berr-at maðr brautu at
en sé mannvit mikit;
þykkir þat í ókunnum stað;
slíkt er válaðs vera.
berr-at maðr brautu at
en sé mannvit mikit;
vegr-a hann velli at
en sé ofdrykkja öls.
Er-a svá gótt
sem gótt kveða
öl alda sona,
því at færa veit,
er fleira drekkr
síns til geðs gumi.
sá er yfir ölðrum þrumir,
hann stelr geði guma;
þess fugls fjöðrum
ek fjötraðr vark
í garði Gunnlaðar.
Ölr ek varð,
at ins fróða Fjalars;
því er ölðr bazt,
at aftr of heimtir
hverr sitt geð gumi.
10. A better burden can no man carry along the way than great common sense; better than riches in the unknown place for the wretched man.
A theme throughout the verses of Hávamál is the importance of good sense. Even today we recognise the rarity of 'common' sense and praise its application while others jump to wild conclusions or seem confounded by simple problems. In a society that travels light, the reality of 'burdens' is more than just a metaphor. Think of travel on the viking ships. Each member of the crew would have only a small space for belongings on board. Good sense would allow anyone to make the most of whatever crossed their path.
11. A better burden can no man carry along the way than great common sense; and no worse provisions can he bring along than to be over-drinking of ale.
Given the drinking culture of the Norse, an important application of good sense was knowing your limits when it came to drinking. Drunkenness can leave you vulnerable if the need should come to defend yourself with words or weapons, which can be a matter of life or death. But the modern American puritanical approach of just saying no wasn't an option. You would have been marked as strange -- or worse, impolite! Drinking was a bond between strangers -- and sometimes a challenge between enemies (wait until I have a chance to discuss the great drinking/vomiting contest in Egil's Saga).
12. Ale is not so good as believed to be good for the sons of men; because the more one drinks the less the mind of men knows.
Certainly true, but once again opting out was not really an option, so knowing how to drink and how much was essential. The knowledge to make it was a gift from the gods and of course, the mead of poetry alluded to the expressive side of drinking. The tongue might be loosened to compose poetry which might otherwise be locked in the word hoard. The key was not tipping over int garrulous inebriation and gibberish.
13. Forgetfulness is the name of the heron who hovers over the ale drinking; he steals the minds of men. In that bird's feathers was I fettered in the dwelling of Gunnlöð.
As David Evans puts it, "Gunnlöð was the daughter of the giant Suttungr, who had acquired the sacred mead of poetry from the dwarfs Fjalarr and Galarr; Óðinn wins the mead by seducing her" (80). Here the tantalising border between inspiration and inebriation produces a guardian, the heron whose name is 'forgetfulness'. I love the image of drowning in his feathers. Why a heron might be associated with drinking? Ursula Dronke has suggested that it has to do with vomiting.
14. Drunk I became -- excessively drunk! -- there with wise Fjalarr. The best sort of ale party is one where your wits can yet be recovered after.
Wise words: the narrator recalls an unfortunate ale party. In the same location and situation, Óðinn was able to keep his wits about him and won the mead of poetry for the human race. You can almost hear the narrator shaking his head. The best drinking party is one which allows the muse free reign, but never allows it to run away. If you're going to compose wonderful poetry, you want to be able to recall it afterward.
See earlier entries in this series here.
As if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, blurred and dimmed around the edges, the darkness of December beckons as November draws to its end. For the general non-pagan public in America, December is the brightest month of the year, a gleeful blending of commercialism, family ties, and food comas. For many (if not most) pagans, it is a conundrum of sorts, a season when non-pagan family obligations directly or indirectly conflict with the allure of like-minded spiritual gatherings. Historically, for Europeans throughout the middle ages, especially in northern Europe, it was a time of gathering the family tightly together against the outer cold, of taking in travelers and guests with generosity but caution (for who knew what--or Who--might be wandering out there in the freezing gusts, hobnobbing with the trolls), for lavishly feasting the gods--pagan or Christian, depending on the time and the setting--and the dead, but at a careful distance, ever mindful that the next hand on one's doorknob might not be a human one, that the skeletal scraping against windows might not be the branches of dead trees, that the dead walk this time of year, and that things and People far more dire walk alongside them--or worse, fly through the stormy night skies--keeping careful count of debts accrued throughout the year passed, and demanding Their due.
For me, as for my spiritual ancestors, December is the darkest month of the year, with the traditional twelve days of Yule--the "smudging nights," so called in folklore because you had better be smudging your home with protective herbs against the wild spirits that roamed the long nights--beckoning at its black heart. It is the most precious month of the year for me--for it was in this month that I took sacred marriage vows to my Husband, Odin, that darkest of gods, at this darkest of times. But it is also the most dreadful month. It is a time when the air is filled with ghosts and the trolls spill upwards through the cracks in the earth, freed from their underground lairs to walk among humans.
For me it is, beyond all else, Odin's month--although that is certainly not limited to December. Although I feel and honor Him equally, yet somewhat differently, throughout the other seasons of the year, during the period of late September through the beginning of January we see His darkest face, the face of Yggr (the Terrible One) who sacrificed Himself on the World Tree, the face of Wilde Jaeger (the Wild Hunter) who rides His flame-eyed steed at the head of the Furious Host. Perhaps I am biased, but although I do have special festival days throughout the year for Him, and especially in late September through November, for me December is all about Odin, from beginning to end, even though several of the actual festival days within it are goddess-focused.
Hávamál offers us a glimpse of a past that had already become somewhat nostalgic when a single hand transcribed the poem around 1270 CE. As David A. H. Evans writes in the Viking Society for Northern Research’s edition of the verses, this second poem of the Elder Edda “is deservedly one of the most celebrated works to have survived from the early Norse world.” It’s full of gnomic advice that continues to be of interest—and application—to us in the modern world. Old Norse text via the Heimskringla Project.
áðr gangi fram,
um skoðask skyli,
um skyggnast skyli,
því at óvíst er at vita,
sitja á fleti fyrir.
Gestr er inn kominn,
hvar skal sitja sjá?
Mjök er bráðr,
sá er á bröndum skal
síns of freista frama.
Elds er þörf,
þeims inn er kominn
ok á kné kalinn;
matar ok váða
er manni þörf,
þeim er hefr um fjall farit.
Vatns er þörf,
þeim er til verðar kemr,
þerru ok þjóðlaðar,
góðs of æðis,
ef sér geta mætti,
orðs ok endrþögu.
1 Before going through every gate one should look around, peer around, because it’s not possible to know where enemies sit on the benches already.
From the start the sayings of the High one present a world of dangers. The alertness of the wise warrior must be there from the start. Every doorway offers opportunities for peril. Even the safety of the hall remains suspect because on the benches inside wait those who are not friends. The óvinr is literally ‘not friend’ and the verse picks up on a common phenomenon we all recognize: those who show one face and conceal another. It also suggests a clear division: friend, not friend. There’s not a lot of grey area here.
2 Greetings to the host! A guest has come in. Where shall this one sit? He is most hasty who shall sit on the firewood, there to test his mettle.
Watchful one must be, but polite, too. The courtesies of greetings, the giving and accepting of hospitality are the first way any stranger is judged. You don’t get a second chance to make first impressions, as folks like to say. And if you sit in near the fire, you’re going to be put to work. There are a lot of testing motifs in the poem: some action that seems casual may be read with great discernment by the people in the hall.
3 Fire is needed for the one who has come in with cold knee and food and clothes one needs also, the man who has journeyed from the mountain.
The realities of life in the north! Part of hospitality is getting your guests warm and dry as well as fed. A seat near the fire, if not actually on the pile of wood, should be offered and wet clothes replaced with warm dry ones. You may not have a lot to give but warm clothes however worn will show good intentions. A respite from a hard journey will warm the heart as well.
4 Water is needed for the one who comes to the meal, and of a towel and friendly invitation, of good disposition, if one can get it, of words and silence in return.
Yes, let’s dispel the image of the filthy Viking right now. After the roughness of a long journey, anyone welcomes the chance to get clean. People still repeat the mistaken believe that no one bathed in the Middle Ages. Ha! Plus in Iceland you also had hot water coming out of the ground. And as a true introvert, these words of advice warm my heart. Surely the arrival of a visitor was a chance to hear news, but the poet wisely cautions the need to be silent in turn, to allow the visitor to speak or not speak as they might choose.
More next time!
I've written before here about how, in our household, Samhain starts early. For us it begins at the end of September, during the week when we've repeatedly lost beloved pets and on the day when, two years ago, I pledged my service to the Wild Hunt. This year, that day was marked with an inadvertent bloodletting when the Hunt, not satisfied with the efforts I had made thus far on their behalf, aided me in slicing open the knuckle of my right index finger almost to the bone with a pair of sewing shears. (Followed, of course, with a expensive trip to the emergency room and several weeks of limited ability to do anything--including typing and crafting--with that hand. The Hunt does not play.)
It continued the following week when I made a trip to one of the city's oldest cemeteries (and bear in mind that here on the west coast, "oldest" means the 1800s, and the most ancient looking monuments, crumbling with apparent age, are not truly ancient at all but merely rain-damaged). I brought with me home-brewed mead and bone meal, to feed the dead, and locally harvested apples for Sleipnir, Odin's giant eight-legged steed. (Eight legs, by the way; have you ever thought about that? Why does He--the horse, that is--have eight legs? Spiders have eight legs. So does a casket, when borne aloft by four mourners. Sleipnir is, indisputably, a horse of death, a steed to carry one to the land of the dead--which, throughout the Norse myths, is exactly what He does.) I discovered an area devoted to the Civil War dead, which startled me because it seemed the wrong coast for that, but the monument statue of a soldier in uniform and the plots of the military dead exuded an aura of welcome for me, a kinship with the "once human" contingent of the Hunt, with Odin's fallen heroes. Here was succor and support, and so it was here that I marked the stones with my blood, freshly drawn from my finger (not the one with stitches!) using a lancet. (The dead were especially interested in and enthusiastic about the mead, by the way!)
I am a Latin teacher currently (and laboriously) working my way toward a PhD in Classics. I read a lot of Latin texts (in Latin and usually with quite a bit of cussing along the way as I attempt to untangle classical Latin syntax). Fortunately, for the most part, I enjoy this and one of the tangential elements that I find particularly satisfying in my studies is occasionally coming across an interesting reference to ancient Roman [polytheistic] religion along the way. It happens a lot and for all that I am Heathen, not a practitioner of Religio Romana, I find that every time I read about how a man or woman, raised in Roman culture, steeped in its religion honored his or her Gods, I find my own practices enriched.
When I started in Classics I was told (by a PhD candidate) that no one really understands Roman religion. I admit to being a bit taken aback. It always made perfect sense to me: honor your ancestors, honor the living spirit of your city, its genus loci, maintain the proper household and public rituals, and live in a world where everything has its spirit, everything is alive. It made perfect sense to me and I’ll tell you why: for all of their diversity, polytheistic religions – which are indigenous religions-- seem, in my opinion, to share a common thread, one quite alien to monotheistic thought; that common thread is rooted not just in a polytheistic and by extension pluralistic worldview, but in one that is, to greater or lesser degree, animist.
Animism is the worldview/belief/understanding that every living thing is possessed of a spirit. Thus, I once wrote an article about honoring the spirit of one’s computer—can you think of any more important ally today for someone who spends 90% of her time writing?--, and I respect the spirit of my car, and I look to the trees on my property and the stones, and my house itself as being alive and aware. Every thing and every place is a being. The entire world is alive and we as humans are part of that living web.
In Roman religion, this translated into a plethora of what I have occasionally heard referred to as “small Gods.” I’m not sure how any Holy Being can be “small” when compared to a human being, but I’ll let that go for now. Academia is only starting to open its eyes to the validity not only of Paganisms and polytheisms, but of indigenous religion as a whole. It’s a work in progress and let’s just say there’s one hell of a learning curve still to go.
Anyway, what is meant by “small Gods”? (Most academics, by the way, wouldn’t capitalize the G in any God but Jehovah. Just last week I was sitting in a translation class and a student, upon translating the word ‘deus’, which means God and in the case of this particular translation referred to Jupiter, actually said “God with a small g.” Christian indoctrination and bias dies hard, even in little things like spelling conventions and even amongst people who should know better. Those conventions, by the way are important: they shape our thought and unconsciously impact the respect we give to certain things. But again, I digress.
As to ‘small Gods,’ no less a personage than Augustine of Hippo railed against the many ‘small Gods’ that filled the Roman pantheon. In his “The City of God – Against the Pagans” he mocks Roman Paganism for precisely this and thus, perhaps, we see one aspect of the start of the arrogance of the colonizer (for I believe Christian conversion was a process of mental and spiritual colonization and then, quite clearly, of physical aggression and colonization) in its condescension and dismissal of indigenous religions. Augustine had not been raised a Christian. He had converted and brought into his writing all the fundamentalist zeal of the convert. Quoting a Pagan apologist Porphyry, he comments that the worst demons (i.e. Gods) are the ones considered (by Porphyry) to be very minor. So watch out. These “little Gods” apparently pack a big punch in Augustine’s world. Well, I guess even an impious fool gets something right on occasion, because these Gods do pack a rather big wallop spiritually. Or They can should They so choose.
I suppose I still haven’t answered the question of what a “small” Roman God looks like so I shall do that now without further delay. My impression from everything that I’ve read is that by ‘small,’ Augustine and Porphyry before him were talking about Deities whose scope of interest is relatively narrow. (Porphyry of course, was not condemning these Holy Beings in his writing.) Romans were very precise linguistically and they were precise in their devotions. They had their Olympians, of course – Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Minerva, Vesta, Mars, et Al.; they had their household Gods (ancestor shrine I suspect from descriptions as well as a place to honor the genus loci of a house): the lares and penates; they had a cultus for Roma and She had Her shrine in the heart of Rome; they had sylvan spirits and nymphs and fawns and nature spirits of every sort; imperial Rome had their emperor cultus—ancestor veneration on a state wide scale; and they had many other Gods and Goddesses whose area of expertise was fairly narrow.
For instance, there’s the Goddess Cardea. She’s the goddess of door-hinges. Apparently, She worked in tandem with the Gods Forculus (God of doorways) and Limentinus (God of the threshold). Sounds pretty unimportant, right? Perhaps, until one considers the physical, esoteric, and allegorical importance of doorways, locks, bolts, and freedom (or not) to cross a threshold; then She’s not so unimportant after all! In some religions, the God that guards the threshold, the God that guards the doorway and opens or closes doors (which would be dependent on a hinge, people), is honored before all others and is considered of supreme importance. Nothing, not blessing nor bane gets through to the devotee without this Deity’s ok.
There’s some evidence that Cardea may have been associated with the earth’s axis, celestial cycles, and cosmic order…but She was a ‘small’ Goddess. Given the potential scope of Her office, I’d say that – with all due respect—far from being ‘small,’ She has Her hands more than full!
Then there’s my absolute favorite of the Roman Gods: Sterculinus. He is the God of sh*t. Yep. You read that rightly: Sterculinus is the God of doing useful things with sh*t. Now, ancient Romans likely meant the creation and use of fertilizer for agriculture but I like to look at Him as a God of dealing with bullsh*t, after all, being Heathen, I see an awful lot of that. My colleague P. Sufenus Phillipus Lupus wrote a several delightful articles on Sterculinus (which were in fact my introduction to Him), of which one may be found here: http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/translating-sterculinus/. Need I add that Romans, being a nation rooted in a certain military sensibility were very practical, even in religion?
I read about – and occasionally make offerings to—these Gods and it makes me think what knowledge, what awareness and understanding of our world we, as 21th century Heathens, have lost. The battle for Christian ideological supremacy had been largely won by the time what passes for our ‘lore’ was written down and Christian monks, scholars, and theologians no longer spent time arguing about the supposed demonic nature of “small Gods.” They didn’t mention Gods like that at all. They barely mentioned the “Big” Ones and then, I suspect, only because cultural literacy demanded it. For every sacred story that has come down to us –however imperfectly—I have to ask: what was lost? I’m forced to conclude: a terrible amount.
Did we too once have our bevy of “small Gods” whose names have now been lost to Christian conquest? Personally, I think yes. We already know there were regional Gods like Tamfana – Goddess of a river (all we know, thanks to a Roman who was serving in Gaul who made an inscribed offering) in Germany. If the names of Deities who had their own shrines and temples (as we know from the aforementioned inscription Tamfana did) barely survived mention, what about Gods of the threshold, Gods of …I don’t know, waste, windows, the kindling of flame, and other seemingly small but essential aspects of living?
Every time I read about Roman veneration, I am reminded again that we as Heathens need to re-sanctify our world. It’s not enough to reconstruct. Somewhere in between honoring our ancestors and honoring the “Big Gods” like Odin, Thor, Frigga, and Freya, we need to bring back the “little Gods” too. They’re there. I’m sure of it. We have only to relearn the awareness of place that our ancestors had. It is our birthright. It is the thing that was once common to nearly every indigenous polytheism, ours too. There is no reason to believe that the pre-Christian religions of Northern Europe differed in this respect unless one buys in to Christian polemic that paints our polytheistic ancestors as primitive or foolish. I don’t. I think quite the opposite. I think our foremothers and forefathers had an exquisite awareness of the sacredness inherent in their world. I think that is what lay at the heart of their religion. The beating of that metaphysical heart was not something that required confinement in the pages of a ‘holy’ book; the entire world was holy. It was filled with sacred beings. I’ll tell you something else: it still is.
I think somewhere along the line as Christianity ravaged Europe we lost this sense and with it forgot about our Gods. Perhaps our ancestors had no choice---perhaps it was the only way to survive the ideological and religious aggression that would slaughter in the name of Christ rather than allow peaceful co-existence. What I do know, is that none of this needs to remain lost. We can reclaim it. Those Gods and Goddesses (large and small) and our ancestors are there for us. They are our memory keepers. They have access, direct access, to all the knowledge and wisdom that was torn from us during Christian conquest.
We can undo what was done. We can reclaim what was lost. So as we go about celebrating the seasonal holy tides, honoring our ancestors, and pouring out libations to the Aesir, Vanir, and perhaps the Jotnar, let’s not forget about the smaller beings that inhabit our world. They’re important too, most especially on a tangible, day to day basis. Let us learn to look for the breath and heartbeat of the sacred wherever it may be found…even if that place is in the squeaking of a door hinge.
It has come as a surprise to me, considering my relationship with Odin (the Wanderer and hedge-crosser extraordinaire), but I have been discovering lately that I am far more of a hearth witch than a hedge witch. Don't get me wrong; I do love wandering through the dark woods at night, threading my way through cemeteries, or exploring the Eugene wetlands. I love to explore these liminal places in a light trance state, letting the already-fragile boundaries between the worlds blur so that I can commune with the spirits there. This is part of my practice, and it always will be. (And in the case of the wetlands, I do this every morning on my walk to work, in the early hours when the human world is still barely stirring but the land wights--or land spirits--are awake and going about their day.) But at the heart of my practice, I am a Doorway for my gods and spirits, and to fulfill that function I must be anchored in this world, even as I work at blurring its edges.
I just had an entire week off from my day job, for the first time in years, and found myself spending much of it at my spinning wheel, or gathering supplies to make prayer beads, or in my kitchen learning to make salted caramels, or planning what I will need to begin producing candles and other non-yarn goodies for my Etsy shop. When given a choice between wandering outdoors and busying myself with activities at home, I nearly always choose the latter. Perhaps my physical condition pays a part in this (I have moderate to severe fibromyalgia, and at this point I still work full time so that saps a lot of my energy), but most of the time I find that I would rather be at home, tending a hearth for my gods and for the spirits I honor, rather than out in the world. My trips out in the world fortify and help to shape my hearth; they feed it and strengthen my center. In this I am like Frigga, who puts Her apron aside and rides with Her Husband in the Hunt during the dark half of the year, but the rest of the time concentrates Her efforts on creating a welcoming home for Him to return to after His wanderings.
To get back to the topic of setting up a hearth in your own home if you do not already have one, despite my previous definition of the hearth as a place of fire, there is always the option of interpreting "fire" symbolically. Along these lines, your hearth can be that place that anchors and nourishes your home, that feeds what you love most about it, the "flame" that makes your home a welcoming place. For some people, it would clearly be the kitchen table where the family gathers for dinner to share stories of their day. For some, it might be a place of literal fire, such as the woodburning stove (and do I ever wish I had one!) where herbal oils and brews are prepared.