Some Divinatory terms and Magical Vocations in Old English

Despite its questionable origin, “rune magic” has become the de facto form of divination associated with modern heathendom. While any writing or symbological system could, in theory,  be employed for the purpose of augury, for the purposes of Fyrnsidu, it may be beneficial to look at the Old English corpus for clues as to the divinatory practices and magical vocations of the Ur-Saxon Heathen.

Wīglere (m.) : A diviner / augur, derived from wīg/wēoh (m.), meaning ‘idol/image’, descending from Proto-Germanic *wīhą, meaning ‘sacred place or thing’

Steorwīglere (m.): An astrologer, derived from steorra (m.), meaning ‘star’

Wīgbedwīglere (m.): One who divines from sacrifices. Possibly one who interprets whether an offering was well-received by reading the organs (haruspicy) or bones of a sacrificed animal.

Fugelweohlere/Fugelhǣlsere/Fugelhwata (m.): A diviner by birds. Bosworth and Toller provide the Latin gloss of auspex, derived from the Latin/Proto-Italic word *avispex (m.), made up of avis, meaning ‘bird’ and speciō, meaning ‘to watch or observe’.

Dægmǣlscēawere (m.): An observer of the times and seasons, an astrologer. Dægmǣl essentially means ‘day-mark’ and relates to an instrument for telling time – perhaps a sundial.

Gebyrdwīglere (m.): A birth-diviner. Presumably one who divines a unborn or newborn child’s future.

Galdere (m.): An enchanter. Galdere is an agent noun derived from galdor/gealdor (n.), meaning a ‘charm,’ ‘incantation,’ or ‘enchantment,’ which suggests a verbal, spell-casting component.

Swefenreccere (m.): An interpreter of dreams/oneiromancer. The craft of dream divining is recorded as swefenracu (f.)

Tānhlyta/Tanhlytere (m.): One who divines by casting lots/ cleromancy. The casting of lots appears as gehlot (n.) in Old English. Tacitus records a similar form of divination in his Germania, where it is listed alongside divination by way of birds.

“Augury and divination by lot no people practise more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them. If they prove unfavourable, there is no further consultation that day about the matter; if they sanction it, the confirmation of augury is still required. For they are also familiar with the practice of consulting the notes and the flight of birds.”

Hellrūn/Hellerūne (f.), Hellrūna (m.): One who is versed in the mysteries of Hell / Underworld. A necromancer. Possible allusions to conjuring and communing with the dead. The Latin gloss, pythonissa (f.), is used for comparison.

Burgrūne (f.): A sorceress. Bosworth and Toller provide the glosses parcæ, furiæ, oreades, suggesting some association with Wyrd, or Wælcyrian (ON: valkyrjur). The plural form is listed as burh/burgrūnan (f.). 

Heagorūn (f.):  A mystery where magic is involved/ necromancy.

 Lēodrūne (f.): Witch or wise-woman/cunning-woman. Derived from lēod, meaning ‘man,’ ‘country,’ ‘people.’ Possibly synonymous with burh/burgrūne.

Wyrtgælestre (f.): A woman who uses herbs or plants for charms.

 Wammfreht (n.): Divination using stains or impurities, with wamm meaning ‘stain,’ or ‘spot.’ Bosworth and Toller doesn’t give a precise definition, so it’s uncertain whether the stains mentioned might be related to sacrifice (blood), or some other form of stain/impurity.

Hǣlsung/Hālsung (f.): Divination/augury.

Wīgle (n.): Divination / Heathen praxis

Wītgegung (f.): Prophecy. The word also appears in the compound wītegungbōc, or ‘book of prophecies.’

Wītegestre (f.): Prophetess. The Latin gloss prophetissa is provided for comparative purposes.

Unlybwyrhta (m.): A poison-maker, one who prepares poisons for witchcraft. Comes from unlybba (m.), meaning ‘poison’.

Wiccecræft/Wiccedōm (m.): Witchcraft/sorcery.

Wicce (f.), Wicca (m.): A witch, sorcerer/sorceress

Wiccian (verb.): To practice witchcraft.

Wiccung (f.): Literally ‘witching’/ witchcraft.

Hægtesse (f.): A witch, hag, or Fury. The Latin gloss Furia is provided for comparison and may suggest some affinity with both hellerūne and burgrūne. An Old High German equivalent is recorded as hagzissa, from which modern German hexe is derived. Seolfor Cwylla Heorþ recently published a short article on burgrūnan and Hægtessan, which might be of interest in relation to this topic.

Drȳ/ Drȳman/ Drȳmann (m.): A magician or sorcerer, which is etymologically linked to Proto-Celtic *druwits (druid). The word might represent a shared concept with analogous words having been lost in other Germanic languages, or may represent a Brythonic influence on Anglo-Saxon culture. The plural form of the word is recorded as drȳmen (f.). 

Drȳcræft (m.): Sorcery or magic related to the term drȳ, related above.

Scīnlāc (n.): Magic, necromancy, sorcery, stemming from scīn, referring to ‘a deceptive appearance,’ ‘a phantasm,’ or a ‘spectre.’ This is suggestive of some form of illusory magic.

Līcwiglung (f.): Necromancy. Likely associated with the use of corpses or bodies, via the word, līc.

The_Oracle_of_Delphi_Entranced

 

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A Short Analysis of Neorxnawang

 

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Neorxnawang is an interesting subject, considering the absolute confusion the word has elicited among scholars. While the second element of the compound, –wang (field, plain country, place) [1] is fairly straightforward in its meaning, the first element, Neorxna- , presents a serious problem. In his translation of Genesis, Ælfric uses Neorxnawang as a gloss for Latin Paradisum, the biblical Heaven, which has lead academics, such as McKinnell, to suggest the translation “Field of Contentment” [2]. This translation doesn’t seem a considerable leap if one looks at the context which it is used in other works, such as the Blickling Homilies and the Anglo-Saxon translation of Gregory’s Dialogues – the latter of which uses the adjective, Neorxnawanglic (of paradise) [3].

Jacob Grimm was the first to really tackle the etymology of the word. In his own musings, he mentioned a contemporary belief that the word was related in some way to the Norns, but that it posed too many issues to be suitably substantiated.

“The A. gen. pl. neorxana, which only occurs in ‘neorxena wong’ = paradisus, has been proposed, but the abbreviation would be something unheard of, and even the nom. sing. neorxe or neorxu at variance with norn; besides, the Parcae are nowhere found connected with paradise.” [4]

More recently, Rudolf Simek suggested Neorxnawang may have acted as a pre-Migration Period analogue for “Asgard”- an idea which he asserted might be proven by the existence of an earlier etymological equivalent in Gothic waggs (meadow, paradise) [5] and by how obscure and confusing the term had become even by Ælfric’s time.

Simek is not the only scholar to attempt to connect Neorxnawang to more well-known Norse cosmology. In The Ship in the Field, Haukur Þorgeirsson and Joseph S. Hopkins suggested a possible connection between Folkvangr and Neorxnawang, going as far as suggesting (via de Vries) that, while Folkvangr is Freyja’s field, Neorxnawang might similarly belong to Njord, or a Njord-like deity known to Anglo-Saxons.

“Neorxnawang and Folkvangr may have a relation besides cognate second elements. While the root of Njörðr and the apparent first root of Neorxnawang are both elusive subjects, it has been theorized that the two may be one and the same, perhaps rendering Neorxnawang as an Old English ‘Njörðr’s field’ or as the field of a deity sharing this root (de Vries 1957: 410-411). This approach has difficulties, but if the roots are connected, a father-daughter relationship may be demonstrated between the afterlife fields of Njörðr and Freyja.” [6]

While the Njörðr connection is fanciful and something of a leap in my opinion, I do believe they are correct in assuming Neorxnawang may have been a sort of pre-Christian, godly paradise not unlike Folkvangr. Earlier scholars were quick to dismiss the idea of Neorxnawang being in any way a pagan concept – a dismissal which was likely due to ingrained notions of heavenly paradise being limited to Abrahamic religions. This dismissal would also seemingly discount similar paradise realms, such as Greek Elysium, the Asphodel Meadows (a particular part of Hades where average people go upon death) and Egyptian Sekhet-Aaru (The Reed Fields) – all of which predate Christianity.

to the Elysian plain…where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men.” [7]

In the end, it’s impossible to know for certain what Neorxnawang truly is – at least with our current information. It’s up to the contemporary practitioner to decide if and how Neorxnawang might be approached and how it might incorporated into belief system of their respective hearths.


Sources

[1]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Wang. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2018.
[2]McKinnell, John. Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend
[3]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Neorxnawang-lic. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2018.
[4]Grimm, Jacob (James Steven Stallybrass Trans.)  Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix Vol. I.
[5]Lehmann, Winfred Philipp. A Gothic Etymological Dictionary. W1-W4
[6]Hopkins, Joseph S. Þorgeirsson, Hauker. The Ship in the Field. pp 17 (in notes)[7]Homer, Odyssey (4.560–565)

Wada: Uncovering an Anglo-Saxon Water God

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Being an island nation, water has long had an intrinsic connection to Britain and her peoples. In the following article I will attempt to extrapolate an Anglo-Saxon deity associated with the sea and inland bodies of water by comparing and contrasting like-deities found in other Indo-European sister religions.

Poseidon and Neptune

In ancient Greek religion, we are provided a nearly inexhaustible list of aquatic deities- a fact which is unsurprising given the Greek proximity to and reliance on the Mediterranean Sea. Plato makes mention of this association in his Phaedo, where he compares the Greek people to “frogs around a pond” [1]. For simplicity’s sake, we will limit our examination to the Olympian God, Poseidon, who is the most well-known and venerated of the classical and Hellenic water deities.

Poseidon has a long history in the Greek islands, with the earliest attestations being found in the Linear B tablets, where His name is recorded as po-se-da-wo-ne. A feminine version of this name is also recorded as po-se-de-ia, indicating a Mycenaean consort akin to Amphitrite [2]. This Mycenaean Poseidon is frequently provided the epithet of Wanax (wa-na-ka), which posits Him as a Chthonic King of the Underworld [3]. This Chthonic aspect is further corroborated via His associations with earthquakes, where He is named Enosichthon/ Ennosigaios/ Ennosidas ‘Earth-Shaker’, Gaieokhos ‘Earth-Holder’ and Asphaleios ‘Protector From Earthquakes’ [4][5].

Although we are provided po-se-de-ia as a potential consort for Poseidon, there is also some suggestion that Demeter and or Persephone may have filled that role during the late Bronze Age. In Linear B inscriptions uncovered at Pylos, E-ne-si-da-o-ne ‘Earth-Shaker’ is found alongside Si-to Po-tini-ja ‘Lady-of-the-Grain’, which, according to Mylas, may be indicative of a proto-Demeter/Persephone [6]. The tablets found at Pylos also speak of sacrificial goods destined for wa-na-soi, wa-na-ka-te, or ‘Two Queens and The King (Poseidon),’ lending further credence to this theory [7]. In an early Arcadian myth, Poseidon, here depicted as a Chthonic river deity, takes the form of a stallion and pursues an equine Demeter, who bears a daughter, Despoina, a Goddess closely associated with springs and animals.  According to Kerenyi, as consort of Poseidon, Demeter ” was Earth, who bears plants and beasts, and could therefore assume the shape of an ear of grain or a mare.” [8]

Poseidon was also closely associated with the horse, a role which can be distinguished by His epithet, Hippios – Tamer and Father of Horses [9]. This odd equine association, coupled with a seeming scarcity of sea-related epithets during the Mycenaean period has lead some scholars to surmise that Poseidon, or at least His Indo-European ancestor, was a horse deity or a God of fresh water who gradually became a sea deity as Indo-Europeans moved into the Mediterranean Basin [10]. Both Hesiod and Homer buttress this theory, claiming that Poseidon only became Lord of the Sea following His father, Kronos’ defeat [11].

In His more typical role as Lord-of-the-Sea, Poseidon was a tempermental deity, prone to bouts of destruction as well as acts of extrication.  When angered, Poseidon could use His trident to cause all manner of calamity, including; shipwrecks, drownings,earthquakes, floods and storms [12] – Poseidon’s wrathfulness is particularly apparent in His actions toward Odysseus and in His hatred of the Trojans [13].

“But just as great Odysseus thrashed things out, Poseidon god of the earthquake launched a colossal wave, terrible, murderous, arching over him, pounding down on him, hard as a windstorm blasting piles of dry parched chaff, scattering flying husks — so the long planks of his boat were scattered far and wide. But Odysseus leapt aboard one timber and riding it like a plunging racehorse stripped away his clothes, divine Calypso’s gifts,and quickly tying the scarf around his waist he dove headfirst in the sea, stretched his arms and stroked for life itself.” [14]

On the flipside of the coin, Poseidon was petitioned as Soter, or ‘Saviour,’ by sailors who wished for protection while at sea. It was this particular aspect of Poseidon to which the Greeks made an celebratory offering when a sea-storm swept away a large portion of the Persian fleet off the coast of Thessaly in 480 BCE [15].

Poseidon’s sacred animals were the bull, the horse (as was previously mentioned), the dolphin and the mythic hippokampoi, or ‘fish-tailed horses,’ which pulled His chariot [16]. In The Odyssey, bulls, particularly black and white bulls, are employed a total of 8 times as offering to the Sea-God – an association which calls to mind His epithet, Taureos, relating to the bull [17]. The cult of the Bull-God was of particular import in Thessaly where a festival called the Tavreia was observed.

“As Poseidon Ταύρειος (Preller, Gr. Myth. i. 446) games were held in his honour in which the youth of Thessaly exhibited their skill in seizing wild bulls by the horns… These peculiarly national religious festivals were called Ταύρεια (Preller, l.c. note 1) and Tαύροκαθάψια and their prevalence throughout the land is amply proved by the coins, on which we see a Thessalian youth pulling down a raging bull, while on the reverse is usually the horse of Poseidon.” [18]

Neptune (Latin: Neptūnus) was the Roman God of both salt and freshwater [19] and shared many attributes with His Greek counterpart, Poseidon. While Poseidon’s direct associations with freshwater are largely speculative, Neptune’s appear more definite. Neptune was God of springs, lakes and rivers prior to his transformation into a full-blown sea deity as evidenced by multiple inscriptions found adjacent to those locations and by Servius in his commentary of Virgil’s Ad Georgicas, who identifies Neptune as responsible for all waters [20][21].

Neptune also possessed a fertility aspect illustrated by way of His consorts, Salacia and Venilia, and His role as divine progenitor of the Faliscan people. In earlier Roman religion, consorts were typically the manifestation of specific powers attributed to a deity, but in the later, more hellenized period, consorts became distinct deities in their own right [22]. According to Dumézil, Wissowa and von Domaszewski, Salacia represented the gushing, overwhelming nature of water in its unbridled form and Venilia represented more calm and tranquil waters. Preller, Fowler, Petersmann and Takács , instead, interpret Neptune’s consorts as representing His fertility aspect, with particular emphasis on human reproduction and agrarianism. Ludwig Preller makes reference to Venilia being listed among the Indigitamenta as a Goddess associated with lust and desire – a feature which supports Her name being derived from Latin venia, which is, in turn, derived from the Proto-Indo-European root, wenh₁-, ‘to love’ or ‘to wish’ [23]. Salacia’s name stems from salax, which means ‘lustful,’ ‘lecherous,’ ‘provocative,’ or ‘ lascivious[24]. According to Petersmann, Neptune’s name comes from Indo-European nebh-, meaning ‘cloud,’ ‘mist,’ or ‘moisture’ [25] and based on this assumption, suggests Neptune was initially associated with cloudy, overcast sky and rainfall.

“What, why have so many clouds enringed the sky? What are you preparing, father Neptune?” [26]

Expanding on this theory, Salacia becomes Neptune’s fertilizing aspect, manifest through rainfall which impregnates the earth in hieros gamos and Venilia, in turn, becomes clear sky and fair weather. This interpretation receives support from a Hittite parallel in the form of the theonym, nepišaš (D)Tarhunnaš, or ‘The Lord of Sky Wet’, which suggests a possible widespread cult linked to the “heavenly damp”, as Petersmann sees it [27].


Nodens

In terms of water deities native to the British Isles, we are presented with several deities for comparative study. In this section we will limit our examination to one deity – Nodens.

Nodens was a British deity, about whom only fragmentary information is known. There are several competing theories as to the etymology of His name. Tolkien suggests Nodens’ name stems from Celtic noudent- or noudont-, related to Proto-Germanic neutaną, ‘to acquire, have use of, to catch’ and nautą, ‘benefit, possession, foredeal, profit, cattle, livestock’ [28][29]. Conversely, the Celticist Ranko Matasović has suggested Nodens derives from Proto-Celtic snoudo, meaning ‘clouds,’ or ‘mist’ – a theory which relies on the shift from ‘sn-’ to ‘*n-’ common in P-Celtic (Gaulish, Brythonic) languages [30].

Nodens’ most impressive site of worship was found on the banks of the Severn at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire. The temple itself housed several healing sites, as well as a dormitory [31], while the North-West of the building was split into three 7-foot-deep rooms, which may suggest a tripartite cult [32]. According to Lewis, the material goods found at the site are indicative of the tripartite structure of Nodens’ cult.

“The small finds are numerous indeed. Over 8,000 coins … prove a very rich occupation extending certainly into the fifth century. Nine representations of dogs in stone or bronze, a bronze plaque of a woman, a bronze arm, an oculist’s stamp, 320-odd pins and nearly 300 bracelets quite definitely indicate a healing cult. There is some indication, from the inscriptions and philology, of a hunting aspect. Sea-monsters and fish on the cella mosaic, and bronze reliefs depicting a sea deity, fishermen and tritons suggest some connexion of Nodens with the sea. A bronze object (headdress or vessel?) also shows a sea-god driving a chariot between torch-bearing putti and tritons. Thus a picture emerges of a complex deity, combining the diverse aspects of healing, hunting and the sea. …” [33]

The image of the dog was commonly associated with healing via the belief that their saliva could heal wounds and it is possible dogs may have been kept on-site for this very purpose [34]. This belief finds parallels throughout the classical world. In Gaul, reliefs/statues of deities and pilgrims found near healing springs were often shown holding dogs, and sacred dogs were also kept at the temple of Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine, at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese [35]. At Llys Awel, Abergele, Conwy, Wales, a fourth-century hoard of some 500 coins, a copper statuette of Mercury, two copper figurines of seated dogs, a third copper figurine of a running dog, a twisted wire bracelet and three votive plaques, two of which depicted dogs, were found. The Mercury depicted at this site was likely petitioned as a healer. This cult of “Healing-Mercury” appears to have been popular in Britain, given a similar, subsidiary role was also ascribed to the Mercury worshipped at the Uley Park complex in Gloucestershire [36].

Nodens’ second aspect, at least as Lewis sees it, is that of the Hunter. While the canid statuettes can be closely associated with healing, as mentioned above, they may also be suggestive of a cult involved with the hunt. Britannia was famous for its dogs, which were exported and used throughout the empire for both hunting and for warfare. Many Roman writers make mention of the superior quality of the British dog, which Tacitus lists among the province’s primary exports and which Claudian claims can “break the backs of mighty bulls.” [37].

“There is a strong breed of hunting dog, small in size but no less worthy of great praise. These the wild tribes of Britons with their tattooed backs rear and call by the name of Agassian. Their size is like that of worthless and greedy domestic table dogs; squat, emaciated, shaggy, dull of eye, but endowed with feet armed with powerful claws and a mouth sharp with close-set venomous tearing teeth. It is by virtue of its nose, however, that the Agassian is most exalted, and for tracking it is the best there is; for it is very adept at discovering the tracks of things that walk upon the ground, and skilled too at marking the airborne scent.” [38]

Nodens’ hunting aspect is also alluded to via His conflation with Silvanus. While Silvanus’ primary attribute may not have been as that of a hunter, he did possess a hunting aspect, especially prominent among the later Roman aristocracy. Both Hadrian and Trajan were devoted hunters and as such, were really the first Roman emperors to elevate Silvanus to a position of aristocratic importance. This cult saw Silvanus in the guise of “the hunting emperor,” which directly contrasted the popular, humble image of the God [39].

Nodens’ third function and arguably the one most relevant to this research, is that of a water deity.

The water-healing combination is very common in Celtic religions, as evidenced by the nearby cult of Sulis-Minerva. With that in mind, it makes sense that Nodens could have acted as a healing divinity and a water divinity simultaneously.

Our strongest evidence for a water cult comes by way of the temple’s location on the banks of the river Severn and by the imagery found at the site. A mosaic was discovered on the floor of the temple – the only of its kind found at a Romano-British temple. The mosaic has worn away significantly with age, but fish, sea-creatures with intertwined necks and wave-like spirals can still be identified alongside an inscription which reads, ‘To the God Mars Nodens, Titus Flavius Senilis, superintendent of the cult, had (this mosaic) laid from the offerings with assistance from Victorinus the interpreter’ [40].  The Senilis mentioned in the inscription is believed to have been the resident temple priest, while Victorinus is likely in reference to a dream diviner, who, according to la Bédoyère, likely acted in tandem with Sinilis.

Njord and Ægir

Norse mythology provides us with two sea deities for comparative study – Njord and Ægir.

In Eddic lore, Njord is of the Vanir – a somewhat nebulous grouping of deities distinct from the Æsir. Here he is a portrayed as father to Freyja and Freyr, via his incestous relationship with an unnamed sister-wife, alluded to in Lokasenna

“Give heed now, Njorth, | nor boast too high,

No longer I hold it hid;

With thy sister hadst thou | so fair a son,

Thus hadst thou no worse a hope.” [41]

While the identity of this sister-wife cannot be definitively confirmed, there has been some speculation, based on the etymological similarities in their names, that Nerthuz may be the Goddess referenced here, suggesting a divine coupling similar to that of Freyja and Freyr [42].

Njord’s hall was known as Noatun, or ‘Shiptown,’ which speaks to his role as deity of both the sea and of seafaring [43]. This particular aspect of his personality survived in Norwegian folklore up into the modern era, where a character called Njor is praised for helping a fisherman with her catch.

“The old folk [folk in the olden days?] were always rather lucky when they went fishing. One night old Gunnhild Reinsnos (born in 1746) and Johannes Reinsnos were fishing in the Sjosavatn. They had taken a torch and were fishing with live bait. The fish bit well, and it wasn’t long before Gunnhild had a week’s supply of fish for her pot. So she wound her line around her rod with the words: “Thanks be to him, to Njor, for this time.” [44]

In the Prose Edda, Njord is mentioned in both Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál, where his godly role is afforded slightly more detail and nuance.

In Gylfaginning, Njord is referred to not only as the God of the sea and of seafaring, but also of the winds, calling to mind earlier references to Neptune as a deity associated with both sea and of sky. In His guise of Wind-God, Njord is not only able to control the fate of ocean voyages, but is also able to put out fires and quell turbulent seas [45].

While Njord’s unnamed sister may have functioned as his pre-Viking Age consort, by the time the Eddas were being recorded, She was nearly entirely eclipsed by Skadi, the Goddess/Giantess associated with skiing, the mountains, hunting, archery and Winter. Here we are treated to another interesting, albeit tenuous parallel to the Greco-Roman world. If we assume, as was suggested earlier in this article, that consorts typically began as the personification of aspects specific to their preexisting counterparts, we may be able to assume the same of Skadi. The hunting aspect is of particular interest here, given the obvious parallels it would draw between Njord and Nodens in that regard.  

In Skáldskaparmál, Njord is painted as a God associated with material wealth.

“How should one periphrase Njördr? By calling him God of the Vanir, or Kinsman of the Vanir, or Wane, Father of Freyr and Freyja, God of Wealth-Bestowal.”[46]

This particular aspect of Njord’s persona is strange in that it sees no parallel outside Norse sources and may perhaps speak to a distinctly Germanic perception of the sea as a provider of wealth. This would certainly make sense, given the Germanic belief in water as a liminal gateway between our world and the world of the unseen.

Ægir, whose name comes from a poetic term for ‘the sea,’  is a slightly more enigmatic figure than Njord. He appears in both the Poetic and Prose Edda, where he depicted as a Jotunn, friend to the Æsir and host of grand feasts. His consort is named Ran, or, ‘the Robber’,[47] and is named as such due to Her role as a psychopomp to the drowned – another obvious allusion to water’s liminal nature as a gateway. Together, Ran and Ægir are said to have 9 daughters, all of which represent the different aspects of ocean waves.

“How should one periphrase the sea? Thus: by calling it Ymir’s Blood; Visitor of the Gods; Husband of Rán; Father of Ægir’s Daughters, of them who are called Himinglæva, Dúfa, Blódughadda, Hefring, Udr, Hrönn, Bylgja, Bára, Kolga; Land of Rán and of Ægir’s Daughters, of Ships and of ships’ names, of the Keel, of Beaks, of Planks and Seams, of Fishes, of Ice; Way and Road of Sea-Kings; likewise Encircler of Islands; House of Sands and of Kelp and of Reefs; Land of Fishing-gear, of Sea-Fowls, and of Fair Wind.” [48]

 

Possible English sea deities

Considering the the Anglo-Saxons were an island-dwelling people adept at seafaring, it is odd we have no record of a deity directly associated with water. In fact, for those who practice the Anglo-Saxon religion in modern times, this glaringly obvious blank spot has become something of an issue, especially for those who live close to bodies of water. Searching through the fragmentary sources we do have, the Anglo-Saxon polytheist is met with a couple options. The first and possibly safest route would be to accept the incompleteness and move on – an approach I’m certain many might favour. The other option, the one I favour, is to use the little information we do have and buttress that with comparative information gleaned from other Indo-European sources.  This, of course, poses the problem of what foundation to build on.

Some Anglo-Saxon polytheists have opted to go with the Old English equivalent of ægir and use Ēgor /Ēagor for their purposes. While this is a perfectly viable approach, it certainly doesn’t provide us with any additional useful information.

We run into a similar issue with Gārsecg. Gārsecg is typically assumed to be a compound of gār, meaning ‘spear,’ ‘dart,’ or ‘javelin’ and secg, meaning ‘man’ – an image which has lead some scholars to assume a spear wielding deity akin to Neptune and his trident [49]. While this kenning may indeed be referencing a lost Anglo-Saxon figure, there’s little information to be gleaned outside of a theonymic connection to the spear.

In the character of Wada, we are presented with a little more in terms of workable information. One thing that certainly puts Wada in a better position to assume the role of the Anglo-Saxon sea God, is the fact that there is little doubt that He was a well-known and attested folkloric figure in England.

The earliest mention of Wada is found in the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith, where he is listed as ruler of the Hælsings, associated with Hälsingland in Sweden.

“Cæsar ruled Greeks and Cælic Finns,

Hagena Holmrygas, Heoden the Glommas.

Witta ruled Sueves, and Wada the Hælsings,

Meaca the Myrgings, Mearchealf the Hundings.”[50]

While this is earliest attestation of Wada, most of what we know about Him comes from Þiðreks saga af Bern, where He is depicted as being a sea-dwelling giant who settles on land to sire Weland the Smith [51]. Once His son is of age, Wada, who is unable to find passage from Sjoland to Grønsund, decides to wade across the strait “nine ells deep” with Weland on his shoulders. Here, Weland works as an apprentice first to Mimir and then, later, to two dwarfs. Wada’s involvement in the tale ends when he is caught in a landslide and ultimately succumbs to his wounds [52].

Wada’s importance as an English folkloric figure is highlighted by the fact that common knowledge of His personage appears to survive as late as the 17th century. Chaucer refers to a now lost Tale of Wade in his Troilus and Criseyde and makes mention of Wade’s boat in The Merchant’s Tale – a reference which was later expanded upon by Thomas Speght, a late 16th – early 17th century schoolmaster and editor of Chaucer’s work, who recorded the name for the boat as Guingelot. There has been considerable debate as to the etymological origins of Guingelot, with Skeat suggesting a derivation of “Winglock” [53] and Michel suggesting a compound consisting of Old English Gang, ‘going,’ ‘journey,’ ‘step,’ and læt, ‘slow,’ or ‘sluggish,’ essentially ‘Slow-goer’ [54][55][56][*].

The character of Wada seems to have slipped out of common consciousness in most of England by the early Renaissance period, though He endured into more recent times in North Yorkshire folklore. In Whitby, there are standing stones called Waddes Grave, which, according to popular legend, are the final resting place of a deceased sea-giant. Several different accounts also tell of Wada hurling a hammer, earth and stone back and forth with His wife, Bell, with several local landmarks being attributed to this raucous exchange [57].

Given that Wada is the only one of the three English characters explored in this article attested in folklore, it might be sagacious to employ Him as de facto sea God [**]. While He is never described as a “God” per se, there is some suggestion, considering the mythic stories attributed to Him, that he may have found Himself demoted into a folkloric hero after conversion.

 

A water deity specific to Fyrnsidu

Now that we’ve explored water divinities from ancient Greece, Rome, Roman Britain, Viking Age Scandinavia and England, we can better piece together what a water deity might look like for the contemporary Anglo-Saxon polytheist.

We may assume, much like His Greek and Roman counterparts, Wada holds sway over both the sea and inland bodies of water, which He traverses in his ship, Ganglæt. Because water is a gateway, an entrance to the other, Wada straddles both our world and the world of the Other – a liminal deity with strong psychopompic connotations. He, like Ran, swallows unfortunate sailors as they cross over from the present and become part of the sacred, ever evolving past. It is for this reason that offerings to Wada might be best placed in water, or in liminal spaces so that He might receive them.

Wada may be viewed as a deity associated with the sky – particularly with the fertilizing skies which produce rain and abundance, hearkening back to the Indo-European ‘Lord of Sky Wet,’ suggested by Petersmann. He also might share Njord’s associations with the wind, which would surely fit in well with a God of cloud and rain .In this particular role, Wada might be provided propitiatory offering during times of drought or violent, uproarious storms.

Like Poseidon and Neptune, Wada could certainly be a deity linked to earthquakes, as evidenced in Yorkshire folklore, where He is depicted manipulating the landscape with ease and moving the very earth itself. His consort, Bell, whose name in Old English possesses the double meaning of ‘bell,’ (the same as the modern object) and ‘a bellow,’ ‘a roar,’ ‘a cry,’ [58][59]may play some role in the earth-moving aspect of Wada’s personality, though, admittedly, there is little to go on.

As stated above, offerings given to Wada might be left in bodies of water, or in liminal spaces, such as in grottoes, or at a river’s edge. In terms of what is offered, we have a variety of options at our disposal. We may opt to offer coins, or pins, as both still are very common offerings left at holy wells and springs in Britain and Ireland [60]. We may also choose to leave votive representations of bulls or horses and, if we are in need of His healing aspect, representations of the afflicted body part, or perhaps, votive dog figures à la Nodens.

Creating a particular tide to celebrate Wada is somewhat trickier, with Roman sources being the only somewhat viable resource in that regard. The Neptunalia took place roughly around July 23rd, when the weather was at its hottest and at its driest in Italy[61]. Virtually nothing is known about the activities that took place during this tide, apart from the fact that celebrants constructed simple huts and likely feasted and drank within them. It may be beneficial, then, to place a holy tide specific to Wada at a time of year when drought is expected/typical, which may differ depending on where you reside.

 

Potential epithets

Þerscold – Literally ‘Threshold,’ relating to His liminal status and role as gatekeeper

Regnwyrhta – ‘Rainmaker,’ associated with His role of crop fertilizer

Brymflōd – ‘Deluge’

Ēgorhere – A poetic term for a deluge, essentially ‘Sea-Army.’ This is the kenning used as a gloss for the great flood recounted in the Bible, which provides some perspective as to the scale suggested here

Drǣfend– ‘Hunter’

Sǣhund – ‘Sea-hound’

Forswelgend – ‘Devourer,’ ‘Swallower’

Hēahlǣce – ‘High-Leech,’ ‘physician’

Hellegod – ‘God of the infernal realms’

Swefenbora – ‘Dream-bringer,’ based on the Victorinus inscription

Gārsecg – ‘Spear-man,’ as mentioned above

Fiscwylle – ‘Abounding in fish’

Sǣcyning – ‘Sea-king’

Sǣgenga – ‘Sea-goer,’ ‘mariner’

Mereweard – ‘One who keeps guard in the sea’

Eorþtilia – ‘Earth-tiller’

This is obviously not an exhaustive list and more can and may be added as they present themselves.

 


 

Sources

[1]Plato. Phaedo
[2]Adams, Professor John Paul. Mycenaean Divinities
[3]Adams, Professor John Paul. Mycenaean Divinities
[4]http://www.neokoroi.org/religion/gods/poseidon/
[5]Ennosidas (Pindar), Ennosigaios (Homer): Dietrich
[6]George Mylonas. Mycenae and the Mycenean world
[7]George Mylonas. Mycenae and the Mycenean age
[8]Kerenyi. The Gods of the Greeks
[9]https://study.com/academy/lesson/poseidon-epithets-aegaeus-hippios.html
[10]Komita. Poseidon the horse-god and the early Indo-Europeans
[11]Hesiod. Theogony
[12]http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Poseidon.html
[13]Homer. The Odyssey. Trans Robert Fagles
[14]Homer. The Odyssey. Trans Robert Fagles
[15]Robin Hard. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Based on H.J. Rose’s Handbook of Greek Mythology.
[16] http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Poseidon.html
[17]https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/epithets.html
[18]The Journal of Hellenic Studies. Concil of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies
[19]J. Toutain. Les cultes païens de l’Empire romain, vol. I
[20]Servius. Ad Georgicas IV 24
[21]Raymond Bloch. Quelques remarques sur Poseidon, Neptunus et Nethuns
[22]William Warde Fowler. The Religious experience of the Roman People
[23]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/venia
[24]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/salax
[25]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/n%C3%A9b%CA%B0os
[26]Vergil. Aenid. V 13-14
[27]Hubert Petersmann. Lingua et Religio: ausgewählte kleine Schriften zur antiken Religionsgeschichte auf sprachwissenschaftlicher Grundlage herausgegeben von Bernd Heßen.
[28]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/naut%C4%85
[29]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/neutan%C4%85
[30]Ranko Matasović. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic
[31]Patricia Monaghan. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore
[32]http://roman-britain.co.uk/places/lydney_park.htm
[33]M.J.T. Lewis. Temples in Roman Britain
[34]Snyder, Christopher A.  Early People of Britain and Ireland: An Encyclopedia, Vol. II.
[35]Green, Miranda J. Exploring the world of the druids.
[36]Iain Ferris.Roman Britain Through its Objects
[37]Claudian. On the Consulship of Stilicho
[38]Oppian
[39]Peter F. Dorcey. The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion
[40]Guy de la Bédoyère. The Real Lives of Roman Britain
[41]Henry Adams Bellows. The Poetic Edda
[42]Simek, Rudolf translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology
[43]Christopher R. Fee, David Adams Leeming. Gods, Heroes & Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain
[44]Dumézil, Georges translated by Coltman, Derek. From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus
[45]Byock, Jesse.The Prose Edda
[46]Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson
[47]Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology
[48]Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson
[49]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Gár-secg. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 8 Mar. 2018.
[50]Francis Barton Gummere. Widsith
[51]Kai Roberts. Folklore of Yorkshire
[52]Haymes, Edward R. The Saga of Thidrek of Bern
[53]Skeat, Walter W. Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Notes to the Canterbury Tales
[54]Michel, Francisque. Wade: Lettre à M. Henri Ternaux-Compans sur une tradition angloise du moyen âge
[55]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” GANG. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2018.
[56]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Læt. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2018.
[57]Leyland, John. The Yorkshire Coast and the Cleveland Hills and Dales.
[58]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” BELL. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2018.
[59]Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Bell. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2018.
[60]Bord, Janet and Colin. Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland
[61]http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Neptunalia.html


Notes

[*]Michel suggested the name meant Slow-goer, but as far as I am aware, I’m the only one who has attempted to translate that into Old English. This compound is as close as I could come to a decent reconstruction based on his suggestion alone.
[**]The reader / practitioner may disagree with me here. The choice is entirely left to their discretion.

 

Goddess of the Hearth: Frīg Heorþmōdor

fire-2828309_1920

In the following article I will attempt to reconstruct a Fyrnsidu-specific hearth Goddess by looking at similar, Indo-European deities and extrapolating accordingly.

The Greek and Roman Hearth Goddess

In ancient Hellenic religion, Hestia was the de facto goddess associated with the centre of the home – the hearth. According to Robert S. P. Beekes, her name is analogous to ‘hearth,’ ‘fireplace,’ ‘altar,’ or ‘oikos,’[1][2] positioning her as a personification of not only the hearth’s flame, but the domicile itself. The idea that her area of governance extends beyond the literal flame and encompasses the family unit is supported by the synonymical use of oikos, a word which in ancient Greek referred to the family, the family’s property and the house proper, depending on context [3]. Hestia also governed the various functions of domesticity associated with the hearth, such as the preparation the family meal and the baking of bread [4].  

As a fire deity, Hestia acted as Goddess of the sacrificial flame, receiving prefatory offerings during domestic and public rites and sacrifices of wine at both the beginning and end of feasts [5].

“Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting abode and highest honour: glorious is your portion and your right. For without you mortals hold no banquet,–where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last . . . Hestia, you who tend the holy house [temple] of the lord Apollon.” [6]

Like Demeter and Dionysus, Hestia’s preferred sacrificial victim was the pig. According to Daniel Ogden, piglets were significantly cheaper than adult pigs, goats and sheep and were therefore popular in preliminary and purificatory rites- especially those rites where the sacrificial animal was burnt whole and not consumed [7].

If Hestia’s hearth-flame was extinguished in the home, it was considered a dereliction of domestic and religious duty on the part of those responsible for tending it. The same applied to Hestia’s public flame, or pyrtaneum, which, if allowed to die, signified a failure of the entire city-state [8].

Hestia’s cult was very much a female-centric one, with domestic duties related to her cult typically falling under the purview of the female head of the home. Evidence of civic priesthoods related to Hestia are considerably sparse, however, a sparsity which may be the result of there having been so few public shrines and temples dedicated to the goddess. Instead, Hestia had her place in all temples and shrines, whether domestic or public [9][10].

Roman Vesta possessed many of the attributes associated with Hestia. Like Hestia, Vesta was the hearth’s flame personified, she protected the hearth, home and family unit, and neglect of her fire was considered an affront to both the goddess herself and to social order and cohesion. This is exemplified by Vesta’s temple, which was rounded to represent the cosmos and had a domed roof, or tholus, which was intended to represent the canopy of the heavens [11]. The idea that the Vestal flame, both domestic and public, represented the earth’s centre in miniature is corroborated by Ovid, who tells us, “Vesta eadem est quae Terra,” or “Vesta is the same as Earth,” and “subest vigil ignis utrique,” or “Each contains an everlasting fire.” [12][13] This view buttresses Eliade’s theory that the home, templum and shrine were all imago mundi, sacred centres from which all cosmos radiates [14].

Much like Hestia, Vesta received first and last prayer during ritual- a fact which is supported by both Ovid and Cicero.


“Hence, too, I am of opinion that the vestibule took its name; it is from there that in praying we begin by addressing Vesta, who occupies the first place”
[15]

“They held that Janus is the leader in a sacrifice … [Vesta’s] power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess”[16]


Vesta and Janus were invoked so often during ritual, Pliny the Elder noted that their names had become synonymous with the act of prayer itself
[17].

Vesta was something of a contradiction, being both an unmolested virgin and phallic mother goddess simultaneously. Not only was the hearth’s fire symbolic of her, but the divine phallus, the fascinus, was as well. According to Schroeder, this seeming contradiction in the goddess’s character may have been the result of her being directly associated with the penetrative act of inserting a stick into a hollow log to create her ritual fire [18].

While Janus presided over the doorway, Vesta governed the threshold, or limen. It is for this reason that new brides refrained from stepping on, or kicking the threshold of the home – a tradition confirmed by Plautus, Servius and Catullus [19][20][21]. This liminal aspect would offer explanation as to why she played such a pivotal role at the beginning and end of all Roman rites – she governed the threshold between the world of men and the world of the Gods.  

Vesta, the Di Penates and domestic life were celebrated during the festival of Vestalia [22]. At the beginning of the festivities, the penus Vestae, or Vestal sanctum was opened to the public and barefoot women would walk in procession to the temple where they would make offering to the goddess on behalf of themselves and their families [23][24]. Donkeys were decorated with floral garlands and pieces of bread – acts which were done to honour the animal whose bray had interrupted Priapus’s attempt to rape the goddess[25].

“Something of ancient custom has passed to us:
A clean dish contains the food offered to Vesta.
See, loaves are hung from garlanded mules,
And flowery wreaths veil the rough millstones.
Once farmers only used to parch wheat in their ovens,
(And the goddess of ovens has her sacred rites):
The hearth baked the bread, set under the embers,
On a broken tile placed there on the heated floor.
So the baker honours the hearth, and the lady of hearths,
And the she-ass that turns the pumice millstones.
Red-faced Priapus shall I tell of your shame or pass by?
It’s a brief tale but it’s a merry one.”[26]

Once the festival was concluded, the curtain to the penus Vestae was closed for the year and the temple was subsequently swept in an attempt to remove any unholy pollutants [27].

Brigantiâ, Brigid and St.Brigid

Given the sheer range of Celtic-speaking peoples, we are provided with several viable options for a “Celtic” hearth goddess. For the sake of conciseness, we will limit the focus of this section to a singular deity and her offshoots – Brigantiâ.

Brigantiâ, whose name translates to ‘the high one,’ [28] was typically equated with Roman Victoria and Minerva through interpretatio Romana. In a stone-relief found at the Roman fort at Blatobulgium (Birrens, Dumfriesshire), Brigantiâ is depicted holding globe of victory, a spear and wears the headdress typical of a tutelary deity [29]. The inscription at Blatobulgium is one of seven dedicated to the Goddess, all of which are found in Britain. An eighth, possible inscription, found on a Celtiberian coin, reading: ‘BRIGANT_N’, may be suggestive of parallel cult outside Britain [30].

brigantia
Brigantia relief from Birrens. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Scotland


Gregory of Tours provides us with a depiction of the Goddess, “Berecyntia,” whose image was carried by wagon throughout the commune of Autun to bless the “fields and vines”. According to Edward Anwyl, the Berecyntia recounted here may be Brigantiâ in her guise of corn-goddess.


“The natural conservatism of agricultural life, too, perpetuated many practices even into comparatively late times, and of these we catch a glimpse in Gregory of Tours, when he tells us that at Autun the goddess Berecyntia was worshipped, her image being carried on a wagon for the protection of the fields and the vines. It is not impossible that by Berecyntia Gregory means the goddess Brigindu, whose name occurs on an inscription at Volnay in the same district of Gaul. The belief in corn-spirits, and other ideas connected with the central thought of the farmer’s life, show, by their persistence in Celtic as well as other folklore, how deeply they had entered into the inner tissue of the agricultural mind, so as to be linked to its keenest emotions. Here the rites of religion, whether persuasive as in prayer, or compulsory as in sympathetic magic, whether associated with communal or propitiatory sacrifice, whether directed to the earth or to the heaven, all had an intensely practical and terribly real character, due to man’s constant preoccupation with the growth and storage of food for man and beast.“ [31]

While information regarding Brigantiâ’s personality is decidedly sparse, we can  look to the Gaelic Goddess Brigid and her Christianized counterpart, St.Brigid of Kildare, to better support our understanding of her as a hearth goddess.  

J.A. Macculloch suggests that Brigid, like Belisama and Sul, was a goddess associated with feminine craft, domesticity and the cult of fire, which calls to mind the earlier, Greco-Roman roles attributed to Hestia and Vesta.

“The Celtic Minerva, or the goddesses equated with her, “taught the elements of industry and the arts,” and is thus the equivalent of the Irish Brigit. Her functions are in keeping with the position of woman as the first civiliser—discovering agriculture, spinning, the art of pottery, etc. During this period goddesses were chiefly worshipped, and though the Celts had long outgrown this primitive stage, such culture-goddesses still retained their importance. A goddess equated with Minerva in Southern France and Britain is Belisama, perhaps from qval, “to burn” or “shine.” Hence she may have been associated with a cult of fire, like Brigit and like another goddess Sul, equated with Minerva at Bath and in Hesse, and in whose temple perpetual fires burned. She was also a goddess of hot springs. Belisama gave her name to the Mersey, and many goddesses in Celtic myth are associated with rivers.” [32]

The cult of St.Brigid shared similar characteristics with that of Vesta and Hestia, in that we are presented with a cult centred around a perpetual, undying flame tended by virgins.

“At Kildare, in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit, many miracles have been wrought worthy of memory. Among these, the first that occurs is the fire of St. Brigit, which is reported never to go out. Not that it cannot be extinguished, but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it, adding fuel, with such watchful and diligent care, that from the time of the Virgin, it has continued burning through a long course of years ; and although such heaps of wood have been consumed during this long period, there has been no accumulation of ashes.” [33]

While Gerald of Wales’ account is clearly hagiographical, it is difficult to ignore the obvious, pre-Christian flavour of this particular cult. In his writings, he also provides us with a brief, physical description of the fire and area immediately surrounding it. Once again, we are presented with a sacred space that utilizes circular boundaries and is tended by women –  a motif which might draw its inspiration from the same ancient paradigm as the Aedes Vestae.

“This fire is surrounded by a hedge, made of stakes and brushwood, and forming a circle, within which no male can enter ; and if any one should presume to enter, which has been sometimes attempted by rash men, he will not escape the divine vengeance. Moreover, it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath. Moreover, by virtue of a curse pronounced by the virgin, goats here never have any young. In this neighbourhood there are some very beautiful meadows called St.Brigit’s pastures, in which no plough is ever suffered to turn a furrow.” [34]

The hearth and fire appear prominently in folk customs associated with St.Brigid and her feast day, a celebration which coincides with the Gaelic festival of  Imbolc. Máire MacNeill tells us that these folk traditions were largely practiced near the dwelling-place, where “The social unit taking part is the household or, at most, the youth of a townland.” [35] On the eve of the feast, the household was prepared for the Saint’s arrival, with most goings ons centred around the locality of the hearth.  In some cases, a spot was left vacant at the dinner table for the visiting saint, in others, a bed of straw was left beside the hearth so that she might stay the night [36].

In Scotland, a form of divination using the hearth’s coals was performed during the early morning of St. Brigid’s Feast.

“The Women then level the ashes on the hearth, smoothing and dusting them over carefully. Occasionally, the ashes surrounded by a roll of cloth, are placed on a board to safeguard them against disturbance from draughts or other contingencies. In the early morning the family closely scan the ashes. If they find the marks of the wand of Bride they rejoice, but if they find ‘lorg Bride,’ the footprint of Bride their joy very great, for this is a sign that Bride was present with them during the night, and is favourable to them, and that there is increase in family, in flock, and in field during the coming year. Should there be no marks in the ashes, and no trace of Bride’s presence, the family are dejected. It is to them a sign that she is offended, and will not hear their call. To propitiate her and gain her the family offer oblations and burn incense. The oblation generally is a cockerel, some say a pullet, buried alive near the junction of  three streams, and the incense is burnt on the hearth when the family retire for the night.” [37]

In this propitiatory sacrifice we see a very clear pagan act, one which is very much centred on the hearth and its dealings with divinity.

In Ireland, the tradition of ‘raking the fire’ was practiced, wherein the fire was raked so that the coals would remain hot until morning, while avoiding nocturnal conflagration. The hot coals would then be used to reignite the mháthair tine, or ‘mother fire,’ the next day and a special prayer would be recited during the act of re-ignition.

“I rake this fire like everyone else,
Brigid below it with Mary on top;
Twelve angels of the angels of graces,
Protecting my house till dawn.” [38][39]

Catháin notes the connection between ashes and embers relating to fertility rituals in Celtic cultures, claiming that the ashes taken from Midsummer bonfires were ritually deposited in fields to encourage crop fertility and growth. The belief that fire was able to encourage fertility and ward against impurity is exemplified by the following excerpt from Rawson’s Early History of Sexual Art.  

“Evil spirits could be repelled by both men and women exposing their genitals to them; and at the famous Celtic solstice bonfire festivals women used to stride over the fire, exposing their vulvas to the beneficial influence of the flame, and blessing it with their own power…” [40]

The sexual aspect of Brigid’s cult is reminiscent of Vesta’s role as phallic, fertility goddess and may speak to a shared conception of fire as the seat of both passion and of creation. According to Nagy, ancient peoples considered the friction caused when lighting fire to resemble the friction created during sexual intercourse. This procreative property was extended to lightning bolts, which were believed to impregnate trees and rocks with fire when struck [41].

Gabija/Matka Gabia

In Baltic nations, we are presented with a similar hearth goddess to those listed above. In Lithuania, she is called Gabija, in Latvia she is known as Uguns Māte, or “mother of the fire,” and in Poland she is recognized as Matka Gabia. In all cases she is recognized as the keeper of the home and the provider of prosperity and fertility. Each day a small portion of each meal was sprinkled into the flames as offering to the Goddess – with her favoured offerings being salt or bread. Until recently, it was customary for the woman of the household to prepare a small prefatory loaf of bread for Gabija when baking [42]. In this act we see a common motif concerning the obvious associations between the hearth and baking. We also witness the same act of “first offerings” being afforded the hearth goddess, much in the same vein as both Vesta and Hestia.

Though Gabija was largely represented anthropomorphically as a woman clothed in red, she could also manifest as a stork, cockerel or cat. If a stork nested on the roof of a house, it was believed to be a manifestation of the Goddess who had come to ward against fire and lightning strike, and protect the hearth, family unit and village community. This connection is unsurprising given the stork’s propensity for building their nests precariously on rooftops and on chimneys [43].

If angered, Gabija would “go for a walk,” and burn down the dwelling. It was for this reason that people were wary of stomping, spitting, or urinating on a fire to extinguish it [44] and why Baltic peoples practiced a similar ritual to that of Gaelic peoples in gently covering the coals at night [45][46]. A prayer was then recited, which calls to mind the earlier account associated with Brigid.

“sleep fire, Gabija come close to the fire.”

Like Brigid, Gabija’s cult was subsumed into that of a saint, albeit less obviously and less fully. St. Agnes is a particularly popular saint among Lithuanians and is the protectress and guardian of fires. It is common practice in recent times to ask both Gabija and St.Agnes for their protective services in the same prayer, showing a clear syncretism of the two characters. Agnes is often depicted holding a roll of bread and during her feast day, salt, bread and water are consecrated in all Lithuanian churches. Pieces of this consecrated bread were shared amongst family with the remainder being placed in “honourable spots” in the home. In Southern Lithuania, salt is used in the place of bread and is sprinkled as offering into the hearth’s fire. Consecrated breads and salts were thought to provide luck to those who possessed it and it is for this reason that pieces were given to sons and husbands as they left home for war [47].

The Fyrnsidu Hearth-Mother

Now that we have explored Greek, Roman, Celtic and Baltic hearth goddesses, we are better equipped to extrapolate a corresponding Old English deity.

If we are to choose an Anglo-Saxon deity best suited to a hearth-centric role, Frīg springs readily to mind. Her Norse counterpart, Frigg, is commonly associated with the distaff, weaving and other crafts related to domesticity [48] and she possesses an obvious fertility aspect, which the etymology of her name alone implies [49]. If we are to follow that the split between Frigg and Freyja was a later development, one that the Anglo-Saxons did not recognize, then Frīg may well have seen the same virginal-mother contradiction in her character as Roman Vesta.

If we are to provide an epithet for Frīg which might distinguish her as being directly related to the hearth, we might use an Old English compound such as, Heorþmōdor (Hearth-Mother), Heorþweard (Hearth-Ward), or Hlǣfdige (Mistress of the Household).

Placing Frīg in a liminal, threshold capacity similar to that of Vesta and Hestia would require offerings be made to her at the beginning and/or the end of all rites and prayers and require she be afforded a proprietary role over the sacred space in the home. Considering most modern homes do not contain a literal hearth, worship of Frīg-Heorþmōdor may be conducted at the family wīgbed (altar), in conjunction with one’s household Gods. Candles or an oil lamp might serve as a suitable substitute to a large, open flame.

In terms of iconography, we are provided with a variety of options. We know that the cults of Hestia and Vesta were largely aniconic and that anthropomorphic representations of the Goddess were added later. The Fyrnsidu practitioner may opt for an aniconic cult,or one that simply utilizes fire imagery. They might also depict Her zoomorphically in the guise of a stork, boar, or pig. If represented anthropomorphically, Frīg might be depicted holding a loaf of bread, a distaff, or other accoutrements associated with domesticity and abundance. Frīg might also be clothed in red, much like her parallel, Matka Gabia.


Imbolc/ The Feast of Saint Brigid and the Feast of Saint Agnes fall at the beginning of February and coincide with the beginning of Spring, while Vestalia took place in June, so an offering exclusive to the Hearth-Mother might be well-suited to one, or both or these dates.  Appropriate sacrifices to the Goddess might include bread, water, salt, pork, votive pigs/boars, various grains and incense.

 


Sources

[1]R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 471
[2]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Hestia
[3]Davies, J.K. Society and Economy. In Lewis, D.M.; Boardman, John; Davies, J.K.; et al. The Cambridge Ancient History Volume V: The Fifth Century B.C. p. 290.
[4]http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Hestia.html
[5] Evelyn-White, Hugh G. Homeric Hymn 29 
[6]Homeric Hymn 24
[7]Bremmer, Jan. N., in Ogden, D.  A Companion to Greek Religion. 2010
[8]Burkert, Walter . Greek Religion. 1985
[9]http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Hestia.html
[10]Cicero, De Natura Deorum II. (trans. Rackham)
[11]Archaeologia, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Volume 49, Issue 2
[12]Valpay, A.J. The Classical Journal, Volume 15 .1817
[13]Ovid, Fasti VI
[14]Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane pp.43
[15]Ovid. Fasti
[16]Cicero. De Natura Deorum II
[17]Pliny the Elder, Natural History
[18]Schroeder, Jeanne Lorraine. The Vestal and the Fasces: Hegel, Lacan, Property, and the Feminine.1998
[19]Plautus. Casina
[20]Servius. Eclogues
[21]Catullus. Carmina
[22]Theodor Mommsen. History of Rome, Vol.1
[23]E.M. Berens. A Hand-book of Mythology
[24]Brulé, Pierre. La Fille d’Athènes : la religion des filles à l’époque classique : mythes, cultes et société
[24]Ovid. Fasti VI
[25]Ovid. Fasti VI
[26]Ovid. Fasti VI
[27]Marouzeau, Jules. Revue des études latines. 2006
[28]https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/b%CA%B0%C3%A9r%C7%B5%CA%B0onts
[29]Green, Miranda. Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers New York, pp 195–202. 1996
[30]Olmstead, Garret. The Gods of the Celts and Indo-Europeans. 1994
[31]Anwyl, Edward. Celtic Religion in Pre-Christian Times
[32]Macculloch, J.A., Religion of the Ancient Celts. 
[33]Gerald of Wales. The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis XXXIV. Revised and edited with additional notes, by Thomas Wright M.A., F.S.A. & c.
[34]Gerald of Wales. The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis XXXVI. Revised and edited with additional notes, by Thomas Wright M.A., F.S.A. & c.
[35]MacNeill, Máire. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest. 1962
[36]Catháin, Séamas Ó. Hearth-Prayers and Other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 122
[37]Carmichael, Alexander. vol. I, Carmina Gadelica. Hymns and Incantations. 1928
[38]Carmichael, Alexander. vol. I, Carmina Gadelica. Hymns and Incantations. 1928
[39]Catháin, Séamas Ó. Hearth-Prayers and Other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 122
[40]Rawson, Phillip. Early History of Sexual Art, in Rawson, P. (ed.) Primitive Erotic Art, 1-76.London. 1973
[41]Nagy, Gregory. Perkunas and Permit. In Antiquitates Indogermanicae. Studien zur Indogermanischen Altertumskunde und zur Sprach- und Kulturgeschichte der indogermanischen Volker 
[42]Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddess pp.203
[43]https://phys.org/news/2013-08-poland-stork-friend.html
[44]Trikūnas,Jonas. Of Gods & Holidays: The Baltic Heritage. Tvermė. pp. 85–87. 1999
[45]Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddess pp.203
[46]Johnson, Cait. Earth, Water, Fire, and Air: Essential Ways of Connecting to Spirit
[47]The Feast of St.Agnes. Ðv. Agota  III,5
[48]Enright, M.J. The Goddess Who Weaves: Some Iconographic Aspects of Bracteates of the Fürstenberg Type
[49]Bosworth, Joseph. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary OnlineFrig. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2017.

A Special thanks to Marc Beneduci and Selgowiros Caranticnos for helping me scrounge up information on Vesta and Brigantiâ, respectively.

Warden of the Property: Þunor Eodorweard

This article is a continuation of my previous article entitled, Threshold Guardians: Dūrupālas, where I established an Anglo-Saxon door-guardian cult based on Greek, Roman, Frankish and Southeast Asian examples.

In this article, I will attempt to extrapolate an Anglo-Saxon cult associated with the protection of the domicile, utilizing examples from Greek and Roman cults.


Zeus Herkeios, Ktesios and Kataibates

In ancient Greek religion, Zeus was a multifaceted deity possessing a number of attributes and epithets. Of specific interest here are three cults of Zeus directly associated with the household and its corresponding boundaries.

The first of the three cults- that of Zeus Herkeios– is associated with the household boundary and with guardianship over the property found therein. The name Herkeios itself comes from the ancient Greek word, hérkos, meaning ‘fence’ or ‘wall’ [1], which is indicative of the specific realm of influence associated with this particular guise of the God.

According to Homer, each home had an altar dedicated to Herkeios in the courtyard directly preceding the home, or megaron. It was in this location that libations were poured and sacrifices were made to the God to elicit his protection [2]. Because this cult was an Athenian universal, it was customary for those who lived within the polis to say “where is your Zeus Herkeios?” when asking for a particular address [3].

“The house and its fence protected man against enemies and other dangers, but it needed divine protection itself. Its protector was Zeus, whom we here meet in various roles quite different from that of the weather god.” [4]

Zeus Herkeios also plays a role in Virgil’s Aeneid, as it is upon his altar that Priam and Polites are killed by Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus (Pyrrhus). It is in this act that Virgil attempts to illustrate Neoptolemus’ savage nature, due to the connection between the altar and domestic sanctuary [5][6]. This connection between sanctuary and Herkeios is further elucidated in the Odyssey, where Phemius claims asylum at an altar of Herkeios to escape Odysseus killing him.

“To go out of the megaron and sit at the altar of great Zeus Herkeios, a properly made altar where many were the thighs of oxen that Laertes and Odysseus had burnt.” [7][8]

The cult of Zeus Ktesios differs from that of Herkeios in that it deals specifically with the inside of the Greek megaron as opposed to the outer perimeter. According to Harpocration, Ktesios lived in the storeroom and his divinity was housed in a amphora-like vessel called a kadiskos, which had dual handles crowned in white wool [9].

In his Orations, Isaeus poetically describes the cultic practices associated with Ktesios.

“When Ciron sacrificed to Zeus Ktesios, a sacrifice about which he was especially serious, he did not admit slaves or non-family members. He did everything himself, but we shared in this sacrifice and joined with him in handling and placing the sacrificial victims and in doing the other things. He prayed that the god give us health and good ‘property,’ and this was only natural because he was our grandfather.” [10][11]

The connections between Ktesios and the protection of property can be seen in the root of the God’s name, which comes from ancient Greek verb, ktéomai, meaning ‘to have,’ ‘to gain,’ ‘to possess’ [12]. The cult of Ktesios was widespread throughout the Hellenic world- a fact which is supported by a Doric etymological equivalent existing in Zeus Pasios [13].

In terms of iconography, Ktesios lacked an anthropomorphic representation. As stated above, the kadiskos was typically representative of his cult, though serpentine imagery also played a role. On a relief discovered at Thespiae, the epithet of Ktesios is recorded above the image of a large snake, iconography which was paralleled in later, Roman lararia. Snake worship associated with the home is believed to have originated in an earlier, agrarian period where the snake was seen as a chthonic protector of the storeroom against vermin and blight [14].

img3

In Zeus Kataibates we find a deity with a very specific function – a function which is mirrored by other Indo-European thunder deities. The title Kataibates means ‘he who descends’ and is a direct reference to the thunderbolt, which was considered in ancient times to be the resulting impact of a stone axe wielded by Zeus [15].

In the ruins of a house at Oinomaos, the altar of Kataibates was found alongside an altar of Herkeios. Altars to Kataibates were also found at a home on Thera and at Tarentum, where, like the aforementioned example, they appeared in the courtyard before the megaron alongside Herkeios [16]. Here sacrifices were made to the God to stave off lightning strike and according to Chambers Guthrie, may have acted as an ancient lightning conductor [17].

In Slavic and Germanic religion, we see parallels to this apotropaic function. In Slavic culture, Gromoviti znaci or ‘thunder marks,’ are considered by some scholars to be an ancient symbol of Perun which, when engraved on roof beams or on the threshold of the home, protect against lightning strikes [18]

We see a similar motif appear in Germanic culture where stonecrops and houseleeks were planted on the roofs of houses to protect against lightning strike. In Anglo-Saxon England, these plants were referred to as Þunorwyrt, or ‘Thunder-plant,’ [19] suggesting a possible parallel to the functions of both Kataibates and Perun.

 

Roman Boundary Deities

In Jupiter, we are met with a number of epithets associated with protection and warding, including Tutator ‘warden,’ Vindex ‘protector,’ Serenator ‘he who clears the sky,’ and Praestes ‘protector.’ [20]

Of particular interest is the epithet, Terminalus, associating Jupiter with the God of boundaries, Terminus. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Numa ordered that all Roman citizens should mark their boundaries with sacred stones consecrated to Jupiter Terminalus [21]. It was at these boundary stones that sacrifices were made to Terminalus each year at the festival of Terminalia.

In his De Condicionibus Agrorum, Siculus Flaccus gives an account of the ritual used to sanctify Terminus’ boundary stone, a ritual which consisted of placing ashes, bones and blood of a sacrificial victim, along with crops, wine and honeycomb in a hole where the estates converged. The hole was then sealed when the boundary stone was driven into it [22].

At Terminalia, families would decorate their side of the boundary marker with garlands and make offerings of crops, honeycomb and wine. The blood of a sacrificial lamb or pig would be poured over the marker, an act which was followed by communal feasting and the singing of hymns [23].

Woodard briefly explains the cultic origins of Terminus in his work, Indo-European Sacred Space: Vedic and Roman Cult.

“This observation immediately raises the question why a sacred stone
of fertility should be associated with boundaries at all. One could imagine that the development would be entirely secondary. One might expect that the nomadic Proto-Indo-European pastoralists had no need for boundary stones. In the sedentary Indo-European daughter cultures, such as that of Rome, stones provide an effective means for marking boundaries, and the archaic sacred stone might naturally be assimilated to such markers. Indeed, Terminus is not always a stone but at times is identified with a stump that serves to demarcate adjacent properties (see Ovid, Fast. 2.641–642; Tibullus 1.1.11).” [24]

While Terminus is likely the most well-known of the Roman boundary deities and had the most fleshed out cult, we can also look to Silvanus to buttress our reconstructive efforts. According to Dolabella, Silvanus was the God responsible for erecting the first boundary markers, positioning him as a deity associated with the delineation of coterminous space. He also states in his Ex Libris Dolabellae, that each homestead possessed three protective Silvani. Silvanus Domesticus ‘of the home,’ Silvanus Agrestis ‘of the farmstead,’ and Silvanus Orientalis ‘of the estate boundary,’ correspond closely to the tripartite Zeuses of the earlier, Hellenic house cult [25]. In terms of sacrifices, Silvani received offerings of grapes, milk, ears of grain, meat, wine and pigs [26][27].

 

A Fyrnsidu-specific Boundary Deity

Based on information collected from Greek and Roman sources, we should now be able to reconstruct a comparable household cult based in the linguistic and cultural framework of Fyrnsidu.

The first challenge we’re presented with is the sheer multiplicity of deities one could reconstruct from the cults listed above. For simplicity’s sake, we will focus our efforts on a singular deity which presides over the domestic property in toto, encompassing elements from tripartite Zeus, Terminus/Jupiter Terminalis and tripartite Silvanus.

The deity most suited to this role would likely be Þunor, due to the obvious parallels between him and Zeus. Þunor’s Norse counterpart, Þórr was a hallower and protector, a function shared by both Zeus and Jupiter in a number of their epithets.

In terms of providing a name for this distinct divinity, we have a variety of Old English compounds available to us – Þunor Eodorweard ‘Fence/Hedge Ward,’ Þunor Hūsbonda ‘Master of the House,’ or something to that effect, would be most consistent with the epithets attributed to Silvanus and Zeus [*].

The location of the altar, if we’re following the Greco-Roman example, would likely be placed outdoors in the yard near the fence or property boundary. Gifts of honeycomb, libation, grain or the ashes from a burnt offering might be given periodically at this location – an act which would be repeated at regular intervals to ensure protection for the domestic enclosure.

Given that Terminus’ cult was aniconic, associated imagery may not be wholly necessary. If you opt to use iconography, the snake might make a good zoomorphic representation, especially considering the snake played a prominent role in both Greek and Roman house cult. Iconography associated with Indo-European thunder deities, such as the thunderbolt, hammer, or axe might be used, especially if anthropomorphic representations are to be employed. Silvanus is also regularly represented alongside a canine companion, a detail which would lend itself nicely to a cult focused on protection and vigilance.

If one were to celebrate a feast day specific to this cult, the date of Terminalia (February 23rd) might be used as a guideline.


[1]https://en.m.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=herkogamy&oldid=43964216

[2] Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion.

[3] Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion.

[4] Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion.

[5] Anderson, Michael John. The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art.

[6] Virgil. Aeneid 2. 499-500

[7] Odyssey 22.334-6

[8] Dowden, Ken. Zeus.

[9] Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion.

[10] Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion.

[11] Isaeus 8.16

[12]https://en.m.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=κτάομαι&oldid=47028907

[13] Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion.

[14] http://creadm.solent.ac.uk/custom/rwpainting/ch6/ch.6.6.html

[15] Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion.

[16] Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion.

[17] Chambers Guthrie, William Keith. The Greeks and Their Gods.

[18] Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3

[19] Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” þunor-wyrt. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 7 Aug. 2017.

[20] Thulin, Carl. Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft

[21] Dionysius. Roman Antiquities

[22] Flaccus, Siculus. De Condicionibus Agrorum.

[23] Ovid. Fasti 2. 639-684

[24] Woodard, Roger D. Indo-European Sacred Space: Vedic and Roman Cult.

[25] Dolabella. Ex Libris Dolabellae

[26] Tibullus. II.5.27, 30.

[27] Horace. Epodes II.21-22.

[*] These are merely the names that Sundorwic Hearth has chosen to use. For your practice, you may decide on a different name or names for this particular cult.

Threshold Guardians: Dūrupālas

Erik Lacharity recently published an article on his page, Allodium Francorum, which provides insight into Frankish deities of the doorway, Francus and Vassus. This article, though entrenched in the Frankish model, provides a workable blueprint for reconstructing a parallel Anglo-Saxon threshold-cult, utilizing Hengest and Horsa in that role. While it would be superfluous to tread too heavily where Allodium Francorum has already trod, there are a few parallels worth touching on which may further our understanding of this cult. 

 

Germanic Sources

One of the most compelling pieces of supporting evidence for the “divine horse twins” acting as possible door guardians, is that of the horse-head gables found on Low Saxon houses throughout the North German Plain, all the way from the lower Rhine to Mecklenburg [1]. Here they were referred to as “Hengst und Hors” and according to Simek are suggestive of a belief in the twins as being equine in appearance [2]. A parallel motif also exists in Baltic countries, where horse-head gables, called žirgeliai, are employed as a ward against evil spirits [3].

“The employment of horses’ heads as talismans, a custom doubtless originating in heathendom, has been thought not only to suggest the sacrificial offering of a horse, but also to symbolize the religious dedication of a building placed under the protective influence of such a symbol. For among the ancient Teutons the horse was held to be the most holy of animals, and auguries were derived from the neighings of white horses in their sacred groves. There exists, moreover, among German peasants a widespread belief that the placing of carved wooden representations of horses’ heads upon house-gables is an act of homage to the Deity, whose blessing and benediction are thereby invoked upon the dwellings thus adorned, and upon the inmates as well.” [4]

 

46bfdeab38065e33793d7dce118b92a0--horse-head-traditional-house
The use of equine imagery as an apotropaic device was not limited to horse-head gables. In his Teutonic Mythology, Grimm describes the Scandinavian “nithing-pole,” or “spite-stake,” which consisted of a newly cleaved horse’s head being fastened to a pole with with its mouth fixed open. The nithing-pole (ON: níðstang) was then turned in the direction of an enemy, or the subject of one’s ire in an attempt to lay curses upon them.

In Egil’s Saga, the titular character erects a nithing-pole to send curses to Eric Bloodaxe and his wife, Gunnhilda.

“And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse’s head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.’ This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.” [5]

While the níðstang may not be a purely apotropaic device, their use does suggest an inherent belief in the power of horses as spiritual intercessors. This belief is likely informed by the Germanic concept of horses being vehicles for the dead, a motif which appears in a variety of written sources, as well as in archaeological finds [6].  

A similar account of horse heads being employed as wards occurs in the Roman account of the aftermath of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. In this account, the Roman general, Caecina Severus reaches the scene of Varus’ defeat and sees the severed heads of horses fastened to trees. The horses, which belonged to Varus’ auxiliaries, were sacrificed by the Cherusci after the battle’s conclusion [7].

Comparatively, dead horses in Sussex were hung by the legs from horizontal tree branches to protect cattle. According to Robert Means Lawrence, this act may have been a survival from the Heathen period, mirroring earlier hanging sacrifices to Wōden [8].

While the use of sacrificial heads fell out of use after conversion, facsimiles continued to be used in the form of the aforementioned gables, as well as in the form of the horseshoe. An excerpt from Means Lawrence’s book sums up the horseshoe’s later use succinctly in a single paragraph. 

“It has been supposed that the horse-shoe is placed at the outer entrance to a building because of an ancient Saxon superstition that witches were unable successfully to practice their wiles upon persons in the open air. The horse-shoe effectively bars the ingress of witches and evil spirits, but an entrance once obtained by these creatures, it is powerless to expel them. Therefore the horse-shoe within doors loses much of its efficacy, but is still an emblem of good luck.” [9]

The threshold plays an important role in the religious life of the home and according to some scholars, may have acted as the original family altar.

“In the earliest historic times, and in primitive communities, the entrance of a dwelling was considered a sacred place; and in the opinion of eminent scholars who have made a study of the subject, the threshold was the first family altar. A peculiar reverence for the doorway and threshold prevails to-day in many parts of the world, as is evident from the numerous ceremonial rites in vogue among widely separated savage tribes and uncivilized peoples. Indeed, the custom of placing amulets and charms in and about the entrance-doors of houses, stables, and other buildings is almost universal.” [10]


The Dioscuri


In Greek religion we find a parallel to Hengest and Horsa in the Dioscuri. Though they possess many attributes and epithets which place them outside the sphere of the home, we will focus solely on their role as deities related to the ancient household.

The Spartan Dioscuri were intrinsically linked to the dokana, which consisted of two upright beams crossed with two transverse beams. Although various explanations have been suggested for the dokana’s meaning,  the most probable theory is that it represents the frame of a house built of crude bricks [11].

“That the Dioscuri were house gods is proved by their cult. A meal was set out and a couch prepared for them in the house. This is what Euphorion did; Phormion was punished because he would not open the chamber of his house to them. These meals were called theoxenia. Theron of Agrigentum and Iason of Pherae prepared meals in honor of the Dioscuri, and Bacchylides in a poem invites them to a meal from which wine and songs will not be missing. The Athenians spread the table in the prytaneum for them with a frugal, old-fashioned meal of cheese, cakes, olives, and leeks. Some vase paintings and reliefs show the Dioscuri coming to the meal. Here they are riding, in accordance with the common conception.” [12][13]

In many cases the Dioscuri appear alongside snakes, a common motif in Greek house cult(s) which links them to Zeus Herkeios (Zeus of the boundary/fence) and Zeus Ktesios (Zeus of the home), both of which were were represented in serpentine fashion [14].


The cult of the Dioscuri was exported to ancient Lavinium and subsequently spread throughout the rest of the Italic Peninsula, where it retained much of its original Greek character. Here, the figures of Castor and Pollux took on the role of the
Dioscuri, where they were invoked as protective deities and gods of the threshold. It was only later in Roman history that their practice deviated from the functions of the original Hellenic cult.


 

Dvarapala 

An eastern equivalent of the Dūrupālas can be seen in the Dvarapala (door guards) found throughout the Hindu and Buddhist world. Dvarapala, like their Western counterparts, guard the doorways of homes and temples, warding against beings of malefic intent.

Dvarapala have their origins in tutelary deities, some of which, like Acala, are venerated in their own right [15]. In many cases these Dvarapala are considered Yaksha– a broad type of nature spirit who exercise guardianship over specific places [16]. According to Ram Nath Misra, the Yaksha were, as other deities, given specific adoration and offering.

“An essential part of devotional adoration lies in the offerings that are made to the deity. The offering to Yakshas comprised of flowers, incense (particularly aguru), meat and wine, a dish consisting of mixed and cooked cereals, fruits and water, rice, fish, flour cakes either cooked or uncooked, fragrant things, beverages and different types of wreaths and garments.” [17]

visnu_dvarapala_by_uneaskan-d33y5dt

Dvarapala are typically anthropomorphic in appearance, though it is not uncommon to see Dvarapala in the form of snake in certain areas of Sri Lanka. In Java and Bali, the Dvarapala are often portrayed as fierce, kneeling giants with monstrous features wielding clubs. While in Thailand and Cambodia, Dvarapala appear slender and upright, holding their weapons in a downward position.

The major difference between the Eastern examples and the Greek and Germanic examples is that Dvarapala do not necessarily appear in pairs. The number of Dvarapala is largely dependent on the size of the structure, with larger buildings receiving higher numbers of guardians. There is also the obvious omission of equine qualities found in both the Dioscuri and Hengest and Horsa.


Conclusion

Now that we have explored the divine twin cults in Germanic areas, as well as in ancient Greece and we’ve given a brief overview of the Dvarapala, we may be better able to illustrate how a modern practitioner of Fyrnsidu might integrate this cult into their existing household praxis.

As stated at the beginning of this post, Hengest and Horsa would likely be best for the role of threshold guardians based on the evidence presented. Their links to Low German horse gables as well as their similarities to the Dioscuri position them as the ideal candidate.

For the modern practitioner, this cult might manifest in the form of horseshoes, or some other equine-related symbol placed directly above or on both sides of the door. The practitioner may also opt for a more anthropomorphic representation, reminiscent of Eastern door guardians. A spell of protection might be spoken or written and hung in conjunction with these images to ensure further efficacy.

“In some regions there still prevails a time-honored custom of placing over the chief entrances of dwellings inscriptions, embodying usually a religious thought or exhortation. Sometimes, however, the sentence commends the house and its occupants to the care of the goddess Fortune, thus having a significance akin to that of the horse-shoe symbol. “ [18]

Once the appropriate symbols and words are fixed, the practitioner might then invite the numen of the Dūrupālas (OE: Door-poles) into the threshold images, while simultaneously providing offering. Pouring libation outside the threshold, or leaving a small offering by the front door might be preferred [*].

After the sacred threshold is set up, the Þingere (household priest) will need to provide further offerings to the Dūrupālas as needed. Some may choose to do this on a weekly basis and some many opt to do it annually- this is left to the discretion of the particular household. The more often you make offering to the Dūrupālas, the more likely you are to stay in their favour.

—————————————————————————–

[1]Elkin, T.H. Germany. 1972

[2]Simek, Rodolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. 2007


[3]
Pranė, Dundulienė. Lietuviu Etnologija. 1991

[4]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898

[5]Egils Saga Skallagrímssonar. Translation. Green, W.C. 1893


[6]
Roderick Ellis, Hilda. The Road to Hel. 1968

[7]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XII


[8]
Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XII

[9]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XIII

[10]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XIV

[11]Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion. 1940. Chapter IV

[12]Pausanias, III, 16, 3.

[13]Nilsson, Martin. P. Greek Popular Religion. 1940. Chapter IV

[14]Mikalson. Jon. D. Ancient Greek Religion. 2010


[15]
Van Bemmel, Helena A. Dvarapalas in Indonesia: Temple Guardians and Acculturation. 1994

[16]Richards, Richard John. South-East Asian Ceramics: Thai, Vietnamese and Khmer: From the Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. 1995

[17]Misra, Ram Nath. Yaksha Cult and Iconography. 1981

[18]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898.

[*]It might be wise to exercise caution regarding the types of beverages/foodstuffs left for the Dūrupālas. Pouring a sweet mead on the threshold of your home is a great way to attract ants. Do you want ants? Because this is how you get ants. 

A Midsumor Prayer to Hengest and Horsa

Oh, supernal Gods revered
Sunbǣras, Hengest and Horsa
They who draw Sōl upon her path through the heavens
divine Steersmen of the sun-barge

So as the wheel of the year doth turn,
so too do I petition thee in the hope that
you bestow your blessings upon us,
to myself, to my household, and to my kin
and provide fair weather and plenty in the coming months

A gift for a gift
I give and I dedicate
May this offering find you well
May this offering be well-received

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