Posts Tagged ‘Ancestors’

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.

Of course.

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.



2: Short essays on each of the eight ADF High Days including a discussion of the meaning of each feast. (125 words minimum each)

The pagan holidays are tied to the land in ways that modern people may not recognize easily. They are not dates on the calendar, but dates when the sky is right and the soil is ready. Each holiday exists to draw the tribe together and make closer ties among us and to reinforce the ties that bind us to the earth itself. This only seems absent in these modern days when one can live outside the natural rhythms of agriculture and hunting/gathering. In my house, the holidays serve also to remind of us these rhythms, as well as being times to honor the Kindreds. It is this agricultural/natural aspect to these holidays that creates the great wheel.

*November Feast: Winter Nights

Winter Nights occurs on the first full moon after the Autumn Equinox. This places it in late October or early November on the modern calendar. At Winter Nights, Winter is upon us in its fullness. It is recognized in the sagas as one of the three great observations of the Norse as a time one honors and make sacrifices to the mighty dead, especially one’s own ancestors. It is also suggested that the Disir, one’s female ancestors were honored especially. There may have been separate celebrations to honor one’s fathers in the spring. It is also a time when the “dying” of the earth becomes apparent as Winter lays its claim. In my house, the celebration and sacrifice emphasize the Disir, our female ancestors. We remember them and petition their continued aid. Our traditional meal is based on the dish my grandmother often served me and which I liked best. This holiday also has a secular observation; Hallowe’en, when the kids go trick or treating and we are allowed to display our Hospitality and Generosity to the children that visit our home. For this reason, we try to celebrate Winter Nights as a religious/family feast on the actual full moon or the Saturday Night closest to it, and avoid celebrating on Hallowe’en.

*Winter Feast: Yule

Another of the great observances described in the sagas, Yule begins the night before the winter solstice with Mother Night. Mother Night is another commemoration of the Disir. The Yule season then continues for twelve days, with the greatest celebration on the winter solstice itself. It is a celebration that when the long night ends, the days will grow longer and the rebirth of the fields and groves is closer each day. In my own house, Yule is celebrated publically at an event within our local SCA barony. The table serves as our altar, with a centerpiece of Well, Fire and Yggdrasil. At the Yule Feast, we exchange gifts that will serve us as fighters and poets when the spring comes. We also keep a tradition of remaining awake all night playing games and eating and being together. Yule is secularized for us much as Christmas is for many and is a holiday that emphasizes community and family bonds much more than it does our religious bonds. Even so, we pour blots for the kindreds, especially the landwights and Odin who is the Lord of Yuletime. We sacrifice to the landwights at this time of year to show our faith in the future and that we are committed to the land even when it lies quiet and rests.

February Feast: Charming of the Plow

Charming of the plow occurs on that day when the soil is first soft enough to be worked. The  It is necessary to work the soil before it can be planted and planting must occur in that short window between “too cold” and “too wet, too hot, too much hail, too everything else.” No longer being immediately dependent on the soil as farmers of the past were, we celebrate this day near Feb 2nd in community with the rest of the Asatru community. The holiday is a celebration this winter past was not the Fimbul Winter and that again the earth is prepared to share with us her bounty if we will labor for it. Our ancestors showed this by the care they gave their plows and the blessing they sought for those tools. As we are not farmers ourselves, we observe this feast in my house by invoking the aid of the wights and Gods on behalf of those who do farm, whether in Imperial Valley, California or the fields of the American Southeast and Midwest.

Spring Feast: Summer Finding

Summer Finding is celebrated on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Among the Norse, this time was celebrated by farmers and warriors alike (who were very often the same people) by petitioning the kindreds for victory on the fields of battle and growth and protection in the planted fields. We remember these two aspects in our observations also, praying for the troops deployed and further sacrificing for those farmers who labor on our behalf. The agricultural aspect of this holiday is marked for us by the fragility of the crops during these early days of the planting. In this way, it is almost a continuation of the rites begun during Charming of the Plow, but now the emphasis is not on our role in the production of food but the role played by the weather and the land itself.

May Feast: May Day

May Day is the celebration of the first flowering of the planted crops and the wild fields. The timing for this holiday would have depended on observation of the crops progress for our ancestors, but is now standardized to May 1st and is celebrated then by many communities and my own house. It is a victory celebration of sorts, as the first crops have survived their most fragile period and the world begins to show its fertility and overcome the quiet of winter. It is a time to be celebrated outside. In addition to honoring the earth and the wights, we pay special attention to the Vanir as the “nature gods” of our faith. In this, we especially honor Frey as the God of the World. Any consideration of Frey would be lessened without a retelling of his romance with Gerd and the deeper lessons of that love.

*Summer Feast: Midsummer

Midsummer occurs on the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is a celebration that the warm comfortable days are at their climax and that as those nights grow longer, winter approaches. This was the third of the three great celebrations described in the sagas. It should be a celebration of healthy crops ripening in the field as the harvest grows closer. If those crops were not coming in as fully as expected, it was a time of sacrifice and petition. Midsummer was a time when the diet was provided primarily by foraging, fishing and hunting. Those ripening crops are not yet food for the most part and the tribe would still be living off the largesse stored in the previous fall. It is far more likely that people were hungry in midsummer than they were in the winter. This scenario may be what prompted the Norse to take advantage of the good weather to go raiding, to take by force what others had laid up when their own supplies were diminished.

August Feast: Freyfaxi

Freyfaxi was celebrated when the crops had ripened and the harvest could begin. It was celebrated with feasting and the baking of “first loaves” as grain was made bread. The hunger of summer was at an end and feasts were held to alleviate the pangs of those months of denial and the glorious abundance that would carry the family through the winter and to the next planting and harvest. Once again it is the landwights and the Vanir, especially Freyr, who are honored for the abundance of the earth. In the past, games and races were held to celebrate. The harvest also marked the end of the campaign season. Men were needed to bring in the crops and tend their affairs as landowners. They returned to their lands and put away their longships and prepared for the long peaceful rest of winter. For this reason, alongside Freyr, the warriors also venerated their patrons, Thor or Odin or Tyr, for their success in battle. In my house, this time of thanksgiving is commemorated as we remember the pledges we made the landwights for their role in providing the food harvested across the country. It is too easy for most modern Americans to forget the effort that goes into food production and the worries alleviated as the harvest is made.

Fall Feast: Winter Finding

Winter Finding is celebrated on the fall equinox. The year has come full circle and the potentials of ice and snow were made real for our Northern Ancestors. The ground is cold and rests under the snow and full bellies rest beside the fires required for warmth. The harvest has to be complete or the crops will wither and die in the fields.  Look into the future for the Charming of the Plow and the days of next spring’s planting. The meal that would be eaten by those who performed that labor, had been gathered in and stored by Winter Finding. The season that began at this time for our ancestors was one of rest and recreation. Whether the harvest was sufficient for the year or not, it is done and there is no changing the facts of winter. In a good year, this celebration was gratitude for the expectation of survival. The coming months until planting and the return of the campaign season will be spent with games and drink and family. Winter Finding is, then, a time to recognize these blessings also.

This post was inspired by the prompt at the Heathen Round Table. If you’re heathen, heathen-curious, or simply curious, you are one of those invited to listen and comment A new topic will be supplied monthly and these topics will range from the simple to the less-simple.

This month’s topic is: “How did you first become involved in heathenry? What started you on this path, and how has it changed you?”

I don’t even remember. What was the first Heathen book I read? The first time I flirted with Freya?

I do remember the reasoning and the cause.

As a child and a believer in another faith, I often found the idea of heaven boring. I had plans, things I would do that might take billions of years of exploring. But…then what? If the Afterlife is the purpose of Life, what is the purpose of the Afterlife?

I did the usual teenage exploring. I made a special study of Buddhism and found I was not nihilistic enough to want the CAUSE to end simply because I was dead. And that idea applied to every faith. It seemed every faith demanded you serve God so you could quit serving and be a hedonist in the next world. No wonder so many of my friends became atheists.

But I couldn’t do that. To me, and I know this sounds juvenile, the eternal divine is simply obvious. I can’t explain it or weigh it and I can’t convince anyone of it. I’m okay with that.

The warrior ethos and the study of military history was a huge part of my childhood and young adult life. I wanted to be a knight. I wanted to stand at Thermopylae, Cannae, Stamford Bridge, Hastings, Agincourt…Baden Hill.

I wanted to be part of a small army facing impossible odds in the name of all that is just and good. I wanted my ancestors and the divine to be pleased with the nature of my death. I won’t lie to you, I still have that fantasy and I am fifty years old and my wars seem to be over.

I do not know when I read of vikings of Odin and Thor and Frey and Valhalla. And long before I ever thought of them as Gods, I made a connection to the wights through my study of animism and shamanism. My son and I began pouring offerings to the spirit residing at the park where he played.  I made promises, that I’d honor that wight, remember him, and teach my sons to honor him. In return, I wanted his protection for my son as he played and celebrated the Park Itself.

We still do this.

I do not know when this blossomed into Heathenism. I had read of vikings and knew stories of Thor and Odin and Frey and I knew something of runes. But it was Ragnarok that turned me. If you live your life as a soldier, a warrior committed to the destruction of that which threatens humanity, why would you not be such in the Afterlife? Why would you not continue to be committed to preparing for that great battle every faith insists is coming at the end of the age?

I should write my meditations upon Ragnarok another day.

So…this is how I took to this path: with black rifle and bayonet. I was solidly upon it when, in Iraq, I prayed a simple prayer to Freya every time the shooting started: “Choose me.”

It has changed me by sharpening and refining my moral instincts as a warrior, even though I still fail monumentally from time to time. This has been a cause of some conflict with some of my fellow heathens on occasion. When the young men, tattoed and bearded, boast of being warriors and following warrior Gods, I am the one who asks what wars they have been to…what wars they contemplate going to in the future.

Make no mistake…I do not believe war is the proper path for every heathen or every good man. But there is more to getting into Valhalla than being a gym rat who studies BJJ. And I admit here that I may have missed my chance.

So, there was no great conversion event, no blinding light on the road to Uppsala. But here I stand.

Here I stand with a black rifle and a wooden sword.

Hail the Aesir! Hail the Vanir! Hail the Ancestors!