Ruminating about Labels and Localized Polytheisms

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about labels lately, and their effect on both how we’re perceived by others, and how we perceive ourselves. It isn’t much of a secret that I no longer really identify with the term, “Heathen,” as I think it comes with a host of problems, and is far too broad to have much intrinsic meaning outside “GeRmAnIc PaGaNiSm”. I know venues like r/heathenry and Skíðblaðnir, among others, have done their fair share in trying to steer the heathen ship toward something more nuanced than that, but the fact remains that a large majority of those who gravitate toward things like “Heathenry” and “Asatru,” do so with the understanding that it’s Germanic Paganism, which is genuinely problematic.  

First of all, anything labeled as distinctly “Germanic,” or named after any long dead people or language group for that matter, is invariably going to attract nationalists, racists and the like. Am I saying these terms are, in and of themselves, racist? Absolutely not. What I am saying is, we cannot rid ourselves of these unwanted elements if we’re holding flashing neon signs above our heads that tend to attract them. 

Then there is the issue of “purity,” that plagues various Polytheisms, which is made exponentially worse with the inclusion of a lot of the terms we use for ourselves.

As I stated in an earlier post, I have a real issue with the term, “pantheon,” and the accompanying implications that ancient polytheists were isolated from outside influence, or “pure,” in some way. This leads to reluctance (or downright hostility) toward the idea of “pantheon mixing,” and to including concepts deemed foreign to the group a practitioner has decided to emulate. The idea of purity also has obvious ties to the racialism mentioned above, as, let’s face it, racists have long loved the idea of a pure people unsullied by outside influence. 

So, what do we do about this? Can we really rid ourselves of unsavoury elements by simply shedding some terms that attract them? 

Probably not, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in my opinion. We obviously still need some labels in order to tell people what we are and what we are not. For my practice, I’ve opted to use Polytheist as a blanket descriptor, rather than Heathen, Fyrnsidere, or Pagan, as it’s fairly self-explanatory, and doesn’t have the ambiguity or level of attractiveness that other labels seem to.  

Will I find an adjoining term to accompany “Polytheist” for my praxis at some point? I’m working on it. I still use Old English as my liturgical language of choice, as I’m rather fond of using a “special” language rather than a mundane one to commune with the divine. I have had a lot of success in dealing with the Gods in that tongue, and I’m rather comfortable speaking it, so maybe I’ll come up with a term in future that melds together aspects of my personal practice with my Old English foundations and see where that takes me.  

I think the way forward, as I’ve said in previous posts, is in creating something hyperlocal, personal and relevant to you (or your small group), instead of making something suited toward a group of people who have been dead for millennia. Reconstructionist methodology is, after all, simply the beginning of the journey to creating a fully realized polytheistic praxis, and not the final destination many practitioners think it is. When we embrace that, we can manufacture labels that are far more relevant and suited to us, and far less alluring to the nationalists, racists, vikingbros, and antitheists lurking nearby.  As an example, my long-time friend, Selgowiros, has been working in this way for quite some time with his Belgic-Minnesotan Polytheism of Bessus Leitodubrakon, or, “Custom of the Grey Water,” wherein he melds his “Belgic” foundation with things specific to him and to his locale. It’s something I’m actively working toward, and has been a great inspiration to me along the way. 

 

Ensnaring Nets and Liminal Garlands

Like many people, I’ve been watching a lot of television during these plague times, and I’ve become particularly fond of Korean horror/paranormal shows, and their depictions of shamanic practice. 

In several of the series I watched, ropes covered in paper strips, chilies and pine needles were hung to create a sacral enclosure, and to ward against impurities and negative entities. It took some internet spelunking, but I was able find out that these ropes are called, 금줄 (geumjul), or “taboo rope”. 

I was immediately reminded of the enclosing ropes found in Shinto called,注連縄 (shimenawa) and their similar usage as purificatory markers and wards. 

The use of shimenawa has an accompanying mythic paradigm that involves Amaterasu hiding in a cave after an argument with her brother, Susanoo. In order to bring light back to the cosmos, the deities coax her from her refuge and use a rope to create a sacred barrier, preventing her from going back into hiding.  

This use of ropes to demarcate sacred space is not distinct to Korea and Japan, as similar practices are recorded among pre-Christian European peoples as well. 

In Demons and Spirits of the Land, Lecouteaux makes reference to ropes called vébönd, which appear in Norse sources as a means to enclose places of sacral importance. He also refers to ropes, stakes and fences used to demarcate places where legal and judicial proceedings, like the Thing, were conducted.

 The ancient Greeks had a similar custom where shrines and sanctuaries were enclosed by a red band and the Agora in Athens was encircled by a sacred rope that they referred to as the Perischoinion

In my spelunking, I was unable to find any direct references in Anglo-Saxon sources describing ropes or garlands being utilized to delineate sacred space, but I did find accounts of hedges being used to enclose religious sites, suggesting an overall similarity of ideas concerning the separation of pure/impure and the sacred/profane.  

With this information at my disposal, I decided to introduce something similar, yet specific to my own practice – a garland of some sort to use for warding and the sanctification of space and objects. 

I began by creating a mythic narrative inspired by Shinto’s myth dealing with Amaterasu and the first Shimenawa. As I’ve stated in previous posts, I like to do this in order to inform the shape the adjoining ritual will take, as I’m a big proponent of the idea of mythology and ritualization being intrinsically linked. 

In my narrative, I opted to use an “ensnaring net,” or fengnet as my model in order to keep with the whole “lake-centric Polytheism” thing I’m currently fleshing out. I then utilized a fairly basic net making technique I found on YouTube to create a simple garland out of some jute rope I had lying about. I don’t know that it looks like a net per se, but it definitely has a decorative quality and is easy to replicate, which is good considering decorative knot-tying is not really my forte. 

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The Myth

One night Mōna did leave the heavens hoping He might catch some fish to eat.

Mōna’s glow entranced the fish, so they jumped without quarrel into His net. He filled His boat until its planks were bursting and He set off toward His celestial home. 

When Wada learned of this, He became enraged. He shouted curses at Mōna and stabbed at Him with His mighty spear. 

Wada then spoke.

 

“A gracious host am I, oh God of witches, but you do me an insult in taking so much from my domain without offering recompense.”

 

And so Wada cleaved Mōna in twain and returned His catch to the water below. 

Upon seeing Mōna’s wounds, Niht was wroth. In her rage, She became a large, black hound and bared Her teeth at Wada below. 

As the spittle fell from Her muzzle it became baneful wights, countless in number. 

With a great clamour, the horde began to descend upon the earth to devour Wada. 

Wada slashed with His spear, rending many before Him, yet more came. 

He then brought waves crashing down upon them, yet still more came. 

Wada then gathered hemp rope, and from it he fashioned a net He called Fengnet. He spoke spells of protection upon it and cast it toward His assailants. 

The baneful wights became ensnared in the net and Wada did plunge it into the water, drowning all within. 

Niht’s madness then subsided and she mended Mōna so He might be whole again. She then met with Wada and They did make amends and share hænep. 


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Ēastertīd 2021 Reflections

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Well, Ēastertīd has arrived and, as is customary at Sundorwīc, the corn dolly has been ritualistically drowned bringing about the end of Winter and the beginning of the growing season.

This marks my fourth year engaging in this ritual and I have to say, it’s really neat to see the progression of a rite as it goes from being a fledgling idea to something deeply ingrained in the yearly cycle.

There’s definitely a level of uncertainty involved in bringing a new ritual into the mix, especially when attempting to adhere to some degree of historical accuracy and authenticity. Will the deities in question approve? Is the accompanying prayer sufficient? Is the location suitable? These were the sort of questions rattling around in my brain at the time which made engaging with the numinous much more difficult.

Are you truly open to the presence of the divine if your focus is disjointed or elsewhere? I don’t really think so. In my experience, it’s much better to be present and open and at least marginally calm to reap the real benefits of this sort of interaction.

The nice thing about doing something repetitively as a tradition is, once you’ve done it enough times, it becomes instinctive. The kinks largely work themselves out and you’re left with something you just…do.

This instinctive “doing” calls to mind Zhuangzi’s tale of the ‘Dexterous Butcher’ wherein the titular character explains this phenomenon to prince Wen Hui.

“Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

‘Ah, this is marvelous!’ said Lord Wen-hui. ‘Imagine skill reaching such heights!’

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, ‘What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.'”

The narrative above perfectly encapsulates my feelings regarding religious action and ritual engagement. In order to get the most out of our practice, we need to repeat the process until it becomes second nature and we can see with our spirits and not our eyes. We need to be able to work through and remove those preconceptions and thought processes that impede our ability to engage with the divine. In cutting out the noise, we’ll be better equipped to feel and understand the ebb and flow of Wyrd and navigate accordingly with minimal effort. This is the lesson Zhaungzi teaches and one that has certainly changed my approach and my perspective on things.

I’ll finish this post with some advice for new Polytheists who are struggling to solidify a working practice. This is, of course, based off my own experience, so take it as you will.

We all experience hiccups on our spiritual journey. We are all, at times, plagued by doubt and a niggling feeling we’re “doing it wrong,” or that the Gods just aren’t responding to our approach. Maybe you are doing it “wrong” and maybe they aren’t responding. The best thing you can do is try and come to the moment, quiet the chatter in your mind and just do the thing until the kinks seem to work themselves out and actions and words flow organically and without forcing. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome and the direction your religious expression takes.


Hȳþgild: Wada and the Sturgeon

Among the many pages of Bosworth-Toller, we’re provided numerous glosses for Roman deities and holidays. One of the holidays that piqued my interest was that of Hȳþgild, which is a compound consisting of hȳþ, “a landing place for boats, a harbour,” and gild, which means “payment, compensation, tribute.” Hȳþgild is presented as a gloss for the Roman festival of Portunalia, dedicated to Portunus, the God of ports, gates, keys and doors. The information at our disposal regarding the specific rites attached to Portunalia is decidedly sparse. We know it was celebrated on August 17th and that it involved the ritual throwing of keys into fire, though, apart from that, we have little to work with in order to construct a working holiday for the modern practitioner. We have bits and pieces available to us, but we require a something with which we can bind those pieces together to create something cohesive and structurally sound.  

Typically, when (re)constructing a religious observation/holiday for my practice, I like to start by composing an accompanying mythic narrative. This mythic narrative then acts as something of a foundation upon which I’m able to construct the constituent rites and rituals associated with said holiday. My approach draws heavily from Catherine Bell’s work, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, wherein she describes religion as being dichotomous in nature, consisting of conceptual structures, such as mythology and thought/belief, and actionable responses in the form of ritual. Ritual is therefore the means by which we bring together thought and action into a fully realized and functional religious apparatus. 

In my mythic narrative, I opted to emphasize Hȳþgild as an aquatic festival, celebrating the harbour and the bounty it brings. As I stated in my previous post, freshwater lakes play a pivotal in basically everything here, so this is an ideal holiday for me and my practice. Also, because I view Wada as the protector and guardian of the Great Lakes (and all lakes, really), I decided to make this occasion something of celebration of Wada and his cult in general, too. 


I. Wada was hungry and so he said to his wife, “I am going to the lake to catch fish,” and his wife bade him farewell and he set off upon his travels.  

 

II. From driftwood and shells did he fashion a boat and to it he gave the name, Ganglæt. He then called to Frīg and bade her make him a net of hemp fibres and he named it, Swelgend. 

 

III. Upon the waves Wada travelled, for 9 days and 9 nights. He caught many fish and ate his fill of them until he became fat and tired, his belly bursting. He then fell fast asleep neath Niht’s dotted shroud. 

 

IV. A mighty sturgeon then sprang forth from the deep and with a thrashing of its tail, it churned the water and sent the boat spinning. Wada awoke and tried to right Ganglæt, but the beast was powerful in its anger.

 

V. “This lake has been good to you, oh mighty Ent, and your hunger has been well sated.  Yet you have not given goodly gifts or bede for this bounty,” said the sturgeon. And Wada, who had tied himself to his steed said, “I did not consider thee, oh protector of the deep. How might I correct these wrongs and see safe haven once more?”

 

VI. The fish then spake, “give unto me a portion of your wealth and say a prayer of safe passage. I shall then cease my thrashing and speed you on your way. And Wada threw his spear mightily and from whence it landed he chose his sacrifice. He drew forth coins and a portion of his provisions from this place. He then recited prayers and dropped these gifts into the swelling waters below. The sturgeon was thus pleased with these gifts and was true to his word and so the thrashing stopped and Wada was able to return home uninjured. 


**For this post, I focused solely on the mythic portion of the celebration. I’m hoping to expand on the ritual components in a future post, so expect to see that in the near(ish) future** 

For Purification of the Home

 

In my previous post, I spoke about my desire to make my religious expression more applicable to both the region where I live and to my day-to-day life. One of the places I feel current Heathendom falls short of meeting these goals, is in its lack of diverse rite and ritual.

I’m sure for most practitioners (myself included), the majority of your priestly role is centered around the making of regular offerings to the divine – maintaining the unending cycle of do ut des. While this is, in my opinion, the cornerstone of Heathendom, we still require other prayers and rites to meet our various needs in a modern, ever-changing world.

We have various accounts of so-called “land-taking,” and the creation of hallowed space (see: this article for more details), but very few resources for adapting said practice to, say, one’s own house or apartment. I highly doubt most apartment-dwellers will be in a position to utilize an ox-drawn plough to make a sacralizing furrow around their home, for instance.

For my purposes, I tend to do a periodic cleanse of the home to rid it of ill-intentioned wights and general badness – typically at the changing of the seasons. In my past practice, this ritual has been, admittedly, haphazard and lacking in consistent structure: something that I, in my attempts to reinforce a spirituality that is both holistic and pertinent to my needs, would very much like to rectify.

In constructing my rite, I looked to a variety of disparate festivals and rituals dealing with purificatory practices relating to the expulsion of malevolent entities from the home. I read through a significant portion of the Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra (Sutra of Golden Light), read up on Roman Lemuralia, Japanese Setsubun, and various other Polytheistic/Animistic practices dealing with purification and appeasement of the unquiet dead. In doing so, I saw a lot more similarities than I did dissimilarities, which was ultimately helpful in establishing a working outline for a house purificatory ritual à la Sundorwīc.

The basic components of these rituals can be broken down (very) roughly into 3 parts; recitation of a prayer/ mantra, making propitiatory offerings to the malefic entities in question and/or a protective deity, and the utilization and implementation of a hallowing medium to ward against further encroachment.

 

Propitiatory Offering

In terms of propitiatory sacrifice, I opted to give pulses (in the vein of Lemuralia and Setsubun’s mamemaki, “bean scattering”) and grain. The offering of grain to the dead can be found in Theodore’s penitential, which suggests it was widespread enough a practice in England to warrant a penitential being written to do away with it.  I left the offerings in a bowl at the threshold of my home in an effort to appease their hunger, while simultaneously luring them out of the home prior to the cleansing ritual beginning in earnest. 

 

The Prayer

For my prayer, I looked to Anglo-Saxon metrical charms – particularly Wiþ Færstice – for inspiration. There’s a certain intensity found in that charm that, when recited, really makes you feel as if you’re channeling a power outside yourself. 

My charm/spell/prayer appears as follows: 

Out. Out.
Let ill-meaning wights scatter before me
For I am steadfast and stood
Neath Frīg’s shield
And bear not down upon me
For I wear the boar’s bristles upon my helm

Out. Out.
Oh, my spear is held aloft 
Sharp and gore-ready
As wōd fills my words
And sends them like shot at my enemies  

I spoke these lines aloud 3 times, as multiples of 3 appear regularly in “Germanic” sources as numbers of sacral importance, while walking from room to room. I also lit incense during this portion of the ritual. I’d also quite like to utilize a bell or some sort of noise-making device (I’m undecided what I’d like to use as yet) at the commencement of all three recitations, as the clanging of pots, the ringing of bells and the clapping of hands make regular appearances in puritive rituals throughout Asia and pre-Christian Europe. 

 

Cleansing the Threshold

This final ritual component was the one I spent the most time ruminating upon, as there are many modes and methods available. Fire, smoke and hallowed oils were all considered, before I was struck with the idea to utilize water drawn from significant bodies of water in my area. My area (Southern Ontario) is essentially a land abundant in freshwater lakes, and most towns and cities are adjacent to a lake, or within a short drive from one. These lakes – particularly the “Great” ones – influence our weather, provide us with our drinking water and are harnessed to provide hydroelectricity to large swathes of homes and businesses. They are the lifeblood of Ontario in many ways. Couple this with my obvious devotion toward the God, Wada, and my belief in water as a liminal gateway to the “Other” and you’ve got a recipe for something special and specific to Sundorwīc’s praxis. 

Now, there were some issues that presented themselves, since Lake Ontario is quite polluted and a case could be made against utilizing its water for something dealing with cleanliness, religious or otherwise. Bearing that in mind, I opted to use water drawn from another personally significant lake within the Kawartha Lakes chain. I have quite a few lakes in my general (within a 4 hour drive) area that are significant to me and my history in one way or another, so it shouldn’t be difficult to source less-polluted water for my purposes in future.  Upon drawing the water, I said a small prayer to the God of the lake in question and put it aside for ritualistic usage, but I digress. 

Once my cleansing prayer/charm had been recited, I took my hallowed water and sprinkled it on the doorway to my house while reciting a small prayer to Wada for protection, thus completing the rite and (hopefully) keeping hungry ghosts and ghouls at bay for a while at least. 


An Update and Looking Toward the Future

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Well, it has been quite a long time since my last post on here and I have to say, the break was definitely needed and thoroughly enjoyed by yours truly. Not only did I temporarily step away from this blog, but I also left my long-held position as moderator of r/heathenry – a decision that was difficult to make, but ultimately the correct one for me and for my sanity. Spending an inordinate amount of time answering the same questions ad nauseam and getting into regular internet fights was definitely taking its toll and is the reason I decided to retire from the “online community” and focus on my practice – the real and the tangible things.

In my “retirement,” I’ve done a lot ruminating and soul-searching trying to decide what’s important to me as a practitioner and as an individual. With this rumination came a fresh perspective and something of a roadmap for what direction Sundorwic might take in the coming days, months and years.

In September of 2019, I wrote a post entitled, “A Retrospective in Anglo-Saxon Heathendom, which proved to be popular and widely read throughout the Heathen blogosphere (at least according to my stats). While I still agree with a lot of what was written in that piece, I feel I’ve grown since then. I still feel the way forward requires us to diversify and to celebrate those things which set us apart, but I don’t know that leaning too heavily on ideas like “Fyrnsidu” or “Anglo-Saxon Heathenry” is necessarily the answer here.

In my time away, I haven’t felt the need to justify anything to anyone at all. If my practice was lacking in something and there wasn’t anything attested in “the lore,” I’d innovate something and include it as organically as possible. I know I’ve banged on at length about “informed innovation” in the past, but it’s one thing to say it and another entirely to take that leap and put it into practice without worrying about the perception of others. It’s certainly much easier to do when you don’t have to deal with folks online having a meltdown because the thing you did or said was “too Roman” or “not Saxon enough” for their discerning tastes.

We (myself and other polytheist bloggers) talk a lot about how ancient peoples didn’t exist in a vacuum and how polytheism was (and still is) a fluid and changing thing, but we still get too mired in whether something is historically accurate or whether it’s pertinent or transferrable to the cultural group we’ve decided to model our religious expression after, rather than to the practitioner. How many Heathens have had their growth impeded because they’re completely married to the idea of being an “Anglo-Saxon Heathen” or a “Frankish Heathen” of a very specific time period, rather than a modern person with modern needs living in a completely different geographical location? I imagine quite a few of them. While I think having a foundation in an ancient people (or peoples) is cool and ultimately helpful in developing a practice with a working liturgical language and tried and tested theonyms, it is precisely that – a foundation.

Basically, what I am trying to say is, you can’t pull something like Fyrnsidu out of the bog of time without first realizing that Fyrnsidu as an entity is nothing more than the first stop on the road and not an end unto itself. If we want something all encompassing and fully integrated into our lives, then we need to see past our aversion to innovation and modernity and we definitely need to stop worrying if something would be relevant to, say, a 6th century dude from Wessex over being relevant to us, the living, breathing practitioner. Innovation and regionalization is the way forward. Making something pertinent to you, your life, your region, your whatever is the way forward.

Is this me advocating for anything goes? Yes and no. On the one hand, you’re entirely free to do whatever it is you like, regardless of what others might think. If you want to include Darth Vader in your “pantheon,” go for it – it does not affect me, nor should it adversely affect anyone else. On the other hand, it’s important when joining, or claiming to be part of something, that you respect that something and, if that something is not working for you, go and do your own thing and stop worrying about receiving acceptance from people online. I have to say, doing things for yourself and your religious praxis without feeling the need to provide justification for every little thing is quite liberating.

So, what does this all mean for Sundorwic? Although I no longer engage in the greater Pagan/Heathen community, I will still be maintaining this blog as much as possible. I’ll likely start to shift my focus from educational articles, to more creative ones (prayers and the like), though I’m sure I’ll still write informative articles in there as well from time to time (just can’t be bothered lately). I am still a polytheist whose foundation lies in Old English Heathendom, but I want to really explore what that means for me in 2021. I want to work on localizing and individualizing my practice, still respecting my roots, but trudging ever-forward.  Not as an “Anglo-Saxon Heathen” or a “Fyrnsidere,” but as me – as someone who lives in this particular place in this particular time.

As my homeboy, Marc, likes to say: “history gets a vote, not a veto.”

Ercol and the Establishment of Athletic Cultus

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It’s no secret that many modern practitioners of Polytheism find difficulty in integrating religiosity into the already established, so-called “secular” aspects of their day-to-day lives. This secularization and commodification of our daily activities has had a compartmentalizing effect, creating artificial divides where none previously existed. 

In order to construct a holistic and seamless religious expression, it’s important for us to bridge these gaps whenever possible and reconstruct appropriate cults and practices when and where they are needed. 

One such place where we can enact cult and inject a level of religiousness is in the pursuit of physical wellness and athleticism. Exercise adjacent to one’s toils (rather than as a result of them) has become commonplace with the advent of a more sedentary lifestyle and, as such, it provides fertile soil from which to establish and integrate an adjoining cultus into our daily lives. 

To create said cultus, it might first be sagacious to establish to which deity/deities this cult will be dedicated. In Old English sources, we’re provided with quite a few figures who exhibit physical prowess and strength, though, for this piece, we will be focusing on Ercol, a character who appears in Old English texts as a native gloss for Hercules.  

In order to better flesh out this “Saxon Hercules,” we will look at the cult of Hercules-Magusanus, a God who saw worship among the Germanic tribes settled near the southernmost regions of the Rhine and, subsequently, in Britannia. 

 

Magusanus

When it comes to Herculean deities worshipped by Germanic-speaking peoples, none stand out more than Hercules-Magusanus. Hercules-Magusanus played a pivotal role in the ethnogenesis of the Batavi, as well as seeing worship among the Ubii, Cugerni, Baetasii, Marsaci and, possibly, the Tungri.

There are several competing theories as to the meaning of the name, Magusanus, with both Germanic and Celtic derivations being proposed. In his work, Language and History in Early Britain, Kenneth Jackson proposed the meaning, “Old Lad,” and his assertion is echoed by other scholars, such as Lauran Toorians. In his paper, Magusanus and the “Old Lad”, Toorians argues the name Magusanus is the result of Celtic influence – likely by way of the Eburones – on Germanic speakers living along the Lower-Rhine. He proposes the Celtic etymology * magos, ‘boy, servant, valet,’ and * senos, meaning ‘old, ancient,’ by way of Proto-Indo-European * sen-. The aforementioned Gaulish components are nearly identical in reconstructed Proto-Germanic, where they appear as * maguz and * senaz respectively. The idea that Batavian foederati may have borrowed this theonym from Celtic speakers, or were of mixed heritage themselves, is further buttressed by inscriptions bearing names in Celtic and Germanic. 

 

“If, however, we consider the idea that Magusenos was a native deity of the Eburones, ‘borrowed’ by Batavians before it was Romanised to Hercules Magusanus, we might think of an extra step in this process of acculturation. Both the tribal name Eburones and the names of tribal chiefs Ambiorix and Catuvolcus suggest strongly that this group was linguistically Celtic. Amongst the Batavians we find both Celtic and Germanic (personal) names side by side and it is tempting to think that at least the Batavian elite was linguistically Germanic.” 


Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel provides an alternative etymology in her work,
Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio, where she breaks down Magusanus as meaning, “Mighty Old,” suggesting the Celtic adjective * magyo-, ‘mighty’, or ‘great’ was intended. According to Stempel, analysis of Continental Celtic compounds and word formations have, until recently, tended toward taking constituent parts at face value, without considering phonetic changes which may have occurred along the way. It is entirely possible, given sound shifts that were occurring in Gallia Belgica and Germania Inferior, that Magusanus constitutes the superlative form of * magyo/* mago, suggesting the name may be better represented as ‘the greatest’, or ‘mightiest’, akin to Latin, maximus.    

According to Roymans and Derks, Hercules’ popularity among Germans – particularly those fighting as mercenaries under Rome – likely came by way of his masculine, martial, and sporting associations – associations which were likely shared by Magusanus prior to their syncretism. This idea is supported by Magusanus’ popularity among young warrior bands and by the ritual deposition of weapons at his temple at Empel. Magusanus’ connexion to youthfulness and vitality is also suggested by his being paired with the Goddess, Haeva, who was likely associated with youth and family. This also ties into a probable fertility function as evidenced by Magusanus’ phallic cudgel and his role as progenitor of non-Roman, “barbarian” peoples. 

 

“They say that Hercules, too, once visited them; and when going into battle, they sang of him first of all heroes. They have also those songs of theirs, by the recital of this barditus as they call it, they rouse their courage, while from the note they augur the result of the approaching conflict. For, as their line shouts, they inspire or feel alarm.”

 

It is also possible Hercules’ pastoral, cattle herding associations, as well as his ties to wealth, merchants and trade, may have played a contributing role in the popularity of his cult among Germanic peoples. These potential associations are further corroborated by Magusanus’ appearance alongside Nehalennia and Neptune – deities possessing maritime travel connections – at Domburg. 

In terms of iconography, Magusanus differs little from his Roman counterpart. Like Hercules, Magusanus is often depicted wearing a lion skin, while holding a cudgel in one hand and drinking vessel in the other. Magusanus is also depicted with Cerberus at his feet, as evidenced by a dedicatory altar stone found at Bonn, located in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia. 

 

Ercol and His Cultus

Now that we’ve given a brief overview of Magusanus’ functions, we can better extrapolate an Anglo-Saxon iteration in the guise of Ercol. 

Ercol, like his earlier, continental counterpart, might be viewed as a God attached to virility, athleticism, youth, and strength – an ideal candidate to invoke during pursuits related to physical wellness and betterment. Ercol might also be a decent patron for those involved with the military, as evidenced by Hercules’ widespread popularity among young, Germanic warriors and by the deposition of weapons at his temple at Empel. 

Ercol may be seen as a pastoral deity attached to the raising of livestock – particularly cattle – as well as a protector of merchants and travellers. He might, then, be called upon prior to a journey, or at the establishment of a new business venture. 

Given his cudgel and Heracles’ rather promiscuous nature in myth, it would not be a leap to attach a fertility aspect to Ercol’s character. He might, then, be invoked when one is attempting to start a family, or when a couple is experiencing fertility issues. He may also be called upon to aid in the proliferation of livestock and during times of food shortage, or poor crop yield. 

In everyday pursuits, one might call to Ercol to ensure a fortuitous (victorious) outcome, and offerings of votive cattle, weapons, and things associated with one’s exercise and wellness regimen would likely be appropriate. One might also offer to Ercol during coming-of-age rituals – especially those involving males. 

In terms of potential festivals or holy days attached to Ercol, we are met with a variety of options at our disposal. The Heracleia were Greek festivals dedicated to the celebration of Heracles’ death and subsequent rebirth as an Olympian. These festivities involved youths and often took place at gymnasiums during the month of Metageitnion (sometime at the end of July – early August). In Rome, Hercules was honoured during several annual festivals, such as on the anniversary of the restoration of the temple of Hercules Custos (June 4th), the anniversary of the temple of Hercules Musarum (June 29th), the heifer sacrifice dedicated to Hercules Invictus (August 12th), at Nemoralia (August 13th) and alongside Ceres at Angerona’s Divalia (December 21). 

 

Potential Bynames

Plegmann (Player, Athlete, Wrestler)

Wearg-Slaga (Warg Slayer)

Sigor (Victory)

Cȳcgel Berend (Cudgel Bearer) 

Earmstrang (Armstrong, muscular) 

Fara (Traveller, Farer)

Geong (Youthful)

Stedefæst (Steadfast, Unyielding) 

Swīþmihtig (Exceedingly Mighty)

Eorlīc (Manly)

 

A Bēd to Ercol 

Ercol
Sigor, Hrēþig
Wearg-Slaga
Cycgel-berend
Earmstrang

Hear me,
O Wyrm-Render
Lion-Mantled and Far-traveled
Strength unbridled and renowned
Plegmann and Progenitor

Grant that I should know success and well-being
That I might hone my body and my mind
May my health and spēd increase
As I draw inspiration from your deeds and your prowess,
O breaker of obstacles
O Vanquisher
O Averter
Champion of Men
Mover of mountains

O Mighty Ercol, friend to mankind
Strike down obstacles with your mighty cudgel
Clear my path to victory
And my path to betterment
Share a portion of your mægen and your spēd
If you think me worthy 



Sources

http://bosworthtoller.com/search?q=Ercol

Jackson, Kenneth. Language and history in early Britain; a chronological survey of the Brittonic languages, first to twelfth century A.D

Toorians, Lauran. Magusanus and the ‘Old Lad’: A case of Germanicised Celtic

https://senobessusbolgon.wordpress.com/magusanus-magusenos/

Stempel, Patrizia de Bernardo . Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio.

Matasović, Ranko. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic

Roymans, Nico. Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power. The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire.

Derks, Ton. The perception of the Roman pantheon by a native elite : The example of the votive inscriptions from Lower Germany.

“Farwater”, Discord message to author, [August 5, 2020]

Tacitus. Germania. 


 

Wōdnesbēd

O, Mender of bone and sinew and blood
Furious and ever-hungry
Adder’s Bane
Wyrt-Knower
High-leech wreathed in smoke
Sharp-eyed and sharp-speared
Broadminded
Bringer of knowledge and ecstasy and things hidden

Hear my call, O Wōden
O Dēaþgod
O Sceadu-Cyning
Steer my wōd so that I might do goodly things
And my hand in its work and craft 

Through Hænep’s reek do I wander
Through worlds unseen and countless
Forthwise by your hand
As your voice calls from darkness
Imbued with your spēd and with your wisdom
And your lust for knowing

Look upon me and mine with favour
Let us know health and wellbeing
Stave off wearg and wyrm
And see their poison driven out by the edge of your gore
Let them know well your madness, your fury
And the gnashing hounds at their heels 

O Wōden
O Wanderer
O Pæþwyrhta
Unquenchable
Inextinguishable
Desolator 

Please accept this gift, though humble it may be
A gift for a gift
I dedicate and I give
May it please you
May it find you well
And May you continue to smile upon hearth, home, and Hænep 

Gehygd: A Meditative and Revelatory Technique

Meditation (noun):
[uncountable] the practice of thinking deeply in silence, especially for religious reasons or in order to make your mind calm. 

Revelation (noun) :
the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world. [1]


When dealing with distinctly “Germanic” instances of meditation and revelatory technique, we are presented with the issue of the oft fragmentary and decidedly vague resources at our disposal. Because of this, it is often helpful to look at adjacent and preexisting peoples in order to extrapolate something that is both functional and possessing historical veracity.  

If we look to the Old English corpus, we see a variety of words dealing with meditation, rumination, and self-exploration, such as smēagung, gemund, smēaþ and gehygd [2], suggesting meditative techniques were known and likely practiced by the people who lived in Anglo-Saxon England. Although we have several words at our disposal, for this particular reconstruction we will utilize gehygd as our meditative term- though, as is always the case, practitioners may choose to use another of the aforementioned terms for their own praxis if they so wish. 

Bosworth-Toller defines gehygd as “thought,” “cogitation,” “meditation,” “deliberation,” or “consultation” [3]. The word also seems to possess direct connections to the verb hydan “to hide oneself/conceal” [4] and to hȳd/hygd meaning, “the hide or skin of an animal” [5]. This allusion to “hiding” is of marked interest here, as it ties into Norse accounts of “out-sitting” or “mound-sitting” wherein practitioners would sit on a grave mound, occasionally with their head covered, to receive inspiration, mantic revelation, or transmit kingship.

The Norse accounts are decidedly necromantic in nature and often involve direct communication with the dead person interred in the mound being sat upon. In most cases, this sitting is done by kings or chieftains, though there are cases involving shepherds and goatherds as well. 

Of this practice, Ellis states:

 

“The practice of sitting on the howe seems, as far as one can tell from the sketchy nature of the information and from the corroborating evidence of archaeology, to go back into the Migration Period, but continue into the Viking Age; and it has left unmistakable marks on the literature. The indications are that the significance of this custom was bound up partly with ideas about mantic inspiration from the dead, and partly with ideas about rebirth.”  [6]

 

We see similar accounts in Irish stories, where characters such as Muirchertach, Art, and Connla are depicted sitting on mounds and conversing with otherworldly women [7]. Prophetic revelations attached to mound-sitting also appear in Welsh tales, such as in the tale of Pwyll Prince of Dyved, where the king is provided with a prophetic vision wherein he sees his future wife, Rhiannon [8]

This practice of sitting at a high vantage point in order to engage in spiritual interaction appears to have been widespread throughout much of the early Medieval world and might also tie into instances where seeresses (volva) are depicted in Norse lore on a “high seat” of some sort receiving their prophetic revelations, according to Axel Orlik [9].

In some of the instances covered above – such as the instance of Hallbjorn sleeping on the poet  Þorleifr’s howe and receiving the gift of poetry via dream –  the mound-sitters in question received their otherworldly inspiration while asleep on a howe. The understanding of sleep as a liminal, even death-like state appears to have been common among ancient peoples and, in turn, necessitated the creation of techniques with which to bridge the gap between our world and those beyond it. 

 

“It is not surprising that ghosts should have been sought in dreams, since they often visited the living spontaneously in this way. This was, for example, how Patroclus appeared to Achilles in the Iliad, how Diapontius appeared to Philolaches in Plautus’s Mostellaria, and how his dead son visited Epicrates in first-century A.D. Nakrason in Asia Minor.” [10]


In no place is this practice better exemplified than in Hellenic accounts of “incubation,” where devotees would sleep at temples, shrines, and liminal places in order to receive messages from the Other. The locations utilized for incubation were in no way chosen at random, with liminal places being favoured due to their connexions to the chthonic [11].

 

“The locations for dream incubation are closely identified with their respective Gods, and some are believed to be inhabited by the God’s presence. Because a God ‘inhabits’ the area, this place is the one where a dream is most likely to be granted by the God. Accordingly, incubated dreams are referred to as God-sent (theopemti).” [12][13]

 

Prior to incubation occurring, the devotee was required to perform ritualized purification and oblation to the respective deity or deceased hero being contacted. According to Philostratus, practitioners often abstained from food for a day and from wine for 3 days prior to engaging in the incubatory practice. He also tells us that these sites often had “phrontisterion”, or “places of reflection” present at them in the form of fissures, cracks, or holes into which the would-be receiver of revelation would peer to further the mantic experience [14]. Places where necromancy was performed were also often adjacent to bodies of water, which is another crucial piece of evidence which ties into the theme of liminality and the aforementioned idea of “places of reflection”. Many of these lakes and pools were, according to Taunton, likely volcanic in nature and inherently hostile toward life, which may serve to explain their direct associations with death and incubatory states [15].

Another curious factor present in Greek incubation rites, which ties into more northerly accounts of mound-sitting, is that of goats and sheep being involved in some way. As was mentioned earlier, most of the Norse accounts of mound-sitting deal with kings, shepherds, or goatherds, which may be no more than coincidence, but could well reflect a much earlier transmission of ideas. We also see the fleece of sheep or ram being slept upon or utilized in some fashion during Greek incubation rites, recalling the use of skins or “hiding” present in some Germanic accounts. 

Virgil provides us with further details in his depiction of the oracle of Faunus: 

 

“But the king [Latinus], upset by the portents, went to the oracle of Faunus, his prophesying father, and consulted the woods beneath the lofty Albunea. This, the most vast of forests, resounds with a sacred spring and, dark as she is, breathes out a cruel mephitic gas. From here the Italian tribes and the whole of the Oenotrian land seek responses in ambiguous situations. When the priest(ess) had brought offerings here and had lain on the strewn fleeces of slaughtered sheep under the silent night, s/he would see many images/ghosts (simulacra) flitting about in wondrous ways and hear diverse voices and enjoy converse with the gods and speak to Acheron in lowest Avernus. Here, too, then, father Latinus in person, seeking responses, duly slaughtered a hundred wool-bearing sheep and lay down on their strewn fleeces, propping up his back. A voice was suddenly given out from the deep wood; “Do not seek to make a Latin marriage-alliance for your daughter, my son, and put no trust in the marriage-bed you have prepared. Sons-in-law will come from abroad, to carry our name to the stars with their blood. Descendants from their stock will see everything that the sun sees on each side of the Ocean as it repeats its runs, turned and ruled beneath their feet.” [16][17]


Performing Gehygd

Now that we have touched upon Norse and Hellenic means of meditative revelation/oneiromancy, we can better extrapolate gehygd as a distinctly Fyrnsidu technique.

Prior to performing said technique, the Fyrnsidere might eschew certain foods, drink, or other impure acts, such as sexual intercourse for a duration of time of their choosing. Multiples of 3 are often found within the literary corpus and seem to have had some significance to Germanic-speaking people, with 9 being the most prevalent. One might then choose, for instance, to purify for 3 days prior to engaging in gehygd. 

The choice of location is also of importance, with graves, hillocks, and other places of a distinctly liminal nature being preferable. If one has an outdoor shrine, one might choose to sit, or even sleep there, calling to mind Greek references to incubation at temples. One might also attempt sleeping, or sitting at their home wīgbed if they are not keen, or unable, to perform this rite outdoors. Performing gehygd at, or near bodies of water also seems preferable, especially when we consider the Anglo-Saxon belief in water-as-gateway.

Once a suitable location has been decided upon, the practitioner must then perform some sort of oblation to the wights being entreated. Suitable offerings might include some sort of votive sheep or goat, though grain might also be burned as an offering to the dead, as was apparently customary among the Anglo-Saxons according to Theodore’s penitentials. 

 

“…Corn bærne in þære stowe þær man dead wære”
(…burns grain in a place where a man died) [18]


A pre-meditation might then occur, especially if one is sat near a body of water. It is implied in some of the Greek instances of incubation that vapours might have inhaled through fissures or cracks within the earth. Bearing this in mind, one might choose to ingest an entheogen of some sort in order to help with the revelatory process [*]

Once all of the preliminary actions have been performed, one might cover themselves with an animal hide, fleece, or – if neither is available-  a blanket, sitting in contemplation. Prayers might be recited and ritual actions performed in order to maintain a “receptive” mindset conducive to meditation. One may or may not choose to sleep at the site and if one chooses to do so, they should exercise caution and do so as safely as possible. 

Once the gehygd is completed, the practitioner might offer another oblation, or perform divination in order to better assess the success of the endeavour.


Sources

[1] https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/meditation
[2] http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/finder/3/meditation
[3] http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/014822
[4] http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/020239
[5] http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/020237
[6] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel. (p.119)
[7] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel (p.109)
[8] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel (p.109)
[9] Orlik, Axel. At sidde paa Hoj.
[10] Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy. (p.76)
[11] Taunton, Gwendolyn. Path of Shadows (p.121)
[12] Taunton, Gwendolyn. Path of Shadows (p.121)
[13] Pattern, K.C. A Great and Strange Correction: Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation
[14] Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy.
[15] Taunton, Gwendolyn. Path of Shadows. (p.146)
[16] Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy. (p.91)
[17] Virgil. Aenid. 7.81-101
[18] Paenitentiale Theodori. 

[*] Obviously this is not for everyone and, depending on where you live, might be rather illegal and/or dangerous. Mugwort might also be a decent legal option for those living in places where plants like cannabis are still illegal and, in my opinion, unjustly vilified. Mugwort can be used to produce vivid dreams and better dream recall, just be aware that it might cause an allergic reaction in people allergic to ragweed.


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The Problematic Use of Pantheon

Ayia2

Polytheists love to use the word “pantheon” when referencing deities specific to a particular group of people. “What Gods are in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon?,” “How can I mix deities not of the same pantheon?” These questions are asked time and again and totally miss the mark when it comes to the multitudinous divine. 

Pantheon – at least as it’s typically used in polytheist discourse – suggests a finite, limited number of deities that are tidily numbered, categorized and contained. Yet when we look at the historical sources and archaeological evidence available to us, we see a completely different picture; one that shows cults and deities to be fluid things that transcend linguistic and cultural affinity. We see rampant cross-pollination throughout Polytheism’s long history and a willingness to adopt and adapt cults from disparate peoples. 

Rome shows some of the best evidence of this acceptance of so-called “foreign” cults, where we see cults from Gaul, the ancient Near East and Greece commingling with indigenous Italic cults. We also see inscriptions made by people with Germanic names, offering to Celtic Gods in the Roman fashion, such as can be found on inscription RIB 1102, found at Ebchester. 

 

Deo Vernostono Cocidio 

Viri[l]is Ger(manus) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) 

[To the god Vernostonus Cocidius, Virilis, a German, willingly fulfilled his vow.]

 

We see similar inscriptions dedicated to the Goddess Isis, an Egyptian Goddess who gained popularity throughout the Roman Empire; to the Matres and Matronae; to Epona; to Mithras; Dionysos; Dolichenus; et al. 

Some might assert that this religious fluidity and cohesion was as a result of Rome simply asserting their dominance over tribal peoples, and pilfering cults as they did so. While there may be some truth to that in some cases, in others, this religious exchange was a mutual one that showed respect for all of the deities involved. Ralph Häussler’s, Interpretatio Indigena: Re-Inventing Local Cults In a Global World, says this of interpretatio in the Roman provinces:

“The result of these interpretatio-indigena processes is not just a mere one-to-one identification between (say) a native ‘Taranis’ and a Roman Jupiter, perhaps for obvious (e.g., both Taranis and Jupiter are weather/thunder gods) or superficial reasons (e.g., the same attribute, like the hammer in the case of Sucellos and Volcanus). Instead of a ‘mindless’ adoption of Graeco-Roman theonyms and deities, we are dealing with careful adaptations by local people to suit the local context. For example, the use of new media, like sculpture, required people to re-think their local cults. Obviously the local people had to reason first about the nature and function of their own cult in order to make appropriate decisions, like choosing a Latin theonym or a Graeco-Roman deity (we need to distinguish here: people might just choose the theonym because it resembled the indigenous name of the god).” 

 

And

“These cultural differences between ‘Romans’ and ‘natives’, between ‘conquerors’ and ‘conquered’, between the people of various cultural and ehtnic origin that come together in provincial hubs – towns and sanctuaries -, stimulated the creation of new interpretations for local deities, attributing to them new functions, myths, symbols and new names by creating new theonyms/ epithets and by trying to create a figurative representation for the local deity. Cultural differences can catalyse innovation, notably in a world with growing transcultural interaction.“

 

We see similar ideas throughout the ancient world, where cults are exchanged, or melded together to create something entirely new and yet ancient at the same time. Hermanubis, for instance, was the coming together of the Greek cult of Hermes and the Egyptian cult of Anubis and likewise, Serapis’ cult mixed attributes of Apis, Osiris, Dionysos, Demeter and Hades. These deities were more than just the sum of their parts in that they became standalone deities in their own right –  in dealing with divinity, mathematical rigidity goes out the window and one and one can indeed equal three. Bearing this in mind, the notion of a “finite number of Gods fixed to a specific locale or ethno-cultural group” no longer makes sense. We might be able to link a specific deity to a particular language or cultural group, but this does not preclude adopting and worshipping deities from outside those very arbitrarily drawn boundaries – our ancestors certainly did so. 

So, why do people like the term “pantheon”? The Christian overculture and Protestant secularism have certainly shaped the West’s view on what religion should look like and how it should be ordered. It is for this reason that academics and polytheist writers often fall into this reductionist trap where they believe having fewer Gods is somehow preferable to having more, or that recognizing a finite number of Gods attached to a particular people is somehow more easily digested by those still mired in Monotheistic thought. This is why so many authors have tried to explain away lesser-known Goddesses found within the Eddas as being Frigg or Freyja, rather than distinct beings unto themselves. It’s why book after book has tried to attach Seaxnēat to more well-known deities found within the Anglo-Saxon corpus. Why can’t Seaxnēat be Seaxneat? Why can’t Gefjon be Gefjon? 

We are polytheists and as such, we recognize and worship the many, the multitudinous.  Reducing, whittling away and limiting the number of Gods one can recognize and commune with is both detrimental to us and what we are, and just doesn’t make sense given what we know of Polytheism’s changing and very fluid history.