicity of heathen ritual, we have even less essential paraphernalia for you to collect. (Which leaves more money for tattoos, valknut and Thor's hammer jewelry, and homebrewed mead!) Because people often ask me how they should start out with worshiping Odin, what offerings they should make, and what the structure of heathen ritual is, I thought it might be useful to post this beginner's guide. This will consist of a series of three posts, the first one dealing with the basic assumptions and underpinnings of Heathen ritual. More advanced readers, please keep in mind that this is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment, but a very simple and accessible starting place for beginners.
It is often stated that heathenry is a religion of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. What this boils down to, at its most basic level, is that correct practice is more important than any specific doctrine of belief. This means that, even though most heathens hold many, many beliefs and opinions pertaining to the gods, the cosmology, ethics, and how to interpret the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon literature that has come down to us (aka “the lore”), there is no dogma in heathenry (in theory, anyway--since dogma refers to ideology). However, there is a traditional and preferred way to approach the heathen gods—and it is this preferred way that new people often have questions about. Fortunately, we have examples of this way in many of the surviving contemporary descriptions of ancient heathen ritual and temple buildings, which give us a pretty good idea of the structure and purpose of the one and the layout of the other.
Briefly, heathen ritual is organized around the principle of Gebo, which is the rune in the Elder Futhark that looks like an X and actually equates to the English letter G. In Anglo-Saxon, this rune is called Gyfu. It's literal meaning is “gift,” but it signifies (among other things) the energy exchange that takes place between a devotee and his/her god/s. As depicted by the form of the rune, this energy must be balanced if the exchange, or the relationship, is to be a productive and healthy one. In other words, a devotional relationship with a heathen god is assumed to be one of give and take: you give your time, attention, energy, and the best offerings you are able to acquire (given your personal circumstances) and you get (perhaps) the attention and favor of that god, or at the very least His or Her appeasement. You may, if you and the god are both willing, even get a conversation, or a real ongoing relationship. Of course, since most heathens are hard polytheists who regard the gods as individual beings who possess power and agency as well as personal likes and dislikes (rather than as cosmic gumball machines), there is never an assumption that a god or goddess owes us Their attention, or any other sort of recompense, in return for ours. However, by approaching Them we are extending Them an invitation into our lives—one which, of course, They are perfectly free to refuse, just as a friend (or the friend of a friend) might politely turn down an invitation to dinner. If the invitation is refused, you are free to try again, unless the god makes it clear that this would not be welcome. There is no explanation owed to you for this refusal; sometimes a god and a particular mortal simply don't “click.”
Once the invitation has been accepted and a god or goddess becomes part of your devotional life on a regular basis, many new people have trouble determining what to give Them, and how much of it. Since it is very difficult to quantify the things that can be brought to the table by a god versus what we feel we ourselves have to offer in return, it's only natural to feel that whatever we give cannot ever be good enough, however in my experience it's best to leave any notion of “equal exchange” to Their judgment and simply do the best we can on our end. The gods bring us countless gifts—life, health, love, luck, prosperity, magic, the list goes on and on—and in most cases what They ask in return from us is very simple: 1) an open mind and heart, and 2) the willingness to share what we have with Them, in terms of time, energy, and—when our circumstances permit—physical offerings (food, drink, works of art, writings, etc.)
I will be honest with you: I think physical offerings are important, since we live in a material realm and we are incarnated at least partially to learn from both the freedoms and restrictions of the material world. Offering something tangible to the gods—whether a drink, some of one's own blood, or a painting—gifts Them with something that we, as humans, are in a unique position to offer Them, since most of Them cannot directly access physical things without the aid of a horse (a human who willingly serves as a vehicle for Them to interact with and manipulate the material world). Some gifts—such as a poem or a dance—bridge the gap between physical and energetic offerings. The Havamal (the section of the Poetic Edda attributed to Odin) is often quoted as stating that it is better to not give at all than to give too much; I myself take issue with this. In my own practice, I share everything I do and everything I have with Odin, but for beginners to heathen practice, or new Odin devotees, I would say give what you are able to give; and by this I mean, what you are honestly able to give, not what you think you can get away with giving. I have faith in the ability of the gods to let us know when/if this is too much, or more than They want to receive from us, but in general I think it is not possible to give Them too much, when weighed against all the gifts They lavish upon us.
The basic rite of heathen worship is called a blot. This word literally means blood and carries the connotation of a blood offering, and there are those who will tell you it is incorrect to apply it to a drink offering ritual (which some say is more properly called a faining). However, a large segment of American heathenry uses the term blot for this ritual, and it is the one I first learned myself, so I'm sticking with it. Quite simply, a blot is a rite of sharing sacred drink with the gods, either alone or in a group of other people. If you are invited to such a group they will tell you how they prefer to practice, so I'm going to stick with pointers on the solo ritual. For this, the extant writings describe a temple altar containing a drinking horn, an offering bowl into which to pour the hallowed drink, a twig for sprinkling the participants with the drink, and an oath ring for the making of oaths.
As a solitary (more or less), I don't have half of these things. Nor do I, after practicing for more than ten years now, find that I need half of these things.
Of all of these items, the drinking horn is the most important, as it symbolizes the rune Uruz (strength, steadfastness, and endurance, the qualities we most want to characterize our devotion to the Holy Ones) as well as the Mead of Poetry (inspiration as well as sovereignty; read this for more detail on my own theories regarding this), in addition to the Well of Wyrd, presided over by the Norns, who influence and record the beginning and end of each human life (think of Them as roughly the Germanic counterpart to the Greek Fates). Passing the drinking horn in heathen ritual is not (in most cases) merely an excuse for imbibing booze. In fact, it is thought that words spoken over the horn in a ritual setting are spoken directly into the Well of Wyrd, wherein they become not only part of your own personal, individual fate but also part of Orlog (the pattern of all that is). In heathen thought, your fate is interwoven with—and both affects and is affected by—the wyrd of everyone you know, including any of the gods who have consented to bind Their wyrd with yours, and even of people who are only indirectly connected with you. So choose your words well! In fact, I like to extend this principle to my words spoken or written in any setting, ritual or otherwise; once you realize the power and weight your words can have, you learn to guard them more carefully, especially if you are representing a god in any capacity. (And, as an aside, I believe we are all representatives of our gods, as well as of our faiths, even when we are in mundane settings—such as at work, when no one is aware of this other than we ourselves. But that's a topic for another post.)
Even granted the importance of the drinking horn, I was a full year past my initial claiming by Odin before I acquired my first one, and it was a further two years or so past that before I finally got the hand carved, personally commissioned one I had been craving. And at this point I will add that, no matter how anxious you may be to get everything “just right,” my best advice is to just start doing ritual using whatever you have on hand. I think there is something to be said for waiting for the “just right” ritual tools to enter your life, but don't use your lack of “proper” tools as an excuse to delay starting your practice! When I first started, I used a glass goblet—not something specially purchased, but something I found in my kitchen cabinet—because that was what I had available and Odin didn't want to wait.
In my next post, we will talk more about ritual structure and tools, and in the one following that, about tailoring your altar and rite for a specific deity (with the emphasis on Odin, naturally).
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