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Essential AsatruWalking the Path of Norse Paganism
By DIANA L. PAXSON
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Diana L. Paxson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBefore History: The First Heathens
"Tonight," Janet picks up the drinking horn and turns to face the others, "we have gathered here to welcome in the winter. Usually, we begin our sumble with a round for the gods and goddesses, but this feast is holy to the ancestors. I would like to propose that tonight we start by honoring our forefathers and mothers of the flesh and spirit instead."
She looks around the circle, listening to the murmur of agreement, and turns back to her husband. As she holds the horn, he fills it with beer, dark as the ancestral soil and foamy as the sea. It is from a batch the kindred brewed earlier that summer, and it came out very well.
Janet lifts the horn high. "Holy ones, Alfar and Disir, for you this drink is poured. As many grains and many drops of water mingled to make this beer, though we are the offspring of many ancestors we are one in spirit. I sign this horn with the rune Othala in token of our heritage." Cradling the horn in one arm, she draws the rune in the foam.
Karen comes up to the table. A biology major at the nearby university, she is the newest member of the kindred, and as such has the honor of serving as valkyrie. Carefully, shecarries the horn to Maureen, who is sitting at the end of the table, sets it into her hands, and steps back.
"Some of you know that I recently sent a DNA sample to England to be tested-" Maureen looks into the horn to see if the head has subsided enough for her to actually get a sip of beer. "Anyway, I got the results back last week, and I am descended from a woman who lived on the Continent around 30,000 years ago. Well, probably some of the rest of you are too," she grins, "so I hail you as cousins. Anyway, I'd like to raise this horn in honor of the woman the people at Oxford call Helena. I imagine her tending her fire, wondering if there will be enough food for her family just as I am worrying now, and I thank her for having the courage to keep going. Hailsa!" Carefully she drinks.
"Hail Helena," the others echo as she hands the horn back to Karen and sits down.
How old is the "Old Religion"? Although heathens draw most of their religious practices from material written down during Anglo-Saxon and Viking times, those beliefs are based on millennia of evolving folk tradition. Archaeology identifies a succession of European cultures; however, recent genetic studies (see Sykes 2001) demonstrate that despite cultural changes, the population of Europe has remained remarkably stable from the Stone Age to the present day. Ninety-five percent of all people of European extraction are descended from seven women who lived between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago. Honoring the ancestors, especially the disir, the foremothers who guard the family line, is a core belief of Asatru. The "Venus" figures, which are our first evidence that humans worshipped Spirit as manifest in human form, were found in places like Uhlendorff and the Volgerherd cave in what is now Germany. Through these seven European grandmothers, and through the twenty-three lines of descent that come out of Africa, and the single "African Eve" to whom all modern humans trace their origin, we are all kin.
The Stone Age
As the ice receded, human groups moved northward, settling the southern parts of Scandinavia by the year 9000 before the common era (B.C.E.). During this early period, culture and technology appear to have been similar across Europe. Our first grandmothers and grandfathers were hunter-gatherers whose religious practices included elements still found in shamanic cultures today. Living close to nature, they learned to reverence the primal beings who survived in Germanic mythology as the jotnar or etins-the giant-kin-and seek power from the animals, trees, and herbs. Scandinavian rock paintings show that predators like the wolf, bear, eagle, and raven, and strong and sometimes dangerous game animals, including the elk, aurochs, horse, and swan, had became totems that survived through the millennia as name elements, family symbols, and figures in legend. Birch, oak, ash, yew, and thorn, the sacred trees that gave their names to some of the runes, were among the trees that populated the land.
Each summer the first Scandinavians migrated from their sheltered winter camps in the lowlands to the mountains, a pattern that survived when they became a culture of cattle-herders, and remains the basis for the heathen ritual year. However, weapons found in graves suggest that both men and women also continued to hunt. An abundance of natural resources delayed the adoption of agriculture in the north until the third millennium B.C.E.
By the end of the Neolithic period, the ancestors of the Germanic peoples were living in villages and creating enduring tombs for their dead from great stones. The mounds heaped above the graves of leaders suggest that the cult of the alfar, or male ancestors, had become a part of the religion. The dead remained an important part of the community. Although grave finds show more gender-differentiation than was present earlier, women clearly had a high status that they retained through the Viking Age. However, there is no conclusive evidence for worship of a single "Great Goddess."
Transition to an agricultural lifestyle had other implications for religious practice. Staying in one place required people to maintain a working relationship with the spirits of the land. Village wise folk were evolving from shamans to priests who knew the rites and served the holy places. At this time, the powers being worshipped may have included a goddess of earth and water and a god of the sky, as well as the myriad spirits of field, forest, and stream.
Petroglyphs, circles, and alignments of stone were also created for ritual purposes. Although English speakers are most familiar with the megalithic monuments of the British Isles (which were there long before the Druids came), they are found all over the world, including on the European continent and in Scandinavia. Scandinavian rock art includes symbols that remained important into the Viking Age (see Gelling and Davidson, 1969). European heathens, like other contemporary pagans, perform rituals and make offerings at megalithic sites today.
Much of our evidence for early religious beliefs comes from offerings preserved in peat bogs. These include large chunks of amber that may have come from necklaces offered to local goddesses. Amber was also carved into animal images and small amulets of double-headed axes similar in form to the Thor's hammers of the Viking Age. Finely carved stone axes were also offered. Elk heads were carved on ritual items, and the wild boar was considered a great protective power. There is evidence for the sacrifice of animals, and sometimes of men. Then, as later, pots and other gifts were often ceremonially "killed" by breaking them before throwing them into the bog.
Sometime during the third millennium B.C.E., a new culture arrived in northern Europe, brought by the people we call the Indo- Europeans because their language was the ancestor of tongues now spoken from Brittany to Bangladesh. Although in some areas the newcomers may have replaced or displaced the earlier population, in most of Europe the major changes seem to have been technological and linguistic rather than genetic. Innovations included the ox-drawn wagon, the polished stone battle-ax, and a style of pottery known as corded ware. Our understanding of this new culture is based primarily on linguistic analysis, which has allowed philologists to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. Its vocabulary tells us what animals, plants, and tools those who spoke it knew and valued. Comparison of the myths and legends of the peoples speaking Indo-European languages offers clues to the ancestral form of the European pagan religions as well.
The original Indo-European homeland was somewhere in Central Asia. Peoples who originated among the farming cultures of Anatolia may have dispersed north to the area above the Black Sea, becoming the culture known as the Kurgans, and from there moved westward. They seem to have spread out in several waves of migration. Cultural elements spread through diffusion; however, legends in which a warrior band subjugates and rules a larger population are found all across the Indo-European area. Most probably, the process was repeated again and again, as the previous conquerors became assimilated into the native population. Eventually, Proto-Indo-European split into two language groups, one in which PIE "k" sounds were retained (the centem languages, after the word for "one hundred" in Latin) and one in which "k" turned to "s" (the satem languages, after the word for "one hundred" in Old Persian). In Europe, the culture diverged into a southern and a northern branch-the "Corded-Ware" culture, from which descended the Teutons, Celts, Balts, and Slavs.
The PIE vocabulary tells us a great deal about how those who spoke it lived. It includes words for most of the familiar European animals and trees and for domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, horses, pigs, and dogs, as well as terms for the cultivation of land. The Indo Europeans farmed wheat, barley, beans, peas, and lentils, but the economic base was their herds of cows. In both the Romance and Germanic languages, the word for cow became the root for terms having to do with wealth, and the first warfare was the cattle raid. However, the Germanic languages include a certain percentage of words, especially those having to do with the sea, that seem to have come from another language group, indicating a fusion of the incoming culture with that of the earlier population.
Kinship terms indicate that the Indo-European culture was organized into clans led by chieftains and families headed by the father, although a boy had a special relationship with his maternal uncle or grandfather. Tribes were made up of allied clans that were ruled by a king. Social bonds were strengthened by the exchange of gifts and hospitality, values that remained fundamental parts of Germanic social structure.
It is clear that the number 3 was sacred. Scholars such as Georges Dumezil (1973) assert that a tripartite social structure goes back to the Indo-European culture as well and that each of their gods fulfills one of the three functions: sovereignty/magic, warfare, or agriculture. The presence of words for vows, spirit, prayer, holiness, and making libations and offerings tells us something about their religious practice. A word meaning "to blow" or "to inspire" is the source, among other terms, of the name of the god Odin.
At the family level, the hearth was the holy center of the home, which was sacred to the spirits of house and storeroom and to the ancestors. Family members also made offerings to the spirits of the land they worked. Assisted by highly trained priests and bards, chieftains and kings sacrificed to the deities of the clan and tribe to protect the people and their flocks and herds. Such sacrifices renewed the cosmic order, which was established when the primal being was dismembered to create the world. Sacred drinks were used in ritual.
Linguistic evidence points to a pantheon of deities of sky and earth. The Indo-Europeans honored a sovereign sky-father, Dyaus, whose name means "the bright one" and is cognate to the names of Zeus, Jupiter, and Tyr, and his radiant consort. He may have had a counterpart whose realm was the night sky and who ruled the powers of magic. Other heavenly deities included the god of thunder, the sun goddess, the goddess of the dawn, and the divine horse-riding Twins.
Deities of the earth included a god of the waters beneath the earth who was also the ancestor of fire, and the Moisture Mother, the goddess of the life-giving earth. Her name provided the root word that eventually evolved into our word for humanity. She survived as the goddess Danu from whom the Danube and many other European rivers derive their names, and the names of groups such as the Danaans, the Tuatha De Danaan, and the Danes. The moon god measured out time, and the goddess of death covered all. Other figures included a being called "Third," who fought a serpent to recover his stolen cattle, and a ferryman of the dead. Another myth that goes back to very early times is that of the cataclysmic battle between the forces of order and chaos that will end the age.
The Bronze Age
In the beginning of the Younger Edda, Snorri Sturlusson tells us that Odin was a descendant of King Priam of Troy, and in his Heimskringla (Lives of the Norse Kings), he states that the gods were called Aesir because they came from Asia. Although Snorri was an enthusiastic Norseman, he seems to have succumbed to the temptations of medieval etymological theory and the early medieval fashion for attributing national origins to the Trojans. But as we have seen, the ancestors of the present-day Scandinavians have been there for a very long time indeed. Did a small group carry the heroic culture of the Bronze Age north from the Black Sea area during the warmer years of that age, or did Germanic culture originate in Scandinavia, from which it moved south and westward during the Migrations period? There is a sense in which both theories are correct. Whether or not a significant number of people ever migrated north from Asia, some southern myths and concepts could well have been carried to Scandinavia from the Mediterranean world, where they evolved into a unique culture.
In any case, by the second millennium B.C.E., Indo-European and native cultures had fused and were being transformed by the adoption of bronze for tools and weapons. Although their languages were beginning to differentiate, the lifestyles and beliefs of groups across northern Europe still show great similarities. Most people in the north lived in large family groups in long timber houses with outbuildings for weaving and other crafts. Families lived by mixed farming and herding. Although by this time some of the woodlands had been cleared for pasture, much of northern Europe was still thickly forested. Also, the climate was somewhat warmer than it is now, thereby supporting crops that in later times could only be grown farther south.
The land was traversed by trails. Copper, gold, tin, and amber were traded across Europe, and luxury items such as wine and jewelry were carried northward from the Mediterranean. Our most vivid portrait of life in a Bronze Age chieftain's hall can be found in the pages of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Similarities between social and political structures seen there and descriptions in later northern European epics such as Beowulf suggest that if allowances are made for weather and wealth, the culture of Bronze Age Germans and Scandinavians was much like Greek culture in the heroic age. For that matter, one finds the same structures and warrior traditions in the hero tales of Ireland and the epics of the Rajputs of northern India.
Where the fertility of the land could support enough people, kings and subkings ruled over territories populated by interlinked clans and families. A royal household included the warriors of the house guard, but even kings were not above taking a turn in the fields at harvest time. Warfare was a matter of raids or formal battles in which heroes fought with sword, shield, and spear and their deeds were celebrated by the bards. As later in Iceland, it was the responsibility of the ruler to make offerings to the tribal gods. The increasing importance of such leaders is shown by the rich funeral goods found in their mound-covered graves.
There is some evidence for the existence of a class of trained priests who kept the calendar and supervised the rituals. Although its authenticity has been challenged, a bronze disc found near Nebra, Germany, and dated 1600 B.C.E., shows the sun, moon and stars, suggesting a sophisticated understanding of celestial movements. This is the oldest astronomical representation yet found. It would have enabled a viewer standing on Mittelburg Hill to predict the position of the sun in relation to the Brocken-a sacred mountain where according to Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology (1844) later folklore told of the revels of spirits and witches-and thus calculate times for planting and other agricultural tasks. The area of the Brocken seems to have been a major cultural and political center. Discoveries such as these are leading researchers to reevaluate the achievements of the Bronze Age cultures of Central Europe.
Excerpted from Essential Asatru by DIANA L. PAXSON Copyright © 2006 by Diana L. Paxson. Excerpted by permission.
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