Mead and Mistletoe

Thoughts on Pagan Spirituality from an ADF Heathen Druid

Tag: anglo saxons

The Gods: Woden

The next stage in the Heathenry50 series is to write about the Gods. I have decided that this will be a series of posts. I’m going to explain my way of viewing the gods. This means it will mostly focus on an Anglo Saxon heathenry rather than Norse heathenry viewpoint. I will try to cite my sources where I can, but I may not be able to always remember where I found the information.

So to kick off this series, let’s begin with the chief of the gods himself – Woden. Woden is a very interesting character with many facets. His name comes from “wod” which means something along the lines of “intoxication, inspiration, madness or frenzy.” He is definitely not a safe, loving god. The third day of the week, Wednesday is named after him, as are quite a few sites throughout Britain. He can also be found in German and Scandinavian areas.

His wife is Frige and his son is Thunor, and possibly Bealdor too. He is called the Allfather as he is the chief of the gods and ruler of Osgeard since the probable abdication of Tiw. In the prose Edda, he is said to have created the world and humanity along with his two brothers (or parts of himself) out of the slain giant Ymir. Many royal kings traced their lineages back to him so he is the Royal Ancestor.

Wise One

wodenHis attributes are often seen in the myths. First is the Havamal, or sayings of the High One (Woden), which includes the story of how he hung himself on the world tree, Eormensyl, undergoing shamanic like sensory deprivation, sacrificing himself to himself, in order to win the knowledge of the runes. Another story tells of how he managed to steal the Mead of Inspiration and some drops fell to earth. Taken together these stories show  how we the elements we need to understand Woden. First he is the god of communication, eloquence, writing and poetry – he inspires us, especially with poetic utterances and he teaches us to read the mystical language of the runes. And he seems to be the god most concerned with all kinds of communication, especially the kind that comes during a fit of intoxicated madness.

He is the god of knowledge and wisdom, always willing to sacrifice whatever it takes in order to gain that wisdom – he sacrificed an eye to the Well of Mimir for wisdom and he sacrificed himself to gain the wisdom of the runes. In a desperate attempt to stave off Ragnarok, he is the traveler who wanders the worlds learning all he can.

Magician

He is a shaman and a god of magic. The myth of his sacrifice on the world tree in a mode of sensory deprivation reflects shamanic practices. The runes he discovers and teaches to humanity are not just a writing system but are mysteries useful for magic. In the Havamal he talks of many charms and spells he knows for performing magic. In the Norse world, he was interested in Seidhr, a shamanic visionary practice, and he is mentioned in the Saga’s laying down in a trance so that his soul could travel to far off places.

Healer and Psychopomp

He is most definitely a god of healing as can be seen in the Second Merseburg Charm and the Nine Herbs Charm, both of which emphasise his healing abilities. In contrast, he is also heavily associated with death, he is considered the leader of the Wild Hunt, a psychopomp figure who leads a procession of dead souls who march across the sky in winter on their way to the afterlife. In ancient Germany it was said that human sacrifices were made to him by hanging them on a tree, while in Norse sources he is considered someone who chooses half the battle dead to join him in Valhalla. I do not however think that there is much evidence of him being seen as a god of war, especially in Germanic or Anglo Saxon versions of heathenry.

Brewer

There are other sides of his character to consider too – he is the god of mead and brewing. In the Exeter book it is said that “Woden made idols.” In the Norse viewpoint, he is the one who invented cremation to sever soul from body at death. He is often accompanied by ravens or wolves. There is evidence from Germany that he is associated with the last sheaf of the harvest in September (see my previous post). The big dipper has been called “Woden’s Wain” – the wagon of Woden.

In conclusion, Woden is the god I feel closest too. I see Woden as the All-father, chief of the gods, a god of wisdom and knowledge, inspiration and communication. I see him as a magical shamanic figure who, while cunning and deceitful at times, is doing what it takes to fulfill his ultimate aim of staving off Ragnarok. He is a god of healing and of brewing. He is also the liminal, traveling, psychopomp god who walks between worlds and leads the dead to their place of rest. 

Sources

The Elder Gods – Stephen Pollington
Rites and Religions of the Anglo Saxons – Gale Owen
The Poetic Edda – Snorri Sturluson

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Celebrating Harvest Home/ Halig/ Mabon 2018

The Autumnal Equinox, also called Harvest Home, Mabon or Alban Elfed is a time of transition and change, a time of honouring the changing seasons and a time of reflection and thanksgiving (in fact it is often called “The Pagan Thanksgiving”). It is also a time of balance. The Autumn Equinox is the midpoint between the summer and winter solstices, when the day and night is of equal length and light and dark are balanced. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year for the northern hemisphere, when nights are longer than days.

By the time of the Autumnal Equinox, the earth around us is showing the signs of the journey into winter – with later dawns and earlier sunsets, the weather is cooler and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn wonderful colours. The animals are busy preparing for winter – squirrels collecting nuts and acorns while birds prepare to migrate to warmer climates. Most of the grain and fruit harvests have been gathered in and its now time to harvest the apples, grapes, squashes and nuts, to preserve them for winter.

Historian Ronald Hutton writes that the end of the harvest was often celebrated in the medieval times with a harvest feast or supper to reward those who helped gather in the harvest, and ceremonies involving the last sheaf of corn. It often involved a lot of drinking. In the book “Our Troth”, they mention a lot of examples of the last sheaf of corn being associated with Woden in Germany. These include a charm to Wodan from 1593 that talks of it as fodder for his horse, the last sheaf being given to a demon called “Wode,”, the mention in the Southern German Statsregister (1350) of leaving the “Wutfuter” (Wod’s fodder), the last sheaf being left ” for the wolf, as fodder for his horse”, the last sheaf being made into a corn dolly in Niederporing and given the name “Aswald – Ase Ruler”, the last sheaf being a “Waul-Staff” decorated with ribbons and flowers, being called “Wode,” and a few apples being left hanging from the fruit harvest for “der Wod.” All these examples point to the importance of Woden in the celebrations of the end of the harvest. In Scandinavia, the last sheaf was supposed to be left for Woden’s horse. Interestingly in England, the last sheaf is often called the “Harvest Queen” and in  Denmark, it is the “Old Woman.” Perhaps it therefore represents the goddess Earth, a bride of Odin in the Norse mythology.  The Harvest Supper, called the “Mell Supper” in Northern England was a communal supper in which the landowner thanked the workers who helped him gather in the harvest. There was often lots of dancing, singing, entertainment, drinking and food.

According to Bede, September was called haleg-monath (holy month) for the ancient Anglo Saxons and Hutton says “it can be surmised that this was derived from religious ceremonies following the harvest.” Bede further says that this was the month when the heathens “paid their devil tribute in that month.” Interestingly Jason Mankey has suggested the Autumn Equinox could be renamed “Halig” after Bede’s original name for September – I really like that idea.

I am not aware of any evidence or mythology to suggest that this day was celebrated by the Druids in ancient Gaelic cultures. However, there are a few ancient Irish temples which line up with the sun at the spring and autumn equinox which suggests that pre-Celtic people’s might have considered the day sacred. It is also very close to the time of Michaelmas which may have absorbed previous festivities in ancient Irish culture at this time, for example – picking carrots on the eve before, an emphasis on giving to charity and the beginning of the apple harvest and hunting season.

In modern times, Druids honour the Green Man of the forest by offering cider libations to trees. It is also good to celebrate this time by visiting an orchard to pick apples, making jams and cider or eating a meal of autumnal fruits and vegetables, especially carrots, apples, nuts, grapes and squashes. It is a time to make gratefulness lists and also to remember those who have a lot less than us and to perhaps volunteer or give some food away to others.  In Gaelic cultures the Last Sheaf was often identified as “Cailleach”, the old woman of Winter, so she is a suitable deity for Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists to honour at this time. Additionally is the Mabon or Maponus, mentioned in the Welsh Mabinogi. It’s also potentially possible that 29th September was a day focused on Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh lord of Annwn (the Otherworld) as September was referred to as Gwynngala in Cornwall.

For Heathens, this can be a time to honour a variety of gods. First there is Ing/ Freyr (though he might be more traditionally honoured at Winternights), a lord of fertility, king of the Aelfe and has the title “Harvest God.” The Vanir as a whole may be honoured at this time, as may the Earth Mother. Idunna may be honoured as goddess of the apple because today begins the apple season, Njord because its the end of the fishing season or Aegir as god of brewing. It would also be very appropriate to honour Woden at this time given his historical association with the last sheaf in Germany and Scandinavia. Meanwhile Neo-pagans celebrate it as a day of balance, when the night and day are equal and nature is declining. In Christian cultures it has become known as Michaelmas (celebrated Sept 29th).

For me, this is a time to give thanks for the abundance of nature. It is a time to party and celebrate with all the wonderful food that is around. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because its so beautiful at this time as the leaves are turning. I love to decorate my altar with fruits, vegetables, nuts and leaves, as well as making leaf garlands to hang around the house. I will have a big feast of waldorf salad (filled with autumn nuts and fruits like grapes and apples), carrot, butternut squash, and lentil salad ( I use carrots from my allotment), and fruit bread.

Here are some videos…

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Celebrating Hlafmaest/ Lughnasadh/ Lammas 2018

Happy Hlafmaest Everyone. Hlafmaest/ Lughnasadh/ Lammas is the “feast of first fruits” or “feast of loaves” held on 1st August each year to celebrate the beginning of the grain and potato harvest and the start of Autumn. It ushers in the end of hunger and a bountiful abundance of crops.

For the ancient Irish, Lughnasadh was one of the four Fire festivals mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire. It is named after the god Lugh, the Fair One, and is the only festival to be named after a deity. However, he is not a god of the harvest, but rather “a patron of all human skills with a special interest in kings and heroes.” It was said to have been started by him as a funeral feast and sporting competition in commemoration of his foster mother, the goddess Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says it was “an agrarian feast in honour of the harvesting of crops.” The festival evolved into a great tribal assembly where legal agreements were made, political problems were discussed and huge Olympic-style sporting contests were held. It was a time of peace and was also one of two festivals where hand-fastings have been traditionally held.

hlafmaest harvestAnglo Saxon Christians also held their feast of Lammas at this time. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle refers to it as “first fruits” and historian Ronald Hutton says that it was customary at this time to reap the first of the ripe cereals and bake it into bread. This is why the festival was known as Lammas or Loaf-mass. Hutton states that “the importance of the first day of August was already so well established by 673 that Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus decreed that the annual synod of the newly established Church in England should be held then. It would seem very likely, therefore, that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date” and “the same feast was…celebrated in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon, or Norse Britain.” He goes on to say that in the middle ages this was an important time for holding fairs, paying rents, electing local officials and opening up common lands. Modern heathens follow the example of Garman Lord in naming the festival Hlafmaest, the feast of bread.

An Anglo Saxon charm recommends breaking up the bread that has been blessed on  or hallowed on this day, and sprinkling it in the four corners of the barn to protect the harvested crops. Meanwhile folk practices suggest this was a time when the first sheaf of the harvest was honoured, either by being turned into a corn dolly or given as an offering (by leaving it lying in the field, burning it or throwing it into water). Alternatively it might be hung up in the house to keep away bad luck.

English folk songs of this time tell of John Barleycorn (personification of Barley), who is cut down at the harvest. Meanwhile in Norse tales, Freyr has a servant called Byggvir (Barley) who may be associated with the Harvest. Byggvir is sometimes also related to the Anglo Saxon figure “Beowa” (Old English for “Barley”), mentioned in the royal lineages as the son of Scyld and the grandson of Sceafa (Old English for “Sheaf”). Perhaps he is also related to Beowulf, as a Beowulf is mentioned as the son of Scyld Scefing.

In England, the end of July is often associated with hot weather and storms, which makes Thunor a great god to celebrate at this time. He was often seen as a god of the common man, especially of farmers and fertility. In Norse myth he has a wife called Sif, whose golden hair may be associated with the harvest, and which Loki cuts off in one tale.

For Anglo-Saxon and Norse pagans, there are many gods who may be honoured at this time – Thunor and Sif for the summer rains and the protection of the harvest, Tiw as god of the Thing, or Byggvir/ Beowa/ John Barleycorn/ Scyld or Sceafa as representation of the harvest itself. This is also a festival that lends itself particularly well  to myth tellings or re-enactments, such as the story of Beowulf or of Loki cutting the hair of Sif.

Another important historical practice in England at this time is the picking of bilberries (the English version of blueberries), which often occurred on the first Sunday of August. Similarly, the first of the year’s potatoes are often ready to be pulled up at this date, and as I have an allotment this year, I shall celebrate by  harvesting some.

As this was traditionally a time when the Thing was held for the Norse in Iceland, and when elections of local officials were once held in Britain, it makes sense that this would be a good time for our Pagan groups to elect new officials or hold annual general meetings to decide important issues.

In Celtic wales, this was a time when people would hike up the Brecon Beacons, perhaps harking back to the old practice of making pilgrimages to hill tops to honour the gods and leave offerings. Perhaps we could use this as an opportunity to go hiking, and leave an offering when we reach the top of some nearby hill or mountain?

Throughout Celtic cultures this has been a time to visit fairs or to hold annual competitions, games and equestrian activities (this is a feast of the warrior). One can carry out saining rites to protect the home or visit holy wells. It is a time to be thankful for the harvest, make bannocks, cheese or Lample Pie, and to enjoy the bounties of nature.

Hlafmaest or Lughnasadh is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and to remember that the hot days of summer are coming to an end as we approach the cold part of the year. It is the time to briefly rest before the hard work of reaping what has been sown begins. It’s traditional to celebrate this time by making corn dollies which represent the spirits of the fields (ask a farmer if you can cut some corn), baking bread, holding sports competitions, selling your crafts at summer fairs and hiking to hilltops with offerings. It is also a good time to pray for or work for peace. Offerings are given to Lugh, Thunor, Tiw or Beow in the hopes of a good harvest. I will be celebrating this festival by doing an ADF ritual, making some bread (one for me and one for a neighbour as an act of kindness), opening the Mead that I brewed at Midsummer, going hiking, having a feast of seasonal foods such as sausages, potatoes, sweetcorn and blueberry gravy, and spending time in nature. Sometimes I also pick bilberries/ whortleberries. Have a great Hlafmaest everyone.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

http://www.tairis.co.uk

http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm

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Celebrating Litha/ Midsummer/ Summer Solstice 2018

Happy Summer Solstice everyone. It is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.  Though the traditional date of Midsummer, when the Sun will appear to start moving again is 24th June. The word Solstice comes from the Latin “Sol” meaning sun and “Sistere” meaning to stand still. It is the longest day of the year with 15 hours of sunshine. The sun is at its most powerful today. Celebrated by almost all cultures historically, it is an important time of the year for Pagans and Pantheists as one of the major festivals. Also known as Litha after the Anglo Saxon name for the summer months or Alban Heruin (light of the shore) in revival Druidry traditions, it is a great time to celebrate by having a BBQ and bonfire on the beach.

Crops have all been planted and are growing strongly, the earth is alive with blooming flowers, green trees and insects busy collecting pollen and making honey. It is a time to rest, to have fun and to celebrate before the hard work of the harvest begins. From now on the days begin to shorten again as we move back towards the winter. In the agricultural community, this is the traditional month for sheep shearing.

Although its not one of the four Celtic Fire Festivals, the day was probably celebrated by the Druids and its quite possible that places like Stonehenge were used by them at this time (no they didn’t build it). On the Isle of Man, there is a tradition of “paying rent” to the patron of the island, and Celtic god of the sea, Manannan Mac Lyr on this day, by offering him bundles of reeds, meadow grasses and yellow flowers, along with prayers for aid and protection in fishing. Another deity related to this time is the goddess Aine, the Irish goddess of summer, love, fertility and sovereignty. She is sometimes seen as the wife or daughter of Manannan Mac Lir, and is the queen of fairies because this is traditionally the night when they come out and join in celebrations. Aine is honoured on Midsummers eve with a feast, procession and bonfires.

Midsummer is very important in Northern Pagan traditions such as Heathenry and is a time to honour Sunne, goddess of the sun, the landspirits and sometimes Balder/ Baldaeg is also honoured. Grimm talks in Teutonic Mythology of setting up a “Sun-wheel.” There are some who say this was historically thought to be a time when the Wyrms (dragons) and ill meaning spirits are about so Thunor could be honoured for his protective role. The Anglo Saxon god of the sea was Wada, and he could also be a good deity to honour on Midsummer as Midsummer is a traditional time to honour the Sea God (such as Celtic Manannan). According to Jaan Puhvel in “Comparative Mythology”, the idea of a fiery power in water is a traditional Indo-European mythology so this fits quite well. For Wiccans, this is when “the powers of nature reach this highest point. The Earth is awash in the fertility of the Goddess and God.”

Historian Ronald Hutton says that at this time “Midsummer bonfires, with much the same rituals, are recorded all over England, Wales, Ireland, Lowland Scotland and the Northern Isles.” The first record of lighting protective fires on midsummer’s eve is from the 12th century, however in the 4th century pagans celebrated by rolling flaming wheels downhill to a river, a practice that can be traced right up to the 19th century in Dartmoor, Devon. It was a time for divination and the Anglo Saxon Lacunga says its the best time to collect certain plants for healing. In fact, St John’s eve was seen as the time when herbs were most potent and magical. In 13th and 14th centuries there are records of people carrying fire around their fields on midsummers eve, people staying up all night around bonfires in the street and youths gathering at wells for songs and games. Hutton says “the dossier seems to be complete enough to speak confidently of a pre-Christian seasonal ritual of major importance.” Meanwhile, in Audoenus’s 7th century text Vita Eligii, there is the statement “Let no Christian believe in bonfires or sit at incantations, which are diabolical works; let no Christian perform the solstice rites, or dancing or leaping to flute-player or diabolical chants, on the feast of St John.” Other traditions from Northern European countries include having a maypole, going to a “midsummer-tree” to pray that the fields might be given growing strength or making large Midsummer’s wreaths and giving them to others as a sign of affection. Bonfires were made in the streets and marketplaces and homes were decorated with sprigs of birch, fennel and flowers.

This year I will be celebrating on the more traditional date of Midsummer’s eve, 23rd and 24th June. I will try to spend time out in nature, do a ritual and decorate my altar with solar symbols like some oak leaves and some sunflower seeds.

Here’s a list of some good ways to celebrate the Summer Solstice this week –

  1. Strawberries are in season, so have some strawberries and cream
  2. Have a BBQ, bonfire or picnic. Get outside.
  3. Do a ritual to honour the Sun or other deities of Summer. Be grateful for the Sun’s warmth and enjoy it.
  4. The bees are busy making this year’s honey, so it’s a great time to make your Mead for the year.
  5. Elder flowers are in season so it’s also a good time to make Elderflower cordial.
  6. Go camping, maybe at Stonehenge if you can, and get up to watch the Sunrise.
  7. Do a beach clean
  8. Make an offering of rushes to Manannan, god of the sea.
  9. Collect herbs such as Mugwort or St John’s Wort for herbalism.
  10. Decorate your altar with symbols of the season such as Oak Leaves and Sunflower Seeds.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kveldulf Gundarsson. Our Troth: Volume 2 – Living the Troth. USA: Booksurge Publishing, 2007.

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Cosmology

In our modern times, we have a pretty good scientific understanding of cosmology – how the universe began, the story of the universe, how things came to be like they are, and how everything works. Although it should be noted that there are still many questions for science to answer.

Similarly, the ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon heathens also had quite a sophisticated view of how the universe worked. Theirs was a multiverse (a concept modern science is only just starting to consider). In order to find the details for their cosmology, we can look in a variety of places – the most important of which are the Poetic Edda (Voluspa) and the Prose Edda. In addition, there are sources which give us important details about the Anglo Saxon worldview, including the Nine Herbs charm and Tacitus’ Germania. It should be noted that what we are doing here is making an assumption that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons had a very similar conception of the universe, which is not necessarily true.

According to the Norse sources, in the beginning there was nothing – there was just the void – Ginnungagap. There were also two realms called Nifolham (the dark world) and Muspelham (a world of fire). There were many rivers in Nifolham flowing from a spring called Hvergelmir, and as these rivers got further away from their source, they become ice. Poisonous drops spew out into Ginnungagap and froze into Rime, building up in layers. When the ice meets the sparks and glowing embers of Muspelham, it thaws and from it comes the first life – Ymir. From Ymir come the frost giants. The dripping ice also formed a cow called Audumhla whose milk nourishes Ymir. She also licks the ice and forms the first of the gods – Buri. This story tells us that like other Indo-European people’s, the Norse and Anglo Saxons believed that the universe came about through the interaction of two elements – fire and water.

Buri has a son called Bor and Bor has three sons – Odin/ Woden, Vili and Ve. This has very interesting parallels with the Germanic story of the beginning of the gods in Tacitus’ Germania – the first god is Tuisto, who has a Son Mannus (Proto-Germanic Mannuz = man), who in turn has three Sons – and their offspring are the tribes of germany – the Ingaevones (Ing?), Irminones (woden/ irmin?) and Istaevones. The Ingaevones were the ancestors of the Angles (and therefore the English). Tacitus says that ancient songs/ lays were sung about Tuisto, who was “brought forth from the earth” (maybe born from the Earth Mother). Some scholars consider Tuisto to be the same as Ymir, others consider him the same as, or the son of, Tiw. in one manuscript his name is Tuisco, which connects to Tiwaz, meaning “son of Tiu”. Perhaps therefore the hierarchy of gods is the Earth Mother and Tiw (the original sky father) bore Tuisto. He bore Mannus, and Mannus bore Woden, Ing and Istae? However, Norse texts suggest the Earth was created from Ymir, or that she is the wife and/or daughter of Odin. If we compare it with Vedic mythology about Tvastr, Manu and Yama, Tvastr is the grandfather of Yama (Ymir?) and the brother of Yama is Manu.

In the Norse sources, the three brothers, Odin, Vili and Ve, then kill the giant Ymir and his blood killed off most of the giants except one family. Then the gods used the body of Ymir to make the earth – his blood became the sea, his bones became the mountains, his teeth became stones, his skull became the sky (which was then held up by four dwarves), embers of Muspelham became stars, his brain became clouds, his hair became trees and from his eyelashes was made Middangeard (Middle Earth). This has parallels with other Indo-European myths in which there are two beings Man (mannus?) and Twin (ymir?). Man sacrifices his twin and from his body creates the world. The very creation of the world therefore is through sacrifice, and when we sacrifice in ritual, we are re-enacting that.

The Gods also made humans out of two trees on the seashore. The man was called Ask (from Ash) and the woman Embla (from Elm), and from them came all people.  A giant called Norfi has a daughter called “Night” and Night had a son called “Day.” And Odin gives them both chariots to ride around the earth every 24 hours. Similarly a man called Mundilfari has a son called Mona (moon) and a daughter called Sunne (sun), whom the gods placed in the heavens to drive the horses that draw the chariots of the sun and moon. They are chased by wolves, the offspring of Fenrir. The gods also created their own realm – Osgeard, and a bridge from this realm to earth called the Bifrost, the rainbow. Osgeard contains many halls of the gods. And they created dwarves who live in the earth and rocks (along with the dark elves).

At the centre of all things is the world tree, which is called Yggdrasil for the Norse, or Eomensyl for the Anglo Saxons (if they had such a tree). It is an ash tree where the gods gather each day to hold their courts. It has three roots – one in Osgeard, one in Ginnungagap with the frost giants, and one in Nifolham. Below each root is a well. In Nifolham the well is Hvergelmir, Mimir’s well of wisdom is in the realm of the frost giants (where Woden gave an eye in return for wisdom), and the third is the Well of Wyrd in Osgeard, where the gods meet to make judgements. Three maidens – Wyrd (Fate), Werdande (Becoming) and Scyld (Obligation), who score runes on wood, make laws and shape men’s lives. They are the Wyrdae (Norns). There are other Wyrdae too, which come to each of us at birth and decide the lengths of our lives and our fates. The three maidens draw water each day from the Well of Wyrd and mix it with mud to make a sacred white clay, before splashing it over the tree so it won’t wither (some falls to the earth as dew). In this way they help to maintain the universe. In ADF ritual, when we recreate the cosmos, we also put water onto the tree, reenacting this sacred rite.

At the top of Eormensyl sits and eagle and a hawk, at the bottom is the serpent Nidhogg (who gnaws at the tree roots), and between them runs the mischief making squirrel Ratatosk. There are also four stags in the tree who eat its foliage. In the well of Wyrd, two swans nourish themselves.

So we have seen so far, four realms – Muspelham (the place of fire), Nifolham (the dark place of ice), Middangeard (earth) and Osgeard (the home of the gods). Also in the heavens is Elfham, the world where the light elves dwell. It is said to be ruled over by Lord Ing (Frey). Then there is Ettinham, the realm of the giants, and Hel, the place of the dead. And there is Wanham – the place of the Wanes (Vanir). Finally is Dwarfham, the home of the dweorg or dark elves.

At the end of time, the earth, the gods and all the worlds will be destroyed by Surt and the children of Loki. This event is called Ragnarok, but in keeping with the ancient Pagan view of the cyclical nature of time, the earth will be reborn again.

While the Norse worldview talks of nine worlds, the Nine Herbs Charm of the Anglo-Saxons says there are seven worlds. Now there are a couple of ways to look at this – either we could say that the seven worlds are a Greco-Roman or Christian influence, because they originally believed there were seven planets, and just ignore the text. Or alternatively, perhaps there are seven worlds, and the two elemental realms of Muspelham and Niflham weren’t considered proper worlds.

But there are some more complications. In some Anglo Saxon sources, the idea of Neorxnawang is mentioned. This could be translated as a heavenly meadow or field of contentment, where the dead go. Perhaps this is in Osgeard or in Hel? It has been suggested that this is the same as the Norse Idavollr, the place where the gods meet, or Glaesisvellir, a place in Ettinham where those who go there become healthy and never die. Stephen Pollington says that “wang” means meadow or field, while the “neorxes” could refer to a variety of root words related to the dead or the earth. He suggests possible translations as “Plain of those who belong to Nerthus”, “Field of the homes of the dead” or “Field of the Sons of the Earth.” This suggests a realm in the earth and reminds me of the fields of burial mounds across southern England.

When it comes to where the dead may go, we have some clues – many people were buried in burial mounds. Some were buried in ships or with horses which may suggest they would take a journey, however other graves had elaborate chambers like furnished halls set up inside them, suggesting that the dead were likely to be dwelling there rather than journeying on somewhere else. They were often buried with weapons or feasting gear suggesting a need for these items in the afterlife. There is the Wid Ferstice charm which talks about the gods and elves sending “spears” into people to afflict them, but these spears must return to “the mountain-head”. Combine this with the view in the Norse sources that some families “die into” particular mountains (according to H R Ellis), and the story in Eyrbyggja saga of a man who sees a vision of a mountain opened up and a dead man being welcomed by his kin to a great feast within. All this suggests that the realm of the dead is in their mounds or mountains (just like the Sidhe in Ireland). 

So where does this leave the realm of Hel? Well, Pollington argues that it was a “dark, cold damp place without joy” and this is reflected in various Old English poems (though Christian). And there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a goddess called Hel, but there is an Old English version of the Gospel of Nicodemus in which a chthonic female figure orders the devil to leave her realm. Pollington suggests that in the Norse, Hel may be part of Freyja as she chooses half the dead and accepts them into her hall (though Freyja is not part of the Anglo Saxon pantheon).  In Beowulf it says “in his fen abode, his soul he laid down, his heathen soul Hel took” but does this refer to the place or goddess? If Hel is the place of the dead, it can only be accessed by crossing a bridge over a river. 

We shouldn’t rule out the use of the term “Heofen” (heaven) either just because it sounds Christian – it may have been used by Anglo Saxon pagans to refer to a paradise place (though it usually means “sky”), and the word “himin” for heaven is used in Norse sources to refer to Heimdall’s home as “heaven mountain ” (Himinbjorg).

There is some evidence for Muspelham, or at least beings from Muspel, in Saxon sources as Pollington points out they use the words “Muspilli, Mudspell and Mutspelli” which deal with the worlds ending and come from the latin words “Mundus” and “Spillan” – world destroyers.

Similarly there is Wyrmsele (serpent hall) mentioned in Anglo Saxon sources (the Christian poem Judith), which may be similar to the Norse Nastrond. However, there is no mention or evidence for Wanham in Anglo Saxon sources as it was likely imported into Scandinavia from the Baltic area, and even Ettinham may be a later addition to the Norse cosmology after Iceland was discovered.

Finally, we should remember that “the divine was immanent in the natural world….far from being distant entities in the clouds” according to Pollington, and therefore we should be careful about assuming many worlds that are away from our own. 

So where does this leave us in conclusion? What is my cosmology? Well it is far from developed but here are some of the key elements for me….

There is a world tree, Eormensyl, with roots the dip into various wells, where the gods meet and the Wyrdae determine men’s fate. There are also seven realms. These are Middangeard, Osgeard, Elfham, Neorxnawang (which has something to do with the earth and burial mounds i.e. the place of the dead), Muspelham, Nifolham and Hel (Wyrmsele is either in Nifolham or Hel). This is very much a work in progress and I will almost certainly change my mind about this more as I delve deeper into it.

How about you? What do you think?

 

Sources:

The Elder Gods – Stephen Pollington

Our Troth – The Troth.

H R Ellis – Road to Hel.

Travels through Middle Earth – Alaric Albertsson

The Prose Edda – Snorri Sturluson

The Poetic Edda – Translation by Henry Adams Bellows.

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