Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

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Asatru FAQ: Shouldn't We Have a Sacred Language?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Every so often, people come up with ideas we've already tried. That's one reason long time heathens are a great resource for newer heathens. We remember. One idea that keeps recurring is the idea of having a liturgical language, like Latin for the Catholics, or an official common language for our religion that is also used as a common secular language, such as the modern revival of Hebrew among Jews as the national language of Israel.

Asatruars actually tried that before. In the 90s, Asatruars in the USA were calling themselves Ulfgar Tyrsson and Freya Freyasdottir and calling quarters with Thorsson's Hammer Rite in Old Norse. And saying "hailsa."

Hailsa

When American heathens got on the internet in large enough numbers to encounter Icelanders in Asatru and heathen specific internet forums, the Icelanders told us that using "hailsa" as a greeting was grammatically incorrect. American Asatruars tried to replace it with a couple of different phrases in English. We tried out "hail and well met," which is a traditional expression in England, but it didn't catch on. Some American heathens use "hail brother," which some other heathens find distasteful or even offensive. For the most part, we now just use the standard greetings in our native language and dialect, "hi" and other variants of "hello." Some still use "hailsa."

Fulltrui

Early attempts to adopt individual words from Icelandic sometimes failed, sometimes succeeded, and sometimes resulted in an entirely new tradition specific to American Asatru that does not exist in modern Icelandic Asatru or the modern Icelandic language. An example is the way American Asatruars use the word "fulltrui." ("Thor is my fulltrui.") Fulltrui is used in modern Icelandic to mean a representative, such as a customer service representative. The way Americans use this word is technically "wrong" in modern Icelandic, but, this use was derived from medieval literature written in Old Icelandic, not on the modern Icelandic language. In medieval literature fulltrui was sometimes used to mean one's patron saint. Now, it is used in English to mean a patron god. This has become so much a part of American heathenry that it has become its own word in American heathen jargon, no longer really dependent on Icelandic.

Ergi

TW: discussion of homophobia

American use of "fulltrui" is harmless, but many American Asatruars also use a problematic word: the word "ergi." Early in the revival of Asatru in the USA, many Americans mistakenly thought this word meant "gay." It was even defined as meaning "gay" on an earlier version of Wikipedia, although the definition has since been corrected. Some American Asatruars still think it means gay.The word literally referred to receptive sex; it was sometimes used to refer to women having heterosexual sex, for example, in the threat of a curse against Gerda in the story of how Freyr wooed Gerda. Ergi was historically considered a wrong thing for a high ranking male warrior or nobleman to be, but it was not considered wrong for all types of people. A war leader was expected to be dominant, and the culture linked sexual dominance with social dominance.

Although considered a wrong thing for a fighter to be, it was considered mandatory for a magic user. This was because of a theory of magic in heathen culture in which the mind of a worker of seidhr or other type of magic was considered to be mentally receptive to gods, spirits, and other powers. Ergi literally meant desiring to be penetrated, and the ancient culture viewed all types of receptivity to be analogous to sexual receptivity. So, the word did not actually mean gay, because it did not refer to a preference in partner gender, but if the ancient concept of ergi and the modern concept of gay were to be put in a Venn diagram, there would be some overlap.

In books of literature, the words ergi and argr are often translated as "unmanly," which led many Americans to adopt it into their heathen vocabulary in the meaning "a violation of the warrior honor code," without intentionally referencing a sexual meaning. An example of such use which I've seen on an internet forum: "Shooting an albino deer is ergi." In this case the person who posted that meant ergi as "a failure to properly follow bushido." There have been many misunderstandings between Americans who think ergi means gay and Americans who think it means dishonorable.

Standard translations don't usually use offensive words in the English translation, but ergi was an offensive word in its original language. When people use the word ergi  or argr in English they are trying to reference the ancient concept, even it they don't fully understand it. If the use of the word is still an attempt at using a foreign word, then saying it means gay is incorrect. It would be unfortunate if the misunderstood, incorrect translation were adopted into English as a new English word.

Some American Asatruars, both individuals and organizations, are homophobic. It is a large problem which is often overshadowed by the problem of racism, but which nonetheless needs attention. One possible way to work on this problem would be to move past the idea that we must perfectly reconstruct all ancient heathen ways; we don't really need to keep perpetuating the shame associated with the words ergi and argr and the concepts they reference. In the Viking Age, those words were deadly insults, literally fighting words that could provoke a duel. We no longer live in a world with legal dueling. We don't have to live in a world still links honor with the "active role" and sexual dominance.

Godhi and Gydhja

A more positive example of a term adopted into the jargon of American Asatru from Old Icelandic is "godhi" and "gydhja," to mean priest and priestess. Originally meaning chieftan, a godhi in Iceland was a wealthy landowner who hosted local holidays and sacrifices for his community. He had priestly duties, but the title was also a title of nobility. It may have started for practical reasons, as the wealthy landowner had a big enough hall for everyone and could afford to give away food and drink. By the end of the pre-Christian period in Iceland, a godhordh, or chieftanship, was not only inheritable but also saleable.

Modern Asatru in Iceland, America, and elsewhere, all use this term to mean a priest. The lordship aspect is gone, but it still affects some of the assumptions people may have about godhis and gythias. In Iceland, Asatru is a tax-supported official state religion, but, in the USA godhis and gythias and often expected to provide everything needed for ritual out of their own personal wealth, just as it was in the days of chieftanship. That can sometimes cause problems when the local ritualist is not actually well-off.

Another problem with the adoption of the words godhi and gythia is that sometimes Americans who are not familiar with the cultural context of these words find out that godhi was considered a title of nobility and think that therefore the wife of a godhi must be a gythia. That is a mistake. Being the wife of a priest does not make one a priest. On the whole, though, adopting the words godhi and gythia has been positive.

Whose language is sacred?

Some heathen traditions encourage learning the language that particular tradition is associated with. For example, Theod encourages learning Anglo-Saxon, and Urglaawe encourages learning Deitsch. Some of the various versions of Forn Sed and Forn Sidr grew among those who already spoke the languages of Norway, Sweden, etc., and of course Icelandic Asatruars already speak Icelandic. American Asatru, like the citizens of the USA who comprise it, is made up of people of various ethnic backgrounds. Although the lore is mostly in Icelandic, most American Asatruars also look to other traditions.

As an example of why it would be difficult for American heathens to have a sacred language, consider the mix of traditions represented at a local heathen pubmoot. When local heathens get together in my area, there are usually fewer than a dozen people there, but there are many cultures and languages represented. There are American Asatruars who look mostly to Iceland as the home of Asatru; for them, the root language is Icelandic. There are American Asatruars who look mostly to their own ethnic background as Austrians and Germans and who have living immigrant relatives who speak Plattdeutsch, but who chose Asatru as the tradition with the most complete set of lore at a time before the Deitsch made themselves public on the net. For them, the root language is Low German. There are Forn Sed family traditionalists; they speak Norn or Manx or another island language. There are eclectic heathen / Native American shamanism practitioners who read broadly in heathen lore of many cultures, in English translation only, not preferring one European language over another, and who may or may not study Native American languages. The only common language between all these heathens is English. Modern English.

Image: a page from Codex Runicus, a 13th century manuscript, public domain

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners and other books. She was sworn to Freya as Priestess in 1989, given to Sigyn, and is a Bride of Odin and his brothers (Honir, Lodhur, Loki.). She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, is gythia of American Celebration Kindred, and admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office. She is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press for 5 years, and is the author of the Heathen Calendar 2017 and 2018.

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