The Religion of the North
The Religion of the North
… is a general term for beliefs and practice based on the old religion of the Germanic peoples of the continent and in England, Scandinavia, and Iceland. It may be called “Norse religion”, “Teutonic” or “Germanic Religion”, “Ásatrú”, “Odinism”, or other names by those who are returning to its practice today. The religion of the peoples of Northern Europe ultimately derives from the same Indo-European source as those of the Celts and of early Rome, and like them, was influenced by the religions of the peoples who preceded them. Like British Wicca, it is one of the Native European religions, part of the Old Religion of the Earth which is practiced wherever people remember the ancient ways.
The religion of the Germanic peoples developed from a shared Indo-European practice and mythology into a faith which suited the people and the land. It was neither prescriptive nor restrictive, and there were many local variations. The conversion (usually forcible) of the Germanic tribes of the continent and Scandinavia took place between the 4th and 10th centuries. The pagans were willing to tolerate Christianity, but the Church stamped out as much pagan practice as it could. However many of the old tales were written down, and in remote districts some of the old ways survived.
In the 19th century much of the early literature was translated, and scholars such as the Brothers Grimm began collecting Germanic folklore. This enthusiasm was reflected in the “Ring” operas of Richard Wagner. It has taken a generation to recover from the Nazi perversion of Germanic religious ideas in the mid-20th century and return to the original sources for inspiration for today.
The religion of the North has always had an attraction for those who value heroism, individualism, and self-reliance. As Kveldulf Gundarsson points out, every speaker of English is an inheritor of a culture shaped by a Germanic (the Anglo-Saxon) world-view. Although some see in the practice of Germanic religion a return to “White Roots”, most of those who are interested in the religion of the North focus on its relevance to our shared culture, or on the distinctive vision embodied in its mythology. They come from many ethnic backgrounds, but like all those who are returning to the practice of the Earth Religions, those who follow the Northern Way must have the independence of spirit to develop a new spiritual practice based on the old ways.
The Northern tradition has come down to us through works such as the poems of the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlusson, the Icelandic sagas, and the observations of chroniclers. To these sources must be added a growing body of work by those who are exploring the Northern tradition today.
Northern cosmology describes nine worlds, representing states of being rather than physical places, which are grouped around the axis of the World Tree. When this cycle of existence is completed, they will be destroyed so that a new world can appear. Midgard, the world in which we live, is part of this hallowed whole.
The shape of a person’s life is determined by the fate (which might be seen as the interaction of heredity and environment) established by the Norns at birth, but each person is responsible for his or her actions, and the way in which this wyrd is played out depends on the individual’s free will. After death, the human spirit lives on with the gods, or in the earth, or with the ancestors, and may choose to be reborn. But the emphasis is on life, which should be lived for its own sake with courage, integrity, and joy.
Much Norse religious practice centers on the family or clan and its guardian spirits. The family is strengthened by shared celebration, and people who worship together can become families. A world in which the rights of the individual and the community are complementary is the ideal. This idea extends to the natural world, for it is only by living in harmony with nature that human communities can survive.
The Gods of the North
The pantheon of the North was the product of an alliance between the Aesir, the gods of the migrating Indo-European tribes, and the Vanir, deities whose origin lies in the Neolithic agricultural complex of Europe. Three of the most prominent gods are Odin the All-father, multi- faceted god of shamanic and poetic ecstasy who gave us the runes; Thor the Thunderer, the great champion against chaos; and Freyr, Lord of the land, whose gifts are fertility and abundance. Others include Tyr, lord of justice, Heimdallr, father of humankind, and radiant Balder.
Equally important are the goddesses, especially Freyja, mistress of love and magic, Erda, the Earth goddess, and Odin’s wise wife Frigga, with her attendant deities. The maternal ancestral spirits of family and clan are worshipped as the disir, the male as the alfar. Cooperation with these and with the landvættir, the spirits of nature, is also essential for survival. Now, as in the past, each individual is free to envision the gods in his or her own way. Gods and men are allies against the forces of chaos, and the gods are loved and respected rather than feared.
Feasts and Festivals
The major holy days of the Northern Religion are Winter Nights, the feast in mid-October which honors the ancestors and begins the winter half of the year; Yule, celebrated at the winter solstice; Sumarmál, the feast in mid-April which honors the goddess Eostara and begins the summer season; and Midsummer, in which we celebrate the sun and honor the spirits of the land.
Like other ancient peoples, the Germanic tribes feasted on food dedicated to the gods. This offering, or blot, is an exchange of energy between human and divine. The other part of the celebration was the sumbel, in which a horn of mead or ale is dedicated to a god or ancestor and passed around the circle as each one adds praise or prayer. Today, the clan groups which celebrated these rituals are represented by those who have become spiritual kindred in their search for the old gods. Rituals took place out of doors, in a special feasting hall, or in the home. Today, the home is once more the primary temple, although many groups celebrate outdoors when they can, and a few have even established outdoor shrines.
Old Norse magic included seidh, practices involving trance work which included oracular divination (spaecraft), rune magic, and galdr and gandr, the craft of song and spell. These skills are being rediscovered today.
Priests and Priestesses
Old Germanic practice was for the chieftain of a clan or the leader of a district to act as gothi (priest), hosting the feasts and leading the rituals. Women were considered to have great spiritual power, and could lead rituals or perform divination or prophecy. Family rituals were led by the householders, and individuals with a devotion to specific deities were free to act as priest or priestess (gythja) and establish shrines. Magical specialists like the Volva or Thul trained students in their skills.
Today the priests and priestesses of Northern Religion are those who have studied the ancient sources and sought inspiration from the gods. As in the old days, the gothi or gythja is the person who does the work and puts on the ritual, but each man and woman is his or her own priest or priestess, free to seek initiation from the gods. Although this is an interrupted tradition, it is derived from a rich hoard of source material. And as always, it is an evolving religion, reflecting changing perceptions of humankind, the gods, and the world.
Northern Religion and Other Earth religions
Like other traditions of Northern Europe, Germanic religion honors the gods, goddesses and the earth from which we come, and believes that each individual has the right to pursue his or her own path. In the past, most followers of the Northern way have practiced independently, but as time goes on, more are becoming aware of the concerns and beliefs they share with other neo-pagan traditions. Links are also being forged as individuals who have been trained in Wicca, shamanism, or other spiritual paths begin to work in the Northern tradition as well. Asatru organizations which welcome all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or ethnic origin are the Troth, the American Vinland Alliance, and Frigga’s Web.
The organizations listed in a
strike-through font below are not terribly active as of this writing (April, 2012). Their websites still work, though!
PO Box 701
Carlisle, MA 01741-0701
24 Dixwell Ave Ste 134
New Haven CT 06511
537 Jones Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-2007
A Basic Reading List:
H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin, 1964
________________, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Syracuse University Press, 1988
Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes, Penguin, 1990 [NB: This is the “Younger” or “Prose” Edda, not to be confused with the “Elder” or “Poetic” Edda, also on this list.]
KveldúlfR Gundarsson, Teutonic Magic,
________________, Teutonic Religion, Llewellyn, 1995
The Poetic Edda, translated Lee Hollander, University of Texas Press, 1986
Jacqueline Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age, Dorset, 1967
Edred Thorsson, Futhark, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1987
© 1996-2012, Diana L. Paxson and Lorrie Wood
Box 5701, Berkeley, CA 94705-5701