9: ONE essay describing the Dedicant’s understanding of and relationship to EACH of the Three Kindred: the Spirits of Nature, the Ancestors and the Gods. (300 words minimum for each Kindred and 1000 words total)
I was first drawn to Heathenry (and to ADF) through some instinctive animism that connected to what I now know are the landvaettr, the Land Wights, the Nature Spirits. I was fortunate enough as a child to spend many weekends and much of my summer surrounded by woodlands in rural Mississippi. I was surrounded by life; the small mammals that plagued my Grandmother, her flower beds and the garden she grew, the hummingbirds fed from artificial plastic flowers, the fish that my Grandfather caught, the deer that emerged from the woods hesitantly.
I was also surrounded by an unnamed something that I also knew was alive but didn’t take a form I could see. It wasn’t some vague notion of Mother Earth, but a childish understanding that “this place” was alive and “that place” was alive and they weren’t the same place and they weren’t the same “person.”
I read a lot of fantasy and myth. This is when I discovered that the living something I couldn’t see was a spirit. That every field, every residence, every forest was conscious and had an identity that possessed it just as “I” possess my “body.” But not just every field. Every hill. Every stone. Every tree. Every blade of grass. An attempt at actual academic study of this idea led to a greater interest in the Native Americans, as they were the only culture that recognized this it seemed.
I moved to the deserts of the American Southwest. I discovered Ásatrú. I do not remember how I first heard it, but the story of magicians encountering the great wights of Iceland stuck with me and I realized that Ásatrú described the world I lived in, even as I stood surrounded by the spirits known to the First Nations to inhabit this place.
Soon after, the very first religious ritual I ever devised was an offering to a park spirit. My young son and I poured Gatorade onto a corner of the grassy field (one doesn’t give a spirit attuned to the needs of children Ale) and we prayed. We thanked the spirit for being there for us to play in His park. We promised to honor and remember that spirit. To share with Him of our drink and our sweat and, as accidents happen, our blood. We promised to always be cognizant of the fact that we were playing with Him, the park spirit. In return, we asked for safety.
My relationship with this one wight, this one spirit who guarded my son, turned into a recognition that since we were surrounded by such spirits, I should cultivate relationships with them. The spirit that lived in our home, the spirit that lives in our city. The thousands of spirits who keep fields fertile without any recognition in these days of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, without anyone pouring blots, without anyone even knowing they are there.
The wights are independent, conscious, living, independent beings. They have their own agendas, their own beliefs and understandings, their own preferences. Everything I read suggested that spirits love mead and ale. Except housewights who are content with oatmeal and milk. And park spirits who like water even better than they like Gatorade.
Oh…and EVERY spirit in the American Southwest who wants tobacco. These spirits had relationships with the peoples who lived here for thousands of years before I showed up. They remember. They expect certain things. Like all spirits, what they seem to want most is simple acknowledgement, respect, remembrance. They want to be admired for the beauty they participate in and appreciated for their role in making life possible. And like the mountain, they are slow to appreciate change.
The wights also seem to have an internal hierarchy. When those magicians went to Iceland, they found a bull, a dragon, an eagle and a Giant all inhabiting the land and prepared to defend it. But there were also hosts of smaller beings accompanying these four great ones. In like manner, I think I’ve discovered that each park has a spirit, each home, each mountain and valley, and those spirits dwell within the ward of a greater spirit who is the Mojave Herself. The Mojave, of course, being in relationship with the Earth Herself.
There are other nature spirits as well. The spirits of our animal cousins, and the great spirits such as Bear, Wolf, and Coyote. I sometimes wonder how closely this parallels Plato’s theory of Form and Idea. For those not familiar, Plato reasoned that when defining something in order to understand it, we relate it to its function and form. A chair is something you sit on. But so is a couch. For that matter, so is a box turned on its side. A chair, then, is a chair only so far as it participates in the Idea of Chair. Is every dog a manifestation of Dog? How does Dog in his role of protector and guardian relate to and participate in Dog in his rabid aspect? What does it say about the spirit of a plant when that plant is poisonous?
I’ve had to ask myself who the Norse would have become had their colony in Nova Scotia survived and their children spread west. When these sea-faring men from the icy fjords found themselves in the Mojave, who would they be? How would they continue to recognize and celebrate their Gods and Ancestors? How would they approach these spirits so familiar to and familiar WITH the Pai?
Answering these questions and living according to those answers has been the focus of my religious life.
I was very fortunate also in my youth to be close to my grandparents, especially my maternal grandparents, but my father’s mother also had a large impact on my thinking. His father died before I was born. As did my grandmother’s father, and these are the two ancestors with whom I most familiar but never met.
I petition most often those ancestors who I can name and cite our relationship. My Maternal Grandmother, especially, as she was strong and vibrant and I was her favorite in life. My Maternal Grandfather was skilled in many arts and had a strength that one had to witness to fully grasp. One quick anecdote about him: before he made what was to be his last trip to the hospital for leukemia treatments, he walked around the property and made a list of the many things he had to do when he returned. He was 79, sick much of the time, and still the steward of his land and home.
My paternal grandparents were very pious in their service to their God. That example serves me well and I thank them for it. What they taught their many children passed to me and I have had much occasion to consider them through the words and deeds of my Aunts and Uncles, some of whom are heroes, some villains.
I also petition my Grandmother’s father. I am told he was a wicked man. He was often drunk and brutal in his treatment of his family and strangers. He was a sharecropper who made what had to be a difficult life even worse. He was also a gifted musician. The memory of his name will die, I think, with me. I often discuss with his shade why it should not be so. I also keep in mind that not every memory people have of me is a pleasant one. He was a gifted musician and so is my eldest son.
I have to admit now, before I get into the meat of this short essay, that the final ancestor I am going to mention just might be pure fantasy. We have never met, he has never spoken to me, and when I address him, it seems I am shouting across a void. But he hovers on the periphery of my consciousness at certain times and so I think he might be real and he might have some expectation that he is waiting for me to meet. He is an African and when I picture him, he looks like an extra from a Tarzan movie. He seems very angry at the fate that has left him with nothing but white descendants when his own people are gone. He is a warrior and his sons would have been warriors.
Of course, it is commonplace today, where it must have once been astonishing, to consider not only the ancestors of my blood but those other mighty dead who have an interest in me as the continuation of their ideas and causes. I offer sacrifices to these dead, but I petition them very rarely. These dead include, of course, the einherjar, especially those warriors who fought establishing and continuing the causes for which I have fought.
I also think often of the men who trained my hands to make war when I was young. I do not know whether they are alive yet or dead. War has that effect on old soldiers. Though there was no blood relation, I offer sacrifices to the memory I have of these men and I hope the dead among them remember me though I am but one of the thousands they taught and trained.
Also honored are the professors I had at the University and teachers in high school, though I do not know whether they live. And, of course, the great minds that crafted the ideas they taught me. Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hegel.
In addition to the einherjar and the philosophers, I remember those great warriors who left legends and stories and examples that inspire me. Alexander, Achilles of the Shining Helm, Wily Odysseus, Ragnar Hairy-Britches, Alvin York. Especially I remember Egil Skallagrimson and Marcus Aurelius, who set an example that a man of war must also be a poet and a scholar.
Any discussion of the ancestors must involve a consideration of the afterlife. Are the mighty dead merely dead? What exactly continues when a personality dies? Who is reborn and when and why? Are the Ancestors still interested in our mortal affairs or are they still about their own goals?
Heaven always struck me as a boring place. After the first few billion years of meeting new people and exploring the universe, what would there be to do? The Norse afterlife appealed to me however. If I spend my life as a warrior, why would I not be a warrior in the next life also? If I shake my spear at the darkness in this world, might I not also be expected to shake my spear and fight against the darkness in the next? And so I discovered a desire to go to Valhalla and fight and die again on the final day when the Giants cross over Bifrost.
We do in the next world much as we did in this one. My relationships with my ancestors flows from this understanding. Just as my Grandmother cared for her family in this life, so would she care for it from the next world. And this is true of all my ancestors. I find that I love even now grandchildren who are not yet born and so must ancestors who died before my parents were born feel about me.
This affection among blood kin might not only apply to those of our fathers and mothers who were like us. I often wonder if the proto-humans who fathered our lines watch us. Does the line of ancestors watching over us extend to the beginning?
This “familial affection” may not apply to all of those “ancestors of my hearth, heart and head.” But I think that most of those among the mighty dead who once served the Aesir and the Vanir might look at me with some affection as I struggle to keep alive that part of their world view. This might even be so of all the pagan faiths. It might be that ADF’s success is based on its scholarship and its sincerity not only as seen through the eyes of the living but as perceived in our actions by the Dead. Perhaps all of those who lived and died under the I-E “faith” can now look at us and see kinship. Every Druid who sacrificed to the Morrigan and the Dagda but now dwells among the dead might yet see a fellow traveler in those of us who gather under ADF’s banner to study and serve other Gods.
But is the same true of Hegel and Nietzsche? Is there any reason they’d give a damn about us?
Probably not. But as they contributed to our world and our understanding, so I owe them a debt.
I think the dead retain almost all of who they were in life, good and bad, but having the time and energy to reflect and question, much of that bad is excised over time. We do not become perfect, perhaps, but we do become wiser and more powerful (as if the two were not the same) after passing to the next world. And, just as in life, we want to be loved and honored by those we loved and love.
Then a day comes when no one in Midgard knows our name or our story. Or perhaps the world still knows, but we feel some urge…or some lack…and it is time to be born again. I do not know what becomes of the memories and the personalities we leave behind. I think there is some core to the soul that continues just as a man remembers so little of the two year old he once was but remains that same person. Obviously this analogy is imperfect. What becomes of us when the earth herself is swallowed by our sun as it dies in the far distant future? Where are we reborn then? Is reaching the stars a duty we owe our ancestors?
In honoring and sacrificing to the might dead, we remember those who remain on the other side of the veil and continue to serve their families from that place of power.
Once upon a time, a small group sat around a fire hardening the sharpened ends of sticks. One of them then looked over at a grazing mammoth and remarked, “I’m gonna go stab that thing. Then we will eat like kings.” His buddy responded, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Wait a minute, I’ll come with you.”
You are descended from a mighty line.
Honoring these spirits and my ancestors comes easy for me. I can picture them, I remember them, I see them move across the fields. I know who they were and how they felt. I do not know what a God is.
I think it is a mistake to try to understand the tribes of the divine as being like us but “more than.” Perhaps we are like the Gods just as bears are like us. You wouldn’t think of a bear as a less intellectual, less productive version of a man. Nor can we understand the Gods by seeing them as immortal beings who have cool magic powers but are otherwise just like us. So I begin the final part of this essay by confessing that my understanding of the Divine is incomplete and imperfect. Incomplete enough that it is almost total ignorance.
The Gods are cosmic forces with personalities and agendas and aspirations. The Vanir are those who govern the natural world. The fields, the seas, the woodlands and the spirits within. The Aesir are the forces of order, giving rise to fiber arts and literature. The Giants are the forces of chaos, those beings who ache for destruction and not-being just because it is their nature. As the natural world and the fields and human relationships seem good to me, I will serve the Gods and oppose their enemies among the Giants. It does not require that I understand what a God is to understand that they are the force that preserves what I value and that they are the “other” that stands over us, before us, and beside us as we face the difficulties of being human.
In the Norse faith, there is one primary duty in life: to increase the martial might of the Gods in preparation for Ragnarök, the Twilight. Whether it is through the procreation of warriors or the pursuit of martial prowess for yourself, all the world serves as a recruiting ground for the armies the Gods will lead at Ragnarok. Every step Odin takes, every sacrifice he makes, has one reason behind it: “The Grey Wolf gapes ever at the gates of the Gods.”
The world is a grand and beautiful place and there is so much here to enjoy and celebrate. The Gods enjoy it also and I think it pleases them to know we cherish it as our home. But the Jotuns want it torn down and cast into fire. So the Gods oppose this and those of us who would see our descendants flourish on a green world with clean air and clean water must also seek the strength and wisdom of the Gods to aid them as they protect us and the earth itself.