Ancestry and Heritage in the Germanic Tradition
Who is going to tell Thor that his sons should not participate
in something because they are not of “pure” descent?”
(Gamlinginn, “Race and Religion”, in Mountain Thunder 8, 1993)
The Ring of Troth’s official, and unshakeable, policy is that we do not permit racism of any sort: we require that our folk affiliate for cultural and religious, not racial and political reasons. A common belief in the Northern community is that, as Wilfrid von Dauster states, “A religion should be in touch with your heritage, or what you feel your heritage really is. Some people equate ancestry with race; I do not. If you feel strongly that you come from, say, a warrior tradition at some point, then that is your ancestry” (“How Can You Believe That Junk?”, p. 21). However, because the Elder Troth as a whole is an ethnic tradition, largely stemming today from the interest in recovering a forgotten heritage, and because our forebears set so much weight on matters of kin and clan, the question often comes up of what role an awareness of personal ethnic background—not to mince words, race!—should play in our practise of our troth. Only by returning to the sources of our troth and the culture of our forebears can we hope to discover the beliefs of those who first kept the troth of the Aesir and Vanir.
The first, and simplest, problem is the question of whether our forebears had an over-arching “racial” consciousness—whether “race” meant anything to them or not. The Anglo-Saxons had laws which separated the “Welsh” from the “English” insofar as weregild and rights were concerned. However, the distinction here seems to have been one of language and culture, not of race as such: intermarriage was not only common, but highly respected. According to our legends, the Saxon woman Rowena was given in marriage to the Romano-Celtic king Vortigern; the Saxon heroes Cerdic and his brother Cynric bear British names, implying that their mother may have been British; and similar alliances—treated with full honour—are recorded through the history of the Saxon folk. Marriage alliances were likewise made between Germanic and Roman persons of high rank. The historical Attila the Hun is thought to have maintained a court of mixed Hunnish and Gothic composition, and his last marriage was to an atheling-maiden of Germanic stock. Further, the Germans who sang tales of the great hero-king Theodoric the Ostrogoth counted it no disgrace for Theodoric to have served in Attila’s warband. Although the latter cycle of legends may be historically inaccurate, it clearly shows the beliefs of its tellers. The Norse who settled Iceland brought along Irish thralls to their new land, with whom they interbred so freely that blood-type groupings show the average Icelander of today to be 25% to 75% Irish. For those who argue that the Celts are so close to the Germanic folks ethnically and culturally that it makes no difference, it should also be pointed out that the Scandinavians have gone out of their way to breed with, and absorb elements of the culture of, the Finns, who are not only non-Germanic, but not even Indo-European—their language and, as far as we know, ethnic origin have no more in common with ours than do those of any other non-Indo-European group (such as Orientals, Africans, or Amerindians), but we have been interbreeding so long and so thoroughly that now it is hardly possible to tell a Swede from a Finn on the basis of looks. Further, the relations of the Scandinavians with the Saami (Lapps), a Finno-Ugric people who bear a much closer physical, and generally closer cultural, resemblance to the Siberians and Inuit than to any Indo-European folk, were so successful that Saami tradition is now thought to be one of the greater sources for understanding Germanic religion—both in regards to the shamanic practices we learned from them in the elder days and the god/esses and traditions which they learned about from us and held holy through even the last couple of centuries. Although there was little recorded intermingling between the Norse and Inuit inhabitants of Greenland, that is likely to be due to the fact that the Norse settlers were christians for the vast majority of their stay in that land, and, being extremely concerned to maintain their European identity (cf. the malnourished skeletons of the Herjolfsness settlers dressed in the height of European fashion, and the condition of the country in 1406 as “entirely Norse and resolutely Christian”—Jones, p. 310), were unwilling to learn the things that could have kept them alive from their native Heathen neighbors. The evidence of the Norse relationship with the Finns and, even more, with the Saami, tells us that the “Skraelings” were probably not shunned by the Scandinavians in Greenland on racial grounds; rather, the Norse Greenlanders’ xenophobia was a part of their situation as “the farthest medieval outpost of what had been the Viking and was now the European world” (Jones, p. 311—italics ours). There is also some ethnographic reason to believe that the Norse settlers in America interbred with the Beothuck (the isolated Native American tribe inhabiting the area around the L’Anse Aux Meadows Viking Age site).
This seeming indifference to the concept of “race” is mirrored in the deeds of our gods. Odin himself is a “halfbreed”—the son of the god Borr and the giantess Bestla; Frey marries the giantess Gerd; his father Njord marries the giantess Skadi. Even Thor, who is best known for battling against the giants, has the giantess Jarnsaxa as concubine (which is not an illicit relationship in the elder days, but a legally recognised condition with responsibilities on both sides), and his sons by her, Modi and Magni, shall inherit his hall and hammer after Ragnarok. The god/esses’ hostility towards giants is not based on the race of these latter, but on the deeds of individuals among them. This is shown in the tale of Hrungnir (told in the Prose Edda) where Odin makes a friendly wager with the giant and the Aesir invite him in for a drink: not until Hrungnir becomes drunk and begins to make threatening boasts do the dwellers in Asgard show any signs of enmity towards him. In short, it can be safely stated that the Germanic folk did not think in terms of “race”; nor does our tradition give us any grounds for considering the idea meaningful; and the suggestion that “racial purity” might have meant anything to a Norseman, Saxon, or Goth is absolutely laughable.
The Norse did have a concept of physical beauty which was closely tied to light skin and fair hair: those folk described as beautiful are almost always blond—especially women, for whom long blond hair was the ideal—while those described as ugly are almost always black-haired (Jochens, Jenny. “Before the Male Gaze”, p. 248). The two strains show up particularly in the family of Egill Skalla-Grimsson, the Myramannakyn, which was said to produce the most beautiful and the ugliest people in Iceland. The beautiful ones included the blond Thorolfr (Egill’s brother), Kjartan Olafsson (who was a typical “light hero”, a “noble Heathen” in the period before his conversion and an exemplary christian afterwards), and Helga in fagra; the ugly ones included the black-haired Kveld-Ulfr, Skalla-Grimr, and Egill himself (that is, the wise Odinists of the line). Since Egill Skalla-Grimsson is thought to be one of the worthiest folk of the Viking Age, and is one of the most honoured by all the true in modern times, while his handsome, fair-haired brother is mentioned only in passing, and only thought significant due to his relationship with Egill, this gives us some idea of the actual importance of blond beauty in our Northern forebears’ culture. Another example which shows the Norse view of the same matter is found in Landnamabok (Hauksbok ch. 86): Ljufvina, the wife of king Hjorr, gives birth to two sons with remarkably dark skins, while her handmaid bears a very fair son. The queen thus changes the sons; but when her husband comes home, he is unhappy with the fair child, and says that he will hardly be manly. When the children are three winters old, the queen asks the skald Bragi to look at them; he does, and it is clear to him that the fair child is the son of a thrall and by far the worst of the three, while the dark-skinned children are the sons of the king. Ljufvina then confesses, and shows Hjorr his own sons. He says that he has never seen such “Hel-skins”, but accepts them as his own. Thereafter the brothers bear the by-name their father has given them, “heljarskinn”, and become battle-kings and vikings. To our forebears, beauty was a fine thing, but many others were far more important: strength, skill, and bravery, for instance. We have only to look at the many great saga-heroes who were ugly as trolls to see that!
A more difficult question is that of the meaning of one’s own ancestry: are only those descended from folk who worshipped the Aesir and Vanir really suited for the Elder Troth of the Germanic folk? Must every person follow his/her own genetic heritage, or is the simple act of choice enough to make one a legitimate heir to whichever spiritual path one chooses? While this question may seem on the surface to merely recast the issue of “race” in a more palatable guise, the distinction is of considerable significance. Our forebears did not think about “race”; however, they were very strongly aware of individual kinship and ancestry, and to say that these issues were not important to them would be to falsify the evidence of our sources.
If we accept that anyone with any forebears who followed our troth has the full right to follow their own ancestors’ ways, we include the entire continent of Europe, North Africa (where the Vandals settled) and the Middle East (where the Crusaders spread their seed), and Russia, which takes its very name from the Swedish Rus who settled there. Still, we are left with the problem of whether those who have no Germanic forebears in their clan-lines should take part in our troth and rites. As a faith which is, in large part, based on an ethnic culture and heritage, it is our duty to support all ethnic religions—Saami, Siberian, African, Jewish, Oriental, Native American, and the rest—as shield-fellows in our fight to preserve the diversity of this world’s individual folks with all their unique heritages. Most of us came to the Troth because we wished to learn about the ways of our own ancestors and the roots of our own culture—a culture which christianity and Mediterranean thought worked to suppress in much the same way as they have worked to suppress the native cultures of the Americas, Africa, and so forth in more recent centuries. It follows, then, that those folk whose clans do not include any Germanic ancestors, however distant, should be encouraged at least to learn about and appreciate the beauty of their own personal heritage before seeking out a stranger’s faith. On the other hand, the English language is still Germanic; although the Germanic origins of many of our ideals and customs have been forgotten by Western society at large, anyone of any bloodline who has been raised in an English-speaking country has a claim to the cultural heritage of the Elder Troth, if not the physical ancestry stemming from our god/esses. The meaning which our forebears would have placed on this distinction must then be looked at.
To the Germanic folk, the soul was, at least in some of its aspects, something which was inherited (see “Soul, Death, and Rebirth” in Our Troth for a fuller discussion). The importance of ancestry to the soul also appears in the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon genealogies where Freyr (in the case of the Ynglings) or Woden/Odin (in the case of historical dynasties such as those of the Saxon kings and legendary dynasties such as the Volsungs) is named as the founder of a royal line: the descendants of the god bear the might of the god. Spiritual characteristics such as berserkergang are hereditary, as is shown in Egils saga; so are many aspects of wyrd. In this respect, bloodline can be seen as important to troth: the god/esses and godly ancestors of one’s personal forebears are the shapers of one’s soul. This appears most clearly in Volsunga saga, where Odin fathers the Volsung line, acts as needful to further its life, gives Sigmundr the sword which embodies the Volsungs’ clan-soul, and shapes the lives of the clan’s members from beginning to end. The tendency, indeed, was for a kindred to favour the god/dess who was its own ancestor, as the Saxon kings followed Woden and the Ynglings worshipped Freyr—though this cannot be taken too far: Thor was the most beloved of the Norse gods, and there are no tales which even hint at his fathering human clans, though certain families (such as that of Thorolf Mostrarskeggi) held him to be their particular friend.
The process of individual rebirth was thought to take place within the family line, but was also tied up with the rite of name-giving. It was the custom to give a newborn the name of the most newly dead family member of the same sex, and the child sometimes bore signs which showed it to be the rebirth of that person: H.R. Ellis cites the Upphaf sogu description of the birth of Thordr, in which the newborn is named after his recently dead father, and has a scar on his left arm where his father had been wounded, and is at once given the nickname which his father had borne (Road to Hel, p. 141). The family connection is important, but the name seems to be even more important, as the Helgi lays of the Elder Edda show. In the first of these, Helgi is given his name and his soul with it; the second Helgi is not descended from him, but is called after him and thus inherits his wyrd and his reborn valkyrie. Though only a summary of the third Helgi’s tale survives, it seems to repeat this process of naming = rebirth = wyrd. Here, it seems to be the ritual action, rather than the actual bloodline, which transmits the soul, memory, and might.
The importance of ancestry stands out most clearly in the worship we give to our fore-gone kin whose ghosts still ward and help us, the disir and alfar; and in our awareness that the god/esses are our own eldest kin. In the homelands of the Germanic folk, particularly Scandinavia, this belief was bound up with the understanding that those dead who were buried in family lands still looked after their land and kin. This understanding was the source of the legal term “udal” or “inherited” lands—the same word as that of the rune-name othala. Udal lands could not be taken from the line, nor sold so long as there was a clan-member to inherit them: the soul of the line was bound up with the soul of the land. When the Norse fared to Iceland, they began hallowing the land with their dead at once. This is shown in Egils saga: when Egill’s grandfather Kveld-Ulfr dies on the way to Iceland, he tells his son Skalla-Grim to toss his coffin overboard and to settle where it comes to land: the living and the dead members of the clan continued to be bound in a single weave of holiness and legal right.
This presents one of the thornier problems in dealing with the ancestral question in the modern Troth: is it good for someone whose background is wholly non-European to use Germanic names and forms in calling upon their own ancestors? The problem is made more difficult by the fact that some non-European cultures, among those being branches of African and Oriental religions, have very strong traditions of ancestor worship of their own. If one believes in the ghosts of one’s ancestors, one might tend to think that they would prefer to be called upon by the names and in the ways that they know, just as they once called upon their own forebears—perhaps even that they might be confused and/or angered to be hailed in alien terms. It can, however, be argued that the terms and rites are less important than the bonds of blood and the act of remembering: few of us, after all, would cast all our kin who have died within the christian church from our line, and those beliefs are farther from our own than the beliefs of (for instance) many African tribes. In this matter, individual intuition is the only possible guide: we can say no more than that each person must honour her/his own ancestors in the way that he/she finds personally most fitting.
At this point, it appears that a person’s own bloodline must be thought of as a meaningful guide to the path of her/his soul. However, although our forebears set much store by the inherited might of the clan, they also had several rituals by which that might could be passed to those who were not related by blood. The first of these was the ritual of name-giving, by which a newborn child was taken into the family line and had its human soul bestowed upon it. Without this naming and ritual acceptance, no matter what its bloodline was, the child had no soul: it was like a troll or an outlaw. In Scandinavian folklore, cast-out babies made particularly horrible ghosts, who would haunt until someone gave them a name, thereby allowing the child the chance of later rebirth in that person’s family line. 1 The action is not recommended. While the children set out to die in the christian era were often healthy and strong babies whose only fault was being born out of wedlock, those set out in the heathen period were the crippled or weak (who were abandoned because their community did not have the extra resources needed to support them)—that is to say, bearers of characteristics which one would not choose to pass on to one’s descendants. An unrelated child could also be accepted into the family line and thereby given full rights and might, as in the case of Sigurd the Volsung who, born after the death of his father, is given his name and clan-right by the king Hjalprek, who is not related to him in any way.
The ritual of blood-brotherhood also binds those who carry it out into each other’s clan, giving each full access to the might and rights of the other: an oath-sibling becomes a sibling in truth. The close relationship between Odin and Loki (entirely a giant by birth) is one example of this; another appears in Volsunga saga, where Grimhild says to Sigurd, “King Gjuki shall be your father, and I your mother, your brothers Gunnar and Hogni and all who swear the oaths.”
Lastly is the rite of claiming ancestry which appears in the Eddic poem Hyndluljodh. In this poem, the young hero Ottar, Freyja’s love, has been challenged to prove his nobility of descent against another hero. Freyja transforms him into a boar and rides with him to the cave of the giantess Hyndla, whom Freyja then forces to recite a list of ancestors for him. This genealogy is not particularly consistent with other heroic genealogies, but begins with a list of historical Scandinavian persons, moving back to figures of semi-historical legend (Gunnar) and pure legend (Sigurd), and finally bringing in the god/esses and giants back to Ymir (in the section which is exerpted separately in Hollander’s translation as Voluspa hin skamma). At the end of the recitation, Freyja has Hyndla bring Ottar a cup of “memory-ale” so that he will be able to remember all the names he has learned. The rite shown here is one by which the subject ritually ties himself into the might of the heroes of history and legend, and ultimately claims his kinship with the god/esses: the issue is not one of bodily descent, but of a unification of the individual’s soul with the current of holy might which is the life-blood of the Germanic heritage. This rite may be carried out by anyone, regardless of his/her actual clan-lineage; and the one who carries it out must then be recognised as partaking in the might of the holy clans of the North.
Having shown that an earthly blood-line reaching back to those who first worshipped the god/esses of our folk is not needful for the practise of the Elder Troth today, the question then arises: is ancestry alone enough to make one true of soul? The evidence of Volsunga saga and Hervarar saga suggests that it is not. In the latter, Angantyr’s daughter Hervor is raised by her mother’s kin after her father’s death, but to gain the might of his line and the sword Tyrfing which embodies the soul of the clan, she must go to the grave where Angantyr and his brothers rest and confront the frightful figure of the dead man with her claim, forcing him to acknowledge her. Signy’s children by Siggeir, although they carry as much of the Volsung genetic material as does Sigurd, fail the tests of hardiness and bravery which Signy and Sigmund put them through: despite their ancestry, they are not true Volsungs. His father being dead, Sigurd must initiate himself into his Volsung heritage: first by gaining the shards of his father’s sword from his mother and having it reforged, then by avenging his father, with the final test of his might coming when he slays the dragon Fafnir.
It is, further, needful to note that all of us have had the soul-line which reached back to our first true forebears broken at some point. The sagas show clearly that the christian rite of baptism was thought to cut its subject not only off from the god/esses, but from the ancestral kin-fetch and the personal fetch as well. The function of the baptismal rite was, and is, to bring the person undergoing it into the spiritual line of Christ and the family of the christian church. Whether we ourselves have suffered this ritual or not, it is certain that our ancestors did, and therefore that the oneness of soul of our clans has been broken. Therefore, it is needful even for those who can trace their ancestry back to the time when our Heathen troth still flourished to ritually take up the might of those early kin and lay claim to the worship of our forebears’ god/esses just as those who do not share in the bloodline of their clans must. For new-born children, this rite takes place with the name-giving and sprinkling of water; for adults newly come to the Troth, it is whatever rite of welcome a Kindred, Hearth, Garth, or Hof uses, or, for one who has no Troth-kin close enough, something similar to the rites of Troth-claiming given in Our Troth, A Book of Troth, or Teutonic Religion.
Lastly, we learn of the meaning of inheritance from a deed wrought by Egill Skalla-Grimsson, one of the wisest runesters of the Viking Age. When Egill felt himself about to die, he took the English silver he had saved and went to a secret place. He was unwilling to pass it on to his children, whom he thought unworthy; instead he hid it in the water, a mighty inheritance waiting for whoever was strong, lucky, or wise enough to find it. Just so, the inheritance of our god/esses and our true ways has lain hidden in the waters of Wyrd’s well for many years—waiting not for those who were simply born to it, but whoever is able and willing to find and take it!
Lastly, for those who think fair colouration to be a great thew of the folk, there is an old and lasting Icelandic proverb: “Oft er flagð undir fögru skinni, og dyggð undir dökkum hárum”—often a troll-woman is under fair skin, and virtue under dark hair (Magnus Einarsson, Icelandic-Canadian Memory Lore, p. 283).
(note: since traditional Germanic and modern Icelandic names are
patronymics, they are listed alphabetically according to first name)
Byock, Jesse (tr.). Saga of the Volsungs (University of California Press, 1990).
von Dauster, Wilfrid. “How Can You Believe That Junk? An Essay for the Modern Pagan”. Mountain Thunder 4, pp. 20-22.
Edred Thorsson. A Book of Troth (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1989).
Ellis, H.R. Road to Hel (Cambridge: University Press, 1943).
Fell, Christine (ed., tr.). Egils saga (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1975).
Gamlinginn. “Race and Religion”. Mountain Thunder 8, 1993, pp. 9-10.
Kveldulfr Hagan Gundarsson (ed.). Our Troth (Seattle: Ring of Troth, 1994).
Kveldulfr Hagan Gundarsson. “Race, Inheritance, and Ásatrú Today”. Mountain Thunder 5, pp. 7-11 (original publication of the bulk of this work).
Kveldulf Gundarsson. Teutonic Religion (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993).
Hollander, Lee (ed., tr.). The Poetic Edda (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).
Jakob Benediktsson (ed). Islendingabo/Landnamabok. Islenzk fornrit vol. 1 (Reykjavik: Hidh islenzka fornritafelag, 1986).
Jochens, Jenny. “Before the Male Gaze: The Absence of the Female Body in Old Norse”. Eighth International Saga Conference: The Audience of the Sagas. Pre-prints, vol. I (A-K), 1991, pp. 247-256.
Jones, Gwynn. A History of the Vikings, 2nd ed. (Oxford: University Press, 1984).
Magnus Einarsson. Icelandic-Canadian Memory Lore (Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992).
Slauson, Irv (ed.). The Religion of Odin (Red Wing: Asatru Free Church Committee, 1978)
Snorri Sturluson; Anthony Faulkes (tr.). Edda (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1987).
Turville-Petre, G. (ed.) Hervarar saga ok Heidhreks, 2nd ed. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1976). This saga may be found in translation by Christopher Tolkien as The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.