Originally published in IDUNNA 20, 1993
Worshipping the Gods
by Diana L. Paxson
Veiztu hvé rista skal, veiztu hvé ráða skal?
veiztu hvé fá skal, veiztu hvé freista skal?
veiztu hvé biðja skal, veiztu hvé blóta skal?
veiztu hvé senda skal, veiztu hvé sóa skal?
Among the best-known stanzas from the Havamál is the one quoted above, which summarizes the skills required for runecraft and religion. The first two verses, in which the High One refers to inscribing, reading, coloring, and interpreting the runes, are often quoted. The second pair of lines are less familiar, but the verbs used contain the essence of Germanic religious practice. The first one, bithja, bears a family relationship to the English “bid” and is usually translated as “ask”. According to Grimm, the term has the implication of supplication. The second, blóta, refers to the sacrifice in which the blood was used to bless the people and the meat eaten after it had been dedicated to the gods. The third verb, senda, can be translated as “send”, with the implication that it involves getting the message to the gods, while the fourth, sóa, means to make an offering that is in some sense “squandered”, perhaps one which is destroyed or left to the elements rather than being shared. Together they summarize the principal ways in which the people of the North worshipped their gods.
The word “worship” comes from the Old English weordhscipe meaning to honor or give worth to something. Worshipping the gods can involve honoring them with prayer and praise, and pleasing them with worthy offerings. To worship the Northern gods today, we must go beyond the meanings other religions have given to those words to their origins, and reinterpret them in a way that will be in harmony with ancient practice as well as meeting modern needs. If we wish to enjoy the presence and friendship of the gods, we must know how to give them what they want from us and how to ask them for what we need.
Prayer refers to the words and acts involved in communicating with the gods. The available information seems to suggest that the ancient Germanic peoples addressed their gods in a variety of ways. Surviving examples include the prayer of Sigdrifa, skaldic prayers to Thor, prayers incorporated in Anglo-Saxon spells, and the Rus merchant’s prayer as reported by Ibn Fadlan (quoted in Tryckare, p. 138).
Perhaps the most beautiful are the words with which the newly awakened valkyrie Sigdrifa (Brunhild) greets Sigurd.
Hail to thee Day, hail, ye Day’s sons;
hail Night and daughter of Night,
with blithe eyes look on both of us,
and grant 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!
The passage consists of salutations and requests. Hailing the powers identifies them, attracts their attention, and honors them. In this prayer Sigdrifa calls upon powers of Nature– Day, Night, and Earth, and the gods and goddesses as a group. Her requests are for favor and success in general, and in particular for skill in magic and communication.
Prayers to Thor by such skalds as Vertrlidhi Sumarlidhason and Thorbjorn Dísarskáld. are preserved mostly in fragments quoted by Snorri in the “Skaldskarpamál” for the sake of the information they contain. A typical example (as translated by Turville-Petre, p. 85) goes–
You smashed the limbs of Leikn;
you bashed ðrivaldi;
you knocked down Starkadhr;
you trod Gjalp dead under foot.
John Lindow compares these lines to others from Indo-European tradition, in which prayer “…included exactly the two components of praise of the deity, not infrequently in the second person, followed by a request to the deity.” (p. 132). He further speculates that the remainder of the prayer (not quoted by Snorri), “…called on Thor to slay the missionaries Thangbrandr and Gudhleifr and implicitly assigned them to the category of giants in the mythological system…” (p. 133).
A modern example is–
Redbeard, firebeard, bringer of lightning,
Lifegiving stormlord are you, lover of feasting,
Father of freedom, fighter most doughty,
Donar, defender, dearly we need thee,
Hear us, hero, hasten to help us,
Gifts thy great goats gallop to bring.
A formula for such a prayer could be stated as:
Hail (best-known name), (descriptive epithet),
Child of (parent), lover of (spouse)
You who dwell in (name of hall),
You who (summarize several relevant deeds)
With your (characteristic tool or weapon)
Come swiftly to aid me
As I (summarize problem being addressed)
A similar structure is found in some of the spells included in G. Storms’ Anglo-Saxon Magic. Deities can be invoked through chanted incremental repetitions of their names, references to attributes and epithets, and sympathetically, by reference to relevant episodes from their mythology. This latter might be called the “epic formula”, in which the summary of the deity’s success in a similar situation is followed by an affirmation that things will happen as they did then.
Perhaps the most famous pagan example is the Old High German Second Merseberg Charm, variants of which have been found from Vedic India to England.
Phol and Wuodan rode to the wood;
then Balder’s horse sprained its leg.
Then Siðgunt sang over it and Sunna her sister,
then Frija sang over it and Volla her sister,
then Wuodan sang over it, as he well knew how,
over this bone-sprain, this blood-sprain, this limb-sprain:
bone to bone,
blood to blood,
limb to limb,
such as they belong together.
(trans. Storm, p. 109)
Here is an example of a Christian Icelandic spell, re-paganized in parentheses–
May bleeding be stanched for those who bleed;
blood flowed down from God’s cross.
(blood flowed down from the worldtree).
The Almighty/(Alfather) endures fear,
from wounds tried sorely.
Stand in glory, even as in gore,
that the Son of God/(High One) may hear of it.
The spirit and bleeding veins–
s/he finds bliss who is released from this.
May bleeding be stanched–
bleed neither without nor within.
With these words St. John the Apostle stanched the blood on the lips of our Lord. . ./(Odin stanched the blood when he was gashed by the spear.)
A stone called Surtur stands in the temple. There lie nine vipers. They shall neither wake nor sleep before this blood is stanched. Let this blood be stanched in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost./(In the name of Odin )etc.
(Kvideland & Sehmsdorf, 28.6 )
The formula for this kind of prayer/spell might be expressed thusly–
(Summary of myth, as for instance the binding of the wolf Fenris by the gods)
(statement of the action taken in terms which can apply to both the problem in the myth and the current difficulty, as for instance the forces of conflict and destruction, in form of an affirmation e.g. “The fetter is fast, and Fenris bound!”).
There is also evidence for prayer in the form of a simple request. When the Rus merchant brought his offerings to the god-posts he said–
Oh my Lord, I have come a long way with so many slave-girls and so many sable furs (and then he mentions all the goods he has with him). Now I come to you with these offerings… I want you to send me a merchant who has lots of dinars and dirhems and will buy on my terms without being difficult.”
The traditional position for prayer has been the subject of some discussion in the neo-Norse community. Many Asatruar favor an upright stance with arms lifted in salutation (the “Elhaz” stodhyr), feeling that this position is most in keeping with characteristic Viking independence. Although this is a view with which I find myself in sympathy, most of the evidence seems to suggest that at least at times the actual practice was otherwise.
In his chapter on Worship (Vol. I: III) Grimm analyzes the etymologies of several relevant terms, beginning with their earliest known Gothic forms. Among them are inveita, which seems to be an act of adoration involving some kind of inclination of the body, although it is not clear whether this meant bowing the head or bending the knee. He cites a number of references in support of this idea, including one in the Saga of St. Olaf in which men fell til iardar fyrir likneski (fell to earth before the likeness) of Thor (Fornm. sög.2, 108). The Langobards were said to have bowed their necks before a goat’s head. The Rus traders observed by Ibn Fadlan on the lower Dnieper prostrated themselves to the god posts they had set up by the riverside. A variation of this may have been the uncovering of the head to show honor (in contrast to the Roman and Jewish practice of covering the head when engaged in religious activity), preserved in the modern rule of etiquette which requires men to remove their hats in church (it should be noted that in the medieval Church, as among the ancient Goths, only the chief priests worshipped with heads covered [Grimm, I:32]).
Even the Old Norwegian Rune Poem is suggestive: SOL er landa ljóme; lúti ek helgum dóme. (Sun is the light of the lands; I bow to heaven’s doom.) The verb here, lúta, means “to lout down”, to bow, as when Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Faerie and ” louted down upon one knee”. One form of prayer may have involved standing with upraised arms in the form of the Elhaz rune, but Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus traders as prostrating themselves before the images of their gods. Apparently at times the Germanic peoples also bowed down in adoration, especially, it would appear, in honoring the sun.
A line in the Sólarljodh (41), states “henni ek laut hinnsta sinni, ægis-heimi í“– “I louted to her (the sun) the last time in this world”, meaning that it was the last day of the speaker’s life, is even more indicative. “Bowing to heaven’s doom,” therefore, is not necessarily an expression either of Norse fatalism or Christian influence, but could be a reference to a daily ritual of alignment with the forces that govern the fate of all beings as represented by the daily journey of the sun.
Bowing to the east to hail the rising sun is mentioned in the Landnámabok I: 9. The references from Norse literature cited above refer to the practice of saluting the rising sun, and several Anglo-Saxon charms direct the user to face sunward, or move deosil. Grimm, on the other hand cites numerous references in favor of facing north for worship, a view supported by the medieval Christian prejudice against that direction.
Prayer and praise, whether uttered standing or bowed down, were only part of heathen worship. The oldest practice was to give gifts to the gods in the form of food— blotan, to shed blood, being the verb which preceded the loan-words “offering” and “sacrifice”. Despite the bloody origins, it apparently came to include all kinds of offering, being cognate eventually to “Blessing” (presumably from the practice of sprinkling worshippers with the blood of the sacrifice). Among other words used in Gothic for an offering is sáudhs referring to the “seething” or boiling of the sacrificed animal so that worshippers could share in the feast.
Animals, however, were not the only offerings. Grain, fruit, and flowers might be sacrificed (especially the first fruits of the harvest), alcoholic drink was poured out in libation, hair cut from the forelock. Even a vow could be considered an offering. When an animal was sacrificed, its head, heart, and hide would be hung up as an offering, its blood poured over the hørg and sprinkled on the people and the shrine, and its meat boiled and eaten in the communal feast. Blood-bowls and sprinklers were part of the furniture of a hof. Participation in such feasts was both the privilege and condition of membership in the tribe or community.
Such feasts and offerings were celebrated at the yearly festivals that marked the turning of the seasons, to mark great occasions, such as weddings, funerals of king-makings, or to gain the favor of the gods for planned undertakings or to placate them in times of disaster. At times the sacrifices might include men (though these, presumably, were not eaten), and in a disastrous season, even the king. Only healthy, perfect, animals must be offered, garlanded with flowers and aromatic herbs. The boar was especially sacred to the Vanir; horses seem to have been the most valued sacrifice, and it is possible that their meat was eaten only on sacred occasions. White or black bulls, rams, and he-goats were also preferred, especially those which had never been used for labor. It is my speculation that the hare was sacred to Eostara and eaten only at her festival.
Offerings were also made by individuals for specific purposes, such as a prosperous voyage or victory in battle. According to Ibn Fadlan, the Rus merchants offered bread, meat, onions, milk, and some of the local liquor to their gods on the way to market, and sacrificed animals on the way home if their trading had been successful. With a few exceptions, such as the Yule-tide boar still celebrated in Scandinavian marzipan images and in the English Boar’s-head Carol, the old blood-sacrifices were suppressed under Christianity. However the less offensive offerings of leafy branches, garlands of flowers, and sheaves of grain continued to be made, and the drinking of memory ale, the minnis-öl, or sumbel, survives to this day in the custom of drinking toasts at banquets. Even when offerings to the old gods were forbidden, folk continued to put out alcohol, milk or broth for the house-spirits. One sees a survival of this custom in the milk and cookies that are set out for Santa Claus.
Worshipping the Gods Today
Naturally enough, what little evidence we have for ancient religious practice tends to focus on public and community rather than individual worship. Today, we are in need of models for both group workings and individual spirituality. Indeed, considering how many of those who follow the Northern Way are forced by circumstance to practice as solitaries, a discussion of solo spiritual work is both useful and necessary. Even those who participate regularly in group worship will find their experience enriched and their skills improved by regular work alone.
Especially at first, it is useful to create a physical focus for worship in the form of images, altars, and shrines. Setting up an altar is easy enough, indeed it seems to be an instinctive response, and people are sometimes surprised to realize that this is what they have done. For the ancients, the pillars of the high seat and the hearth were sacred within the home. Outdoors, they built altars of heaped stones, established sacred groves or built “halls” for the gods. Today, a rock can be placed beside the hearth or stove to make a home for the house-spirit, and a cairn or a single stone placed in the garden for offerings.
However the best aid in developing contact with the gods is a personal altar. This need not be elaborate– a clear spot in the bedroom secure from interference by small children or animals is a good place to begin (warning: as you work with more deities, altars may proliferate, until your bedroom begins to look like a hof). If the altar is dedicated to a single deity, cover it with a cloth of the color that seems most appropriate (for instance, dark blue for Odin, red for Tyr, or an earth tone for one of the Vanir). Otherwise, a piece of white or natural colored linen will do very well. Images of the gods can be photocopied from books or magazines, or you can make a miniature god-post by carving a face on a stick and setting it in a pot of sand. For the more artistic, reproductions of ancient figurines can be modeled from Sculpey or clay. These images can be changed as you work with different deities. A votive candle in a glass container is the safest way to illuminate your image. You may also set up a small bowl or plate and cup (shot glasses or saki cups are convenient) for offerings. Burning herbs is traditional for purification, though not as an offering, and incense can be very helpful in creating the right mood.
Such an altar honors the gods, but it is more than decoration. Each day set aside a time when you will have privacy. Light the candle, perhaps pour a little mead into the offering bowl. Sit comfortably and and contemplate the altar. You may spend this time simply in thinking about the deity, considering the meaning of his or her myths and their relevance to your life. Or you may compose formal prayers on the model given above. Memorizing a brief invocation is a good way to shift gears as you begin. To deepen the experience, chant the name/s of the deity, or intone an appropriate rune.
Close your eyes and build up a mental picture of the god. When you can hold the image easily, repeat your prayer, and wait for a reply. You may find it helpful to precede this activity by a systematic relaxation of muscle groups, or by slowing and counting your breaths. If you are experienced in pathworking or shamanic journeying, imagine a door leading from your room through a passage to the Midgard that lies within. Using the arrangement of the nine worlds on Yggdrasil as a map, seek the one where your deity is most likely to be found and build up an image of his or her home or temple. Ask to enter, call on the god, and hold your conversation there. An ancient practice was to lie down and wrap oneself in a cloak or hide for such journeying and communication.
With regular practice, you will find it easier to sense the presence of the deity, and eventually you may find that not only is your god always waiting when you journey inward, but that awareness of his/her presence comes to you when you are in a state of “ordinary” consciousness, so that worship becomes companionship. I believe that in the old days those who were known as “friends” of specific gods experienced the relationship in this way. Such an awareness may at times become quite powerful, to the point where it is necessary to explain to the god that you need to be able to work without distraction, and limit the interaction to appropriate times. Do not, for instance, contemplate your god while operating a moving vehicle (unless of course he is a better driver than you are). Carrying on conversations with the god in your head is not pathological so long as you do not do it aloud in public or when you are supposed to be doing other things.
The gods will also tell you what they desire in the way of altar ornaments and offerings. Again, you may find it necessary to explain that times have changed, and items such as gold armrings and fresh horsemeat may be hard to come by. It is reasonable to ask a god who wants something to cooperate by helping you to find/pay for it. In many ways, an active relationship with a god is like being in love– seductive and inebriating. If the relationship is to endure, common sense and courtesy are required on both sides.
However authentic we would wish to be, unless one lives on a farm and has mastered the skills involved in humanely butchering an animal, blood sacrifice is not an option for the contemporary heathen. However in addition to the sumbel, offerings can be made in a number of ways. When one is holding a feast (or any family celebration) a portion should be set out for the house-spirit (who lives in a stone set by the stove or hearth) and/or the gods, first in a plate or an offering bowl and then on a hørg of heaped stones or hung on a tree in the yard. In my household we hang appropriately shaped gingerbread cookies on the Yule tree.
For a more elaborate ritual, go to a wilderness picnic area to make your offering. Try for a time and place where you can be reasonably private (such as a mid-week evening). If you ward the place well enough you are unlikely to be disturbed. Build a hørg of heaped stones, place offerings of meat, etc. upon it and pour red wine (such as “Bull’s Blood”) over it as you make your prayers. If barbecue facilities are available, take a pot and make a stew with barley, onion and garlic or other herbs, and the hearts of whatever animals are available. It is advisable to cut up all the ingredients and partly cook the barley ahead of time. Seethe the stew with beer or wine and as it bubbles, stir it, chanting runes and spells. When it is done, some can be offered on the hørg and the rest shared. The experience can be amazingly powerful.
Food which is set out in this way invariably disappears, especially if you have pets. This is consistent with heathen tradition. We are told by Ibn Fadlan that when the dogs came out at night and ate the meat, the merchant would say, “Assuredly my Lord is pleased with me and has eaten my offerings.” Even in Asgard, Geri and Freki ate the food given to Odin.
Although there are days (such as Wednesday for Odin), and times (such as Yule or Ostara), when worship is particularly appropriate, honoring the gods is not an activity which should be restricted to one day of the week, or to those times when the community meets for feasting or festivals. Each day, and each activity, can be dedicated to an appropriate deity. Those who work with their gods on a regular basis will find a relationship developing which will enrich their lives. The Norse gods are not myths. They are living presences who are eager to interact with us, and will eagerly respond to almost any invitation.
Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology: I, New York: Dover, 1966
John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, Scandinavian Studies 60, 1988
The Poetic Edda, trans. Lee Hollander, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986
Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, ed. Reimund Kvideland & Henning K. Sehmsdorf, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988
D.G. Storms, Anglo Saxon Magic, Folcroft Library Ed. 1975
Tre Tryckare, The Vikings, Crescent Publishers, 1972
Gabriel Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North, New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1964