Those of you who are familiar with Heathenry will assuredly be familiar with the fixation some (most) Heathens have on lore. With a demographic drawn largely from Protestant Christianity, and working in an over-culture that is doggedly Protestant Christian in its attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that there is deep suspicion and even hostility toward anything not immediately and apparently mediated by the written word. Given that the majority Heathen demographic is also largely working class, there is also a noticeable insecurity and ambivalence toward mysticism (i.e. direct experience often dismissed in Heathen circles as “U.P.G” or the dreaded unverified personal gnosis) and you have, well, a mess.
Before going further, let me clarify what passes for ‘lore’ in Heathenry. When one of us speaks of “lore,” we’re referring to written texts. That includes the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon texts, and contemporary historical, archaeological, linguistic, as well as any other relevant scholarly work. None of these texts may be considered ‘revealed’ texts, nor were they ever intended to serve the purpose of “scripture’ in the way we are accustomed to think of that term. This is the context in which most Heathens frame their religion, and in many cases, it’s also the context by which their experiences is consciously limited. I find that unfortunate. It is not however to be unexpected.
Let’s unpack that a bit. One of the dominant features of Protestant Christianity is a liturgical focus on Scripture. This was, historically, one of its criticisms of Catholicism: that the latter’s praxis and liturgy veered too far away from Scripture. Bible study, memorizing and quoting scripture, the emphasis (here shared with Catholicism) on reading and of Christ as the embodiment of the “Word” are all key facets of this approach to faith. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is referred to as a ‘religion of the book.’ Even before the Protestant Reformation, in the medieval period with the early Christian fathers, there was this emphasis on text.
Essentially for religions of the book, there is holy writ, and it has tremendous authority in guiding practice and approach to faith. Since Vatican II, unfortunately, Catholicism has also been — all in the spirit of “modernism” and “ecumenism” of course –doing its best to cull its more mystical elements, including devotion to Mary on the grounds that it’s not textually authentic. I find it depressing and sad that a rich, complex, mystical theology would be exchanged for a pseudo-rational, unemotional, modern, scripture based approach. But that’s just me. When this was restricted to the Christians, it wouldn’t be something I felt the need to address, but it’s been a struggle over the past twenty years to avoid having this same reductionist approach dominate Heathenry. We are raised surrounded by the cultural and social trappings of Protestant Christianity. That is the dominant voice of American culture, even amongst our intellectual “elite” — even if one is not Christian. One of the unspoken facets of this is that we assume religious experience to have a textual base. We look for “Scripture” to tell us what to do, what to believe, and whether or not we’re doing our religion right. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to examine our religious expectations, to drag all our unspoken, ingrained assumptions about how a tradition works and how we ought to engage out into the light. There will be parts useful and parts not, but it’s important to see it all clearly. (1)
So with Heathenry, we have a contemporary religion trying to restore what is a conglomeration of ancestral traditions. That’s awesome. What we need to take into account, however, is the influence of our over-culture, birth religion, and the fetish we seem to have for “progress,” and “modernity.” Sometimes it isn’t and sometimes, what we are expected to trade for the trappings of “modernity,” is too high a price to pay for what we get. I don’t think we’ve quite all figured that out yet. It’s so much easier after all when humanity is at the top of the hierarchy, the center of the world, the apex of experience and we don’t have to worry about pesky Gods. It’s so much easier when engaging with the Gods as individual Powers is viewed as déclassé. It’s so much easier when our only obligations are social ones, oh, and reading an authorized text of course.
I’m being more sarcastic with the above statements than I initially intended, but this is the lay of the land in Heathenry. It’s ironic, given that such an attitude would have been utterly incomprehensible to our Heathen ancestors, who knew the wisdom of piety and reverence, and when to go on their knees in the dirt before their Gods out of awe, and when to sacrifice without bitching about giving too much, and that the Gods were Powers capable of impacting our world and us.
In a way, we’re having to do now, what the very early Christians had to do in order to grow their faith. It’s ironic, this role reversal, but it struck me during my reading the other day: early Christians developed their monastic traditions and powerful traditions of interiority and prayer because they had to worship in secret, or at best in small groups away from the public eye. It wasn’t until later, once they’d gained political power that they were able to effect large churches and public spheres of worship (and oppression). First, there were small groups, and individual prayer. This made the hunger for texts, I would think, all the more powerful. If i can’t be celebrating my God with a group of my co-religionists, then allow me to summon that community, and the presence of my God to my memory by reading stories and accounts that we all share in common. Let the absence be filled by memory evoked by engagement with the text. Let me engage with my community –spread out and hidden–in a unity through that very absence as it were. Now, Christians are everywhere (everywhere *sigh*) and it is the polytheist contingent that meets in small groups, often quite spread out, and perhaps — i’m speculating here–we also find ourselves deferring to written texts for prayer and meditation more than our polytheistic ancestors may have done, ancestors for whom the core beliefs of religion were contained and transmitted via intergenerational household and social practice. They could see their religion and veneration for the Gods reinforced all around them. We who don’t have that, depend much more on written media. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Christians engaged with their texts every bit as assiduously as the best (worst — i suspect it depends on your pov) Heathen lore thumper. They didn’t just read and take pride in their ability to memorize and regurgitate (as many a Heathen lore-hound has been known to do). They engaged in a certain amount of exegesis. Each reading opened the door to meditation and prayer, and that in turn opened the door to the potential at least — with the grace of God–for direct experience. Each text, led one on a meditative journey with the goal of drawing closer to one’s God.(2)
This really came home for me when I had to read an article about how small prayer books were used for personal devotion in the medieval period (c. 11-12 Centuries) when there was a shift in focus from communal liturgical devotion to private, personal prayer. I won’t quote the description of the process one would go through when using a Christian breviary for private use, but I am going to re-contextualize that process for a Heathen audience. (3)
Firstly, and this is something Rachel Fulton notes in her article, to own a book was to participate in privilege. Now, I realize that may not be quite the same with us today, especially not with the proliferations of e-readers, but there are parts of the world where reading and writing are a gift, and a privilege. Also, there’s magic there. Think about the first of our ancestors who realized that potential in making marks on the surface of a rock or bit of bark or clay. Think about the work that went into the book you hold or read, it was first formed in the mind of its creator, brought into being, translated to text, and pushed through the publishing process, disseminated online or to bookstores and finally ended up in your hands. This process was much more laborious in the medieval period, but each book is still a miracle, still an act of creation and craft. There is something very special in text that ties us to each and every reader who may likewise be influenced and inspired. This is all the more true of religious texts where the readers share a common cosmology and devotional approach.
So drawing upon and expanding upon the description offered in Fulton’s article, here is how — were I as a Heathen to engage in lectio divina–engaging with the lore might look.
Many medieval prayer books, like prayer books today were drawn off of scriptural readings, as well as set prayers. So using that as my paradigm, I’ll choose a section from the Poetic Edda focusing on one of Odin’s mysteries, the Runatal section of the Havamal. (I should note, the same process that I shall uncover below might be used with a prayer too, to equal effect). Here’s the text for those who might be unfamiliar with it:
|Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
|I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
|Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
|No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.(4)
First, I might read it quietly aloud in Norse and English. There is a rhythm after all, to the Norse verse that the English translation, however well done, lacks. Certain of the Norse phrases I might have (in fact personally do have) committed to memory. These I might linger over, letting the tones of my words resonate through my body. Odin is, after all, a God of empowered speech, of galdr, of poetry, of incantation. I would strive in my private prayer to make of these phrases, whichever I choose, an incantation that reverberates through the memory hall of my heart, that strikes at the core of my soul, kindling devotion, opening me up, bolstering a desire to connect, to reach outward to Him.
Perhaps I have recently read academic commentary on this section that brought some insight applicable to my spiritual life to light. I might mull that over for a time. My mind might segue to an image of a Tree that calls to mind Yggdrasil. Perhaps I’ll parse that word out: “Steed of the Terrible One.” What does that mean about this Tree. What does it mean about its agency and awareness? When I think of Odin hanging, there are a thousand images that come to my mind. Perhaps I have included one, a prayer card, or even a photocopy of the image in my Edda where I can look at it as I read and pray. Or perhaps I have an image on my altar or shrine, and I am praying and reading with this in my sight.
In my case, part of my ordeal cycle was a hook suspension in imitatio of this exact experience. It is Odin’s greatest mystery and the point of most powerful (for me at any rate) connection to Him. When I read about the windy tree, I think of the november night that I underwent this ordeal. I think about how cold and damp it was, what effect that had on my skin and my muscles, how I watched the sun set with growing dread. I wonder what it was like for Odin approaching the Tree, what preparations He might have made, and what it must be like to be a God and still be afraid.
I have a chant that I use for Him that recounts His time on the Tree and perhaps that will come to mind and if I am alone, I might even offer it to Him aloud. We don’t yet have the tradition of devotional images to which medieval Christians could turn in illuminating their psalters and prayer books, but we do have some. Many, particularly older images show Him in armor on the Tree, or at least a helmet. I wonder why when it was the moment of His greatest power but also His greatest self-chosen vulnerability. What does it say about a God who would choose that? I think about all the images I’ve seen of Him on the Tree—does He have both eyes, or has the artist portrayed Him as already having made His offering to the Well? What do I think of that? What does my own experience tell me there about the variations of mythic time?
maybe I cross-reference this with articles or passages about the sacrifice of His eye. Was this presaged by His encounters with specific runes? Had He been trained for this? What about the fact that Mimir is His maternal uncle? That was a powerful role in many cultures including the early Germanic. What do I know of Mimir? What do I know of the wells that sit at the base of the Tree? Are they all one well, or many? Why are they located with the Tree? What does that mean? What came first: offering to the well or offering to the Tree and does it matter?
When I read the line about Him being wounded by His own spear, I think about sitting beneath my tree, the hooks going into my flesh: how that felt, what it did to me, where it allowed me to go. I remember the disorientation of swinging beneath the branches of the tree, watching the world fall away as I was lifted off the ground. What did He see when He rose into its boughs. I recall other experiences with Him in the woods, and the sound of His body falling sharply down through the boughs.
I remember some of His heiti, his praise names, particularly one’s having to do with the Tree. I think about how the Tree is always nourished in blood, and what such an initiation would mean. I think about the runes and why it took this type of ordeal and sacrifice to win them. I might call to mind the rune poems and see how they too are connected to the Old Man. Maybe, if I am in a mood to do so and if, in the flow of my contemplation, it feels correct, I galdr the rune itself with the goal of being given insight into that moment, that time, that experience.
I read and think on Odin, and think about all the parts that went into suspending me in my tree. How was He suspended? Did the Tree itself grasp Him up? Did the branches pierce HIs flesh and hold Him true until He was empty of screaming and could be filled by something else? Or was that process too an ordeal to be surmounted, a tactical challenge to be met?
I might turn to prayers that I have written or collected that tie to that experience in some way, that bring to my heart’s mind and senses, Odin on the Tree. I might say them, and then return to the Edda passage going over those lines again, rooting out connections to other things, all so I can find my way to Him. If emotion comes, I will sit with it and allow it its voice. That too can be a connection to Him.
The passage talks about the roots of the Tree. Images of ancient Trees with huge, gnarled, tangled roots come to mind and I let them. I think about how when I was lowered to the ground again after my ordeal, after however long I hung suspended in the tree, my feet touched the ground and there was relief, release, and pain, such pain as the muscles in my lower back went into full, several days long spasm. (The angle of the body when hanging in the type of suspension is not the best for those with bad backs. I knew this going in). I wonder if it hurt Odin just as much when He was released from the Tree as when He ascended it to be taken up. I think about all the things that can never be remotely comprehended save by initiatory experience and how it breaks one’s world into a before and an after and how there’s never any going back. I wonder what regrets He left at the Tree, or whether He didn’t have them until later, or whether He had them at all. I wonder how He contextualized the experience that of necessity must have changed Him so in its aftermath.
I pray to be opened up to understanding, to greater connection to Him knowing that it will change my life and I contemplate how far I might go in my devotions to ready myself and make this possible. I think about how far He went. I return to some of my personal prayers, that I’ve written for Him at various times as well as my extempore utterances in the moment and I offer these up to Him again, moving away from the Runatal text and back again and again and again.
I happen to have this particular text memorized, which adds another layer to the experience of engaging physically with a written text. The text is already present in my memory, but I involve my sensorium (sight, touch, sound if I choose to read aloud) when I’m looking at a book and that ads another layer of both engagement and meaning. Being a language person with more than a smattering of Old Norse, I might also ponder both meaning and syntax and grammar of the original to see what can be gleaned there. We all bring different experiences and skills to the table in our devotional life and I think it’s good to use what you have to begin these practices.
I could go on from here, line by line with the Edda, or with any other text, but I think the process is relatively clear. The important thing isn’t being well-read in lore, the important thing is to read lore — if it’s a tool you find helpful–always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: veneration of the Gods, developing a devotional relationship with the Gods, calling Them into the seat of the heart, developing greater understanding of that place in which one dances in relationship with Them. If you’re going to use lore, understand that it is not an end in itself. It’s a map and as with any map, there is a goal external to the process.
- For more discussion of the Protestant attitudes dominant in American secular culture see “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobsen and also “Secularisms” by the same authors. For information on the impact of Vatican II on the devotional life of the Church, and the absence of Mary see “”Missing Mary” by C. Spretnak, “Alone of all Her Sex” by M. Warner, and for the focus of the Protestant Reformation I highly recommend E. Duffy’s “THe Stripping of the Altars.”
- Guigo II “Ladder of Monks and the Twelve Meditations” Cistercian Press. See also the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, works of John Cassian, Anselm of Canturbury, even Origen if you can stomach it.
- Praying with Anselm at Admont: A meditation on practice by Rachel Fulton. First published in Speculum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul, 2006), pp. 700-733, published by Medieval Academy of America.
- Taken from Carolyn Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda.