Originally published in Mountain Thunder 6, 1992
Earth-Religion and the Troth of the North
Diana L. Paxson
There is no single Right True and Only Way to practice Germanic religion– or for that matter any other. Despite the attempts of the Church to confine faith to written creeds, the history of Christianity is one of continual splinterings. The same is true, of course, in paganism, except that pagans (or heathens, about which I will have more to say later), usually have the sense to accept the situation as natural and even desirable. Thus, there is not, nor can there be, any official description of “Earth-Religion”. The best I can do is to offer a very simple definition which I think might be accepted by most of the people who use the term, and follow it with a discussion of what I believe to be its implications.
To me, “Earth-religion” means the spiritual beliefs and practices of people who recognize that they depend on the Earth for survival.
In practice these include most traditional cultures. Societies whose day-to-day existence depends on the willingness of animals to be killed and plants to grow incorporate the propitiation and invocation of the powers of nature into their spirituality– indeed for many, the whole purpose of religion is to ensure fertility, safety, and food. For the community, saving the soul can wait until the belly is full.
Despite two millenia of Christian attempts to direct attention away from this world and towards the next, and notwithstanding the best attempts of today’s food industry to disguise the origins of what goes into our grocery stores, even 20th century Americans cannot completely ignore the fact that the food we eat ultimately comes out of the ground. The ancient Norse, a hard-headed and practical people, were in no doubt about it. When Thorbjorg the Völva came to visit, folk asked her when the famine would end, not what spiritual path they should choose.
Of course what Georges Dumézil (in Gods of the Ancient Northmen) calls the “Third Function” is not the whole of religion. A people’s gods reflect their concerns, and once the food supply is taken care of, a healthy culture will be concerned with other activities, such as craftsmanship, government, war, and magic. Although in practice, the latter two activities are often directed towards extracting food by force from other people or protecting what you have (“An army travels on its belly.”). I think one will find that the real concerns of Germanic religion are expressed quite clearly if one looks at their pantheon.
Heathens and their Gods.
The Vanir, obviously, are Third Function deities. They govern the different kinds of labor required to produce food– herding cattle, planting and harvesting grain, fishing, and commerce. Dumézil may place this function third, but the Vanir, Freyr in particular, are certainly not minor figures in what we know of Germanic religious practice. The autumn feast honored the disir (led by Freyja Vanadis) and alfar, the ancestors, of whom Freyr lord of Alfheim was the chieftain. At the Yule feast they sacrificed Freyr’s boar and prayed to him for “peace and good seasons”. He was the ancestor of the Ynglings, and Anglo-Saxon warriors went into battle with his boar on their helms. A look at Scandinavian folklore demonstrates a continuing recognition of the powers of the lesser spirits of hearth and garth, even when Christianity had suppressed worship of their chieftains.
What then of the Aesir? The other residents of Asgard dealt with a variety of concerns– including battle, sovereignty, and magic. However even they had some interest in continuing the food supply. Thor’s paternity varies depending on one’s source, but he is without doubt the “Son of Earth”. As a storm god, he was invoked to bring rain or to stop it. His lightning fertilizes the fields. Even as chief foe of the Jotnar, his purpose was to maintain the balance between the giants and the gods and humans they protected. In Germany, the peasants left the last sheaf of wheat standing for Wodan’s horse. It was Odin also who made sure that all the Aesir got a share in the sacrifices. Tyr gave his hand to prevent the Wolf from eating up the food supply.
Note that I am speaking here of religion as practiced in the Germanic-speaking countries during the pre-Christian period, not necessarily as it is practiced today. In my article on “Utgard”, I carefully defined my subject as the “Northern branch of the Old Religion”, not as “Theodism”, “Asatru” or even “Vanatru”, much less Norse Wicca. I doubt that any Norseman of the period would have identified his religion in any of these terms, though he might have been able to puzzle out their literal meaning. They are names invented by modern people to identify their religion in a world which requires that everything be differentiated, defined, and labeled scientifically. Those who follow them are free to define their beliefs as they please, with or without reference to Earth-religion. My contention is only that the religious practice characteristic of the ancient Germanic peoples can be so defined. (And, of course, so can my own!)
The closest that ancient believers came to self-definition was something like a faith in “the gods of my fathers,”, or “the gods my people swear by,” or perhaps the gods of a specific clan or tribe, to differentiate them from their neighbors. “Pagan” is a Latin word meaning the people of the “pagus” or countryside (who were more likely to cling to ancient ways). “Heathen” is a Germanic word meaning people of the heath, or wilderness, who were likely to be doing the same thing. Neither, properly speaking, assumes a specific religious practice or mythology.
A Christian priest would probably refer to the unconverted as pagans if he were speaking Latin and heathens if he were speaking English. The earliest appearance of the latter word is in Ulfilas’ Gothic translation of the Bible, in which “haithno” equals “mulier gentibus”, e.g. a Gentile woman. In the King James Bible, “heathen” is used for polytheists from the Egyptians on down.
Nonetheless, although there is nothing approaching a “heathen creed”, or “Pagan Bible”, one does not have to subscribe to Frazier’s identification of every legend as a “vegetation myth” to notice a surprising number of correspondences between the underlying assumptions and religious practices of tribal and village peoples not only in both northern and southern Europe, but all over the world. It is this constellation of beliefs that I (for lack of a better term) identify as the “Old Religion”.
Both the content and the way in which these ideas are expressed should be considered suggestive, rather than prescriptive. I would never expect total agreement on all of them, however I think that polytheists living in hunting or agricultural societies would probably feel reasonably comfortable with most. The illustrations given are all from Norse/Germanic sources. Note that Northern religion also featured a number of other beliefs not mentioned here– the purpose of this essay is only to discuss those ideas which seem to be common to all and to provide some evidence that they were characteristic of the North as well.
Beliefs of the Earth Religion.
Toleration. A basic concept seems to be the idea that all paths and theologies have some validity (although it may be limited to a family a village, etc.), and no individual or group has the right to impose their religion on others. One is reminded of Queen Sigrid’s answer when King Olaf Trygvason required her to convert before he would marry her–
“I will not go from the faith I had before, and my kinsmen had before me. I will not say anything against thee if thou believe in the god that pleases thee.”
(Snorre Sturlasson: The History of Olaf Trygvason: 61)
At this point, the king called her a heathen bitch and slapped her. Needless to say, the marriage did not take place.
Polytheism. Although the deeper thinkers of all cultures seem to recognize an underlying Divine Principle which is beyond personification (perhaps seen in Norse myth in the mysterious references to the High One, Just-as-High, and Third), heathens in general prefer to relate to the Divine Powers through symbols and images, while recognizing that none of them can express the totality. Individuals may serve one god or another, but they recognize the power and validity of all.
Gender parity. Although females may have a lower status in some pagan cultures, polytheology continues to recognize the power and divinity of the female principle as well as that of the male. Certainly Germanic mythology includes both goddesses and gods, and both men and women are allowed to serve them. Indeed, the earlier one looks, the greater the honor women seem to have received.
Animism. Heathens believe in an animate universe, in a continuum of consciousness that extends from stones to spiritual pantheons. To this day, the Icelanders route their roads around rocks known to be inhabited by alfar. All the Germanic peoples reverenced sacred trees, and a spirit inhabited every wood and waterfall.
Earth-kinship. All over the world one finds the concept of Mother (or occasionally Father) Earth. An Anglo-Saxon herbalist’s prayer may show some Classical influence, but it is certainly not Christian! It begins– “Holy goddess earth, parent of all things in nature, who all things generates, and regenerates the planet which thou alone shows to the people.” (Harley MS 1585: p. 24, 11th cen.).
Other Old English charms invoke Earth equally with sky. However one interprets the “Erce, eorthan modor” of the Aecer-blot spell, the invocation that follows is certainly addressed to the earth, and when the first furrow is driven, the farmer says–
|Hal wes ðu, folde, fira modor,
|Hail to thee, earth, mother of men
|beo ðu growende on Godes fæðme,
|Be thou fruitful in God’s protection,
|fodre gefylled firum to nytte.
|with food filled, men to benefit.
|(Cotton Caligula A VII, ff.17;6a-178a, 12th cen.)
Even at a time when it was forbidden to call on Thor or Odin, the Church could not prevent the farmer from invoking Mother Earth for bread.
A corollary of this is the idea of kinship with other beings. In the north, traces of totemism survived into the Viking Age, and it was by no means inconceivable that a man should take on the nature of a wolf or a bear.
Positive Sexuality. In a theology in which Adam and Eve never “fell”, there is no need to despise the physical world or the human body. All human functions, including sexuality, are therefore inherently positive. In the sagas, sex becomes a problem only when it upsets the judgement and threatens family survival. Both sexes are expected to enjoy it.
Self-determination. In a heathen society, individuals are responsible for their own spiritual development. No outside power will “save” you, nor can you be damned by any force except your own will.
Community. In most heathen societies, the village, clan, or family is more important than the individual. Religion and magic may inspire and empower the individual, but their purpose is to serve the community.
Fate and Free-will. A belief in reincarnation is not required to be a pagan, but many traditional cultures, including the Germanic, believed it was at least an option. Fate, or wyrd, might shape a person’s life, but the individual retained the free-will to decide how to meet it, and was expected to live bravely as long as possible.
Reward and retribution. The pagan equivalent of the Golden Rule is best expressed by the law of three-fold return — whatever one does to others will return three-fold, for good or for ill. Northern folklore is full of examples of people whose virtuous deeds are rewarded, and villains who get their just deserts in the end.
The cycle of birth and death. All societies that live close to the earth recognize that birth and death, creation and destruction, are part of the natural cycle of existence. But Spirit is eternal, only the form of its manifestation is changed. As a result, death is not seen as anything to fear so long as one dies well. This concept is especially well-expressed in the Eddas. Ragnarok is a destruction, but it only ends one age of the world, and will be followed by the emergence of a new earth, governed by the children of the gods.
Relative Evil. The Old Religion is not dualistic– good and evil are not absolute, but dependent on the situation. Many of the Germanic deities, including Odin, are highly ambiguous, their beneficence depending on whether their purposes happen to accord with the desires of men. Even the giants are not wholly evil, but rather mighty beings whose powers must be kept in balance to preserve a space for humankind.
Spiritual reality. No traditional pagan would understand the need to state that the spiritual world is as real as the physical, but those of us raised in a civilization which believes only in those things its instruments can measure need reminding. To those who follow an Earth Religion, what happens “above”, in the spiritual world is reflected by and connected to what happens “below”, it is both possible and natural to make contact between one and the other.
Magic. Another characteristic of the heathen worldview is a belief in magic, the idea that by using words and symbols, one mind or many working together can change the world. This belief underlies much religious practice, in which the gods and other powers are honored in order to invoke their friendship, as well as spells for healing and protection. Although some Viking warriors believed in nothing but the strength of their own sword-arms, the numbers of amulets, runespells, and sacrifices found from the Viking Age or referred to in its literature are proof that most people took whatever help they could get.
The above beliefs are characteristic of a worldview which is very aware of the need to work with the cycles of nature, and in which “nature” includes the spiritual world. The gods do not exist in some distant heaven but are at home and active in our lives. We sense Freyja in the scent of a rose, hear the voice of Odin in the whispering of the leaves; we salute Hugin and Munin whenever we see the ravens fly. Those who follow an Earth-religion live in a world of connections, rich in symbols, in which the conscious and unconscious minds communicate through visions and dreams. In this view, men do not seek to escape to heaven, but to understand and enjoy this world. It is a worldview whose faith can be described as an Earth-Religion because it is grounded in Midgard.
I believe that those of us who seek to recover the spirituality of the North should strive for a balance which includes all the powers of earth and heaven. In closing, I can do no better than to repeat Sigdrifa’s prayer:
Hail to thee Day! Hail, ye Day’s sons,
Hail Night and daughter of Night!
With blithe eyes look on all of us
and send to those sitting here victory!
Hail Aesir! Hail Asynjur!
Hail, earth that givest to all!
Goodly spells and speech bespeak we from you,
and healing hands, in this life.