An Argument for the Historical Worship of the Jötnar

We’ve explored archaeological evidence and analyzed surviving popular texts about the pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia. It’s now time to turn toward scholarship which analyzes the role of the jötnar in Norse mythology and pre-Christian pagan practice.

One essay by scholar Gro Steinsland looks at textual evidence that the jötnar were recipients of honor or worship among the people of Scandinavia. “The Eddaic poetry and Snorri’s testimony,” Steinsland states in “Giants as Recipients of Cult in the Viking Age?”, “demand that both the jǫtunn character of the figures and the combination of giantesses and shrines are to be taken seriously.”

Skadi is one of the most well-known examples of jötnar for whom some evidence of cultic worship may exist. John Lindow in his 2002 book Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Belief hypothesizes that a scene in which Loki ties his testicles to the horns of a goat might have associations with cultic ritual and castration in honor of Skadi. (1) With relation to Skadi, Steinsland highlights toponomical studies which show there are many sites whose names appear to be derived from combinations of words with cultic connotations and Skadi’s name. This implies the possibility of physical sites of Skadi worship. (2) She furthermore asserts that “[t]he mythical dwelling of a god has its counterpart in the physical shrine,” claiming the description of Skadi’s home among the homes of the other gods further implies the real-world worship of Skadi in pre-Christian Norse religion. (3)

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Another giantess whose goddess status Steinsland considers is Gerdr. She points out an early twentieth century interpretation of the myth of Freyr and Gerdr which has become widely renowned: Freyr as a sky god and Gerdr as an earth goddess, their union representing the fertility of the crops, something which may have been ritually reenacted every year. Nonetheless, she points out, the man who pioneered this now roundly accepted interpretation of the myth, Magnus Olsen, avoided the issue of Gerdr’s jötunn nature altogether. (4) She notes that, despite the clarity of the Eddas in identifying Gerdr as a giantess, scholars have often dismissed or overlooked Gerdr’s nature rather than grapple with the notion that a jötunn may have been recognized in cultic ritual—in other words, a recipient of worship.

In addition to looking at individual jötnar as examples, Steinsland highlights the story of the horse’s phallus contained in Vǫlsa þáttr, in which a horse phallus is used as a focal point of offering and worship. The word which would indicate the receiver of the offering, mǫrnir, is often translated as the singular masculine word for “sword” despite being in the plural form, which would indicate that it ought to be translated as the plural feminine word for “giantesses.” (5) Despite the fact that grammatically and linguistically the translation “giantess” ought to be preferred, it is often rejected, seemingly as a result of implicit biases within the scholarly community that assume that no jötnar ever received worship.

Scholar Lotte Motz notes that in post-conversation folklore, giant figures were often replaced with demons or devil figures. (6) Through the projection of Christian morality onto pre-Christian figures of myth and folklore, the idea of the giant as demon or devil was perpetuated and solidified. It is possible that this has effected the scholarly treatment of the jötnar, which in any case are treated with similar hesitancy if not outright disdain in some modern heathen circles.

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Let us now turn to Lotte Motz, who touches upon the intimate relationship of the jötnar which I explored previously. She highlights the fact that the jötnar are not only personifications of natural forces and the natural world, but that Norse mythology depicts the entirety of Midgard to have been created with the sacrifice of the flesh, blood, and bone of a jötunn whereas the Æsir are held apart from the natural world: “Gods do not give of themselves to become part of nature around us, whereas the blood of a giant formed the sea, and his skull the sky. Gods are thus apart and distinct from the world which they have founded and which they rule.” (7)

In many ways such a description of the Æsir as opposed to the Jötunn mirrors human society in the modern era: despite being animals at the core, the vast majority of humanity consider themselves distinct and separate from “nature.” Nature is, in many ways, “othered” in the modern world, much as we see the jötunn “othered” in the Eddas and in many if not most interpretations of the Eddas.

The potential link between the jötnar and the power of nature extends to the nature of kingship in the pre-Christian Norse world. It is not unheard of in cultures around the world for kings and tribal leaders to claim divine right via divine lineage, and the Norse were no exception to this—except, it seems, that many claimed jötunn heritage. This potentially positions the jötunn in pre-Christian Scandinavia as having been recognized as divine powers—that is, as having been a class of gods. In her essay “Kingship and the Giants,” Lotte Motz explores the connection between the jötunn and Nordic kingship more thoroughly.

Motz notes that in some skaldic poems the king’s “conquest of land was visualized in erotic terms, as an embrace and conquest of a woman.” This is, of course, not surprising or unusual. The conquest of land by explorers and colonizers has often been related in erotic terms (the phrase “virgin land” comes to mind) so it seems unsurprising that there might be a similar tradition with regards to the kings of Scandinavia. Motz looks at an example from the poems Hálegjatal and Hákonardrápa, saying that the erotic imagery used in these poems to describe the king’s relationship to the land “is based on the myth in which the earth—jörd— is Óðinn’s wife.” She isn’t the only scholar who has noticed this trend. Though Motz isn’t ultimately sold on Folke Ström’s take on this, she cites Ström as a scholar who has believes this to be in reference to the concept of a sacred marriage between the king and the land.(8)

Jord is not only a word meaning earth in the Scandinavian languages. She is a jötunn closely associated with earth and soil, who also happens to be Thor’s mother. According to Motz this example is neither an exceptional one nor an accident. She goes on to say:

“[Scholars] have not noted, surprisingly, that the ‘divine’ ancestor or bride is frequently not a godhead but a member of the race of giants…This fact is never hidden. Gerðr, ancestress of Yngling kings, is the daughter of Aurboða and Gymir, both giants. Skaði, ‘the shining bride of the gods’, was fathered by the giant Þjazi…The descent of Norwegian princes is traced to the giant Fornjtr and his family in some accounts.” (9)

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Motz lists a number of examples of royal Scandinavian lineages that either traced their line to giants, or claimed relationship to the giants via marriage, fosterage, or friendship. Given the possibility that the giants are anthropomorphized natural elements, Ström’s theory about a sacred relationship to the land may not be entirely off base: the Yngling kings claiming to be descended from Gerdr and Freyr, for example, could be seen to be claiming descent from the earth itself. Gerdr represents the soil of gardens or perhaps even farms, while Freyr may represent the earth’s fertility. Relationships with other jötnar of varying heritage might be seen as a symbolic claim to the untamed power of the natural forces with which that particular jötunn is associated.

But would these claims have been made if the jötnar were considered by the people of the time to be evil and antithetical to the gods? It’s highly doubtful, as such claims might implicitly place the claimants in conflict with the gods and perhaps even weaken their claim to power—if, of course, the jötnar were viewed with the same derision with which many view them today. What seems more likely is that the jötnar were seen as divine, that some jötnar were worshiped, making it a logical move to claim descent or relationship to them as a movement for consolidation of power.

Ultimately Motz says that it remains unknown “why members of a hostile and savage group, intent on destroying the order of the gods, should assist in creating a sacred institution.” (10) Setting aside the possibility that the claim to jötnar heritage might be associated with a sacred relationship to the land and nature, I want to return to something which Motz herself pointed out: that post-conversion, giants and devils become interchangeable. She of course goes on to note that the giants are set in a position of hostility to the ruling faith and suggests this may be cause for the substitution. We know, however, the hostility between the classes could represent a historical appropriation of an older religious paradigm by a newer one, something which Motz takes into consideration in “Giants in Folklore and Mythology”:

“It is true that many waves of immigration washed onto the shores of Northern Europe, each group bringing its tradition of warfare and faith into the new land and accepting also much of what it found…If the giants had, in fact, been the gods of the native population who then became part of the faith of the invaders, we would find an answer to their dual nature: that they were wise as well as monstrous, that they built sanctuaries even though they were the enemy…And as such they were remembered in the tales of simple folk: as those who had constructed the world in its splendour.” (11)

So little writing by pagan believers in pre-Christian Scandinavia about the mythology and beliefs of the time exists, making it nearly impossible to be certain what their attitudes might have been about the jötnar. We must rely on clues in the stories that are left to us.

The clues are hidden in the nooks and crannies of obscure and common texts alike. Though they, just like the archaeological evidence we looked at, may be interpreted in a variety ways, the suggestion they seem to point to—that the jötnar were not viewed as evil forces and that some probably did receive worship—cannot be absolutely dismissed without also dismissing the works in which those clues are found. As we have seen in previously, we don’t have enough textual evidence of the original beliefs and practices to be roundly dismissing these texts.

  1. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Belief. Oxford University Press, New York. pp. 269
  2. Steinsland, G. 1986: ”Giants as Recipients of Cult in the Viking Age?” Words and Objects; Towards a Dialogue between Archaeology and History of Religion. G. Steinsland, ed. Oslo, pp. 213-4
  3. Steinsland. 213
  4. Steinsland. 214-5
  5. Steinsland. 216
  6. Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982.
  7. Motz. 77
  8. Motz, Lotte. “Kingship and the Giants,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi. 1996. pp. 74
  9. Motz. 75
  10. Motz. 82
  11. Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982. pp 81

The Evolution of Pre-Christian Nordic Religion

Compared to many cultures around the globe, very little evidence remains of pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices in Scandinavia. By far the best known pre-Christian temple in Scandinavia was the temple in Uppsala, having been attested to in the writings of Adam of Bremen. However, evidence remains scant. Some archaeological evidence of a hall near to the burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala has been uncovered but, because of the decay of building materials, very little evidence remains to be interpreted. These remains have largely been read as being evidence of a hall where both political and cultic practices may have occurred, including sacrificial feasts (1) though some have suggested that this may have been the temple, or served both functions.(2) Even the best known religious sites offer us little evidence to interpret or develop an understanding of Scandinavian religions prior to the conversion era.

Considering the minimal nature of archaeological evidence of pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia, how do we know what we know about those religions? “Apart from the rune stones, contemporary written information about the Viking homelands is almost exclusively the work of foreign clerics,” Else Roesdahl notes in The Vikings, “few of whom had visited Scandinavia. Nearly all these texts are in Latin and they were usually written following political or military confrontations on Denmark’s southern border, or attempts to convert the pagan northmen to the true Christian faith.” (3)

Most of what we think we know about Scandinavian religion before the arrival of Christianity is, in fact, based on writings from contemporary Christian clergy. Yet the history of complex religious beliefs in Scandinavia was established long before the onset of the best-known and best-evidenced eras of Scandinavian history, the Vendal and the Viking eras, let alone before the arrival of Christianity.

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Sample of pictographs from Atla, Norway

Evidence of religious beliefs in Scandinavia dates to as early as the Stone Age. “The Stone Age archaeological record paints a surprisingly complex picture,” writes Bryon J. Nordstrom. “Artifacts of bone or amber and petroglyphs and pictographs, such as those in Alta in Norway or the somewhat later ones at Nämforsen in southern Sweden, depict reindeer, moose, bear, birds, fish, whales and humans. These depictions indicate the presence of animist religious beliefs from very ancient times.” (4) Based exclusively on the archaeological evidence we can see an evolution in these animist beliefs (defined primarily by a belief that all things in nature contain a spirit, not just humans). In the late Mesolithic, for instance, occurs new “systematic burial practices that may indicate a belief in an afterlife or veneration of family members.” (5)

This late-era shift in religious practices and beliefs lead to the new practices of the Neolithic age, shifting toward a religious outlook which favored ancestor veneration and practices regarding death and belief in the afterlife. This is evidenced by megalithic graves, dolemens and passage graves. (6) Because of the obvious amount of labor and time expended upon the construction of these graves and because they were used repeatedly, there is a strong likelihood that such grave sites doubled as cult sites.(7)

We come next to the Bronze Age. The tradition of petroglyphs had certainly survived through the ages, the changes in climate, and invasions. By this point in history “the most common images are of ships, circles and wheels, men with weapons, men with exaggerated phalluses, plows, footprints, and occasionally women…they may be sacred images, including the sun, the ships that carried the sun across the sky, and gods and goddesses of the hunt, the field, and fertility.” (8)

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Sample of pictographs in Nämforsen, Sweden

Moving into the Migration and Vendal eras, we continue to have a wealth of archaeological evidence up for interpretation. This evidence continues to come from places of burial and sacrifice and, just as the cultures of these ages “may also be seen as direct antecedents to the Viking Age,” (9) it seems reasonable that the religious beliefs of these ages were also direct antecedents to Viking Age religion. This is especially true when we consider that the only thing directly separating the Vendal and Viking ages are the written records of the Viking invasions of Lindisfarne in 793. (10)

At long last, the beginning of the written record regarding Scandinavia has begun. Because of the great wealth of churches, which housed the aforementioned literate clergymen, Vikings often targeted them. Though they had not yet begun to write about the religion of the Vikings, this marks the point at which the written record can be used to corroborate theories about the archaeological evidence which, in regard to religion, continues to remain inconclusive. Stone carvings continue to be an important source of evidence, such as the picture stones in Gotland dating between 400 and 800 A.D., which depict “sailing ships, costumes, processions, battles, sacrifices, and Norse gods such as Odin.” (11) Though these are among our primary sources of evidence, in addition to grave goods and sites of sacrifice, it is worth noting that “pictures can rarely be interpreted precisely, but they give an impression of ceremonies and rituals and also confirm some of the stories about the gods…” (12)

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Hunninge picture stone from Gotland

Though it is far simpler, it is neither wise nor advisable to entirely separate these different periods of religious belief from one another. The evolution of religious practices and beliefs is just that—an evolution. These beliefs and practices evolved in tandem with the society out of which they arose. We can see in the Stone Age that animist religions underwent a change as the people themselves shifted from the nomadic lifestyle of the Megalithic age to the settlement lifestyle of the Neolithic. I would argue that the more familiar beliefs of the Viking age could not and would not have taken the shape they did if it weren’t for the shape these earlier religions took and the effect changes in society had on their development and evolution, much like modern people could not exist in their current form without their ape ancestors.

Some disturbances naturally occur which induce or alter this process. These included changes not only in climate but also invasions which brought new people with new weapons, technologies, and cultures, as well as new religions and new gods:

“Some researchers believe Sweden, along with much of the south Baltic, Denmark and Finland, were invaded by nomads whose origins lay along the western slopes of the Ural Mountains…some archaeologists think they brought with them the prototype of the later Germanic languages, including Swedish, and a new set of gods. According to this interpretation, these invaders descended on the peasant farmers of the north, conquered them, became a new elite, and erased the old cultures. Good evidence supports these views: The beautifully crafted boat-shaped ceremonial axes, crudely decorated pottery, and simple individual chamber graves become common and were strikingly different from their counterparts in either of the older Neolithic cultures.”(13) 

Though it is true that these invading forces re-shaped the existing culture, it is drastic to say that they could or would have utterly eradicated it, as is suggested when Nordstrom writes that the invaders “erased the old cultures.” While significant damage to existing cultures can and is often done when a foreign force invades an area, historically this often involves some degree of assimilation rather than total annihilation. We can see this in other instances of invaded peoples straining to retain their culture and new rulers making certain cultural concessions to keep their newly conquered people in the fold.

With specific regard to religious practice and belief, there are plenty of examples of religions meeting wherein the conquering religion assimilated rather than destroyed the other. Take, for example, the Greek Titans: some scholarship suggests that these formidable beings in Greek mythology represent deities from an older religious tradition. This argues that the depiction of the Titans as having been conquered and imprisoned by a younger generation of gods represents a newer religious tradition supplanting the elder. This is a mythological form very closely mirrored in other cultures, including the Babylonians, Hittites, and Phoenicians.(14) Lotte Motz highlights specific examples: “The Giants and the Titans of the Greeks were ultimately defeated by Olympic Zeus; the great god Marduk of the Babylonians opposed those from whom he was descended, who were fighting under the leadership of Kingu.” (15)

I propose that we can see echoes of this myth-form in the war between the Nordic Aesir and the Vanir, as well as the ongoing struggles between the Aesir and the Jötnar. Multiple waves of migration into Scandinavia followed closely by discernible shifts in religious orientation, values, and structures may very well indicate that a series of invading and supplanting cultures introduced a series of supplanting religions. This is in addition, of course, to other environmental factors that were prompting changes in religious focus and values, such as the switch from nomadic lifestyles to settlement lifestyles, often corresponding with a switch between hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural cultures.

Ultimately while it is hard to definitively interpret the archaeological evidence without textual evidence to fill in the gaps, we can make reasoned assessments based on the evidence we do have. We can additionally study the evolution of other, better documented religions around the world to fill in our understanding of the kinds of patterns and changes that are common in religious evolution. Taking the evidence we do have and comparative studies of comparable myth-forms and religious developments from the around the world, it’s not such a stretch to interpret the primal, often clearly nature-associated jötnar as survivors of an older, primordial animistic religion that set the stage for later Nordic religions.

(1) Gamla Uppsala. “Kungsgårdsterrasserna.” Gamla Uppsala Museet: Gamla Uppsala, 2000. Plaque.
(2) Roesdahl. pp 154
(3) Roesdahl. pp 15
(4) Nordtsrom, Bryon J. Scandinavia since the 1500s. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2000. pp 4
(5) Nordstrom, Byron J. The History of Sweden. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2002. pp 14
(6) Nordstrom, Byron J. The History of Sweden. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2002. pp 15
(7) Nordstrom. pp 15
(8) Nordstrom. The History of Sweden, pg 17
(9) Nordstrom. History of Sweden. Pg 19
(10) Pearson. pp 337-353
(11) Nordstrom. The History of Sweden. 21
(12) Roesdahl. The Vikings. pp 128
(13) Nordstrom. pp 15
(14) Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Revealing Antiquity). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1995. Pgs 94-95.
(15) Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982.

Christian Bias in the Surviving Lore 2

Last time we looked at what Adam of Bremen had to say about the temple in Uppsala. Today, I would like to turn toward a more familiar name whose writings are more commonly relied upon by modern heathens: Snorri Sturluson.

Sturluson’s Edda is heavily reliant upon select poems from The Elder Edda, otherwise known as The Poetic Edda, a source of unknown authorship which is likely the work of multiple authors. Both are incredibly valuable resources in terms of uncovering what kinds of things the pagan people of Scandinavia believed in, though both come with their own set of complications.

It is from writings such as Sturluson’s Prose Edda, for which his chief resources were likely Völupsá and Grimnismal of the The Poetic Edda, (1) that we know about characteristics of the gods, cosmology, beliefs about the origin of the world, and humans, as well as beliefs about different afterlives. Though these writings were written in Iceland post-conversion, like the sagas they “probably tell us a great deal about traditions, beliefs, practices, customs, and values in early medieval Iceland…”(2)

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Snorri Sturluson by Christian Krohg

Roesdahl asserts that Snorri’s Edda, being a detailed record of Norse myths and stories about the gods, “is as reliable as it could be, given that it was written some 200 years after the introduction of Christianity; Christian influence can often be discerned in these sources, however.”(3) For all its reliability, we must continue proceeding with caution as we interpret these written sources. Snorri’s own Edda, after all, opens with the lines, “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth and all those things which are in them; and last of all, two human kind, Adam and Eve, from whom all races are descended.” (4) While this Christian influence is most blatant in the earliest portions of Snorri’s Edda, it must be taken into consideration even in areas of the work where it may be less obvious. To complicate matters, Sturluson’s source material may already have been corrupted by Christian influence:

Snorri accepted Völuspá as a valid source of information about the old faith in the Æsir, but modern scholars have long since recognized that much in the poem must be of Christian origin. The idea that the final doom is a punishment for the gods’ oath-breaking and for the moral decay of gods and men alike is not known in any other reliable pre-Christian Nordic source. The description of the torments of wrongdoers and of the terrible times that precede ragnarök are suspiciously consonant with Christian eschatology and the paradise enjoyed by the saved after the universal conflagration is reminiscent of Christian thinking…Völupsá is the revelation experienced by the sibyl, and is more of a piece with visionary literature of the Christian middle ages than with anything we know from Nordic paganism. (5)

This isn’t of course, to say that there is no knowledge about pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs to be found in Völupsá. Once aware of the heavy Christian influence present in Völupsá and texts like it, and even Snorri’s text which drew from it, we are better able to discern that which may more closely represent pre-Christian beliefs. For instance, Ragnarök is not the only war among the gods that Völupsá records:

On the host his spear | did Othin hurl

Then in the world | did first war come;

The wall that girdled | the gods was broken.

And the field by the warlike | Wanes was trodden.

Then sought the gods | their assembly seats

The holy ones | the council held

Whether the gods | should tribute give.

Or to all alike | should worship belong. (6)

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This war between the Æsir and the Vanir or “Wanes” was, the Völupsá tells, the result of the Æsir’s attack Gollveig, presumably an important Vanic goddess herself, considering the described reaction of the Vanir. The outcome of this war, after the Vanir have utterly destroyed the Æsir’s defenses, was a council held by the gods to determine whether worship should belong “to all alike.” As a result of this council, the Vanic gods Njörd, Frey and Freya took a place among the Æsir, presumably as war hostages but also to partake in the worship of men, while other Vanic deities fall into seeming or near obscurity.

This story is an example of one which seems less influenced by Christianity despite evidence of the poem containing it being a largely Christian construct. It is very likely rooted in old pagan mythology, as the notion of two warring tribes of gods sitting down to discuss the division of human worship clearly clashes with Christian monotheism.

Of course, Christian influence hardly wiped the polytheism of old pagan religions from the myths which were preserved, but one might also point to the muddy morality which the story presents. Many Christianized Norse myths align their point of view almost exclusively with the Æsir, especially when it comes to Odin and his son Baldr. Here it’s important to note that Odin’s position and title of “All-Father” mirrors the “Father” aspect of the Christian trinity, while Baldr’s death and resurrection after Ragnarök mirrors Christ’s death and resurrection. This is one of the more subtle effects Christianization has had on the mythology, but the story of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir  doesn’t fall in line with this trend or generalization. It depicts the Æsir as aggressors and the Vanir not only responding in kind, but apparently winning the war before the council was called. The degree to which the Æsir are overpowered by the Vanir (consider how their defensive wall was broken by the Vanir) would seem to make Odin’s decision to attack Gollveig quite a lot more foolish than other Christianized myths tend to portray him and his actions.

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Much as Odin’s decision to act aggressively toward the Vanir in the recollection of the wise-woman in Völupsá reads as a foolish blundering when considering the evident might of the Vanir, some other poems appearing in The Poetic Edda depict the gods in a humorous, almost satirical way. Among the most noteworthy of these are Lokasenna and Trymskvida:

Some scholars have argued that both these poems are late compositions, even the work of thirteenth century poets. They point to the satirical treatment of the gods. But this is to think that heathens regarded their gods in the same way as Christians regard their Trinity. A much more fitting approach is to consider what genuine religious sentiment of the pagan period may have inspired these poems. (7)

This is particularly important to note in large part because it is important to remember that the way modern, largely Christian people think and feel about the divine does not necessarily reflect how the pagan people who traded these stories and believed in these gods thought and felt about their deities. It is as important to be aware of what we ourselves project onto these myths as it is to be aware of what the Christian clergy who wrote most of these records projected onto the stories and people they were writing about.

Here I have only closely analysed one poem, but it is important to remember that we can all analyze the myths through this lens, and we all ought to engage in such critical study of our lore. When we forget to check our own assumptions we may easily miss telling clues about the beliefs of pre-Christian peoples such as the gods’ distinctly human characteristics, something which is common in polytheistic mythologies and belief systems. They struggle with themselves and with each other. They make mistakes which they must then correct. This certainly would have led to people of the time having a different relationship to their gods than people in religious traditions sporting one all-knowing and all-powerful god. Rather than dismiss this interesting detail because it does not correspond to more modern concepts of how people do and should relate to the divine, it is far better to note the distinct possibility that the people of pre-Christian Scandinavia may well have a relationship with their gods which included an ability to laugh at them and perhaps take and teach lessons through the stories told about their gods.

 

(1) Kristjánsson, Jónas. Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature. Trans. Peter Foote. Hið íslenksa bókmenntafélag: Reykjavík, 1988. Pp 38

(2) Nordstrom History of Sweden. Pp 22

(3) Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. Penguin Books: London, 1998. Pg 148.

(4) The Prose Edda. Tr. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. 1916.

(5) Kristjánsson. pp 43

(6) The Poetic Edda. Trans. Henry Adam Bellows. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 1936.

(7) Kristjánsson. pp 39

Christian Bias in the Surviving Lore 1

I’ve touched on the fact that the surviving lore is heavily influenced by Christian forces that had already began to shape the Nordic world and the world at large by the time the lore was recorded. There is much to be said on this topic, but it is worth acknowledging first and foremost that many if not most of those practicing Rökkatru were raised in a dominantly Judeo-Christian culture. Much of the “western” world (read: Europe and the Americas) have been heavily shaped by Christian imperialism, be that Protestant or Catholic (or both at different points in history).

However much many American and European pagans seek to distance themselves from their own Christian pasts and the Christian legacy of their national identities, it is not possible for anyone to completely divorce themselves from the effects of the culture that they were raised and socialized in. It is for this reason that many neopagan practices mirror Christian and Catholic practices, especially with regards to theologies hinging on the idea of “good” and “evil.”

It is worth noting that there is nothing inherently wrong in having been subject to this influence—again, we all have to some extent. Just as it is impossible to grow up in an inherently white supremacist culture without internalizing some degree of racial bias, so it is similarly impossible to grow up in a culture so shaped by Christian theology and not internalize that values system to some degree. The best anyone can do is educate themselves about those influences and reflect on the way those cultural and societal pressures are effecting their own patterns of thought, belief, and practice.

The purpose of the following sections is to provide some rudimentary historical education on the Christianization of the lore. With that educational basis it becomes a lot easier to reflect on the way these forces have shaped our own belief structures and worldviews, but that work (and whatever conclusions you come to in that process) will be yours alone.

Adam of Bremen

adam-of-bremen

There are two major players in the way Christianity shaped our knowledge of old Nordic religious beliefs and practices. I’m going to start with an analysis of the writings of Adam of Bremen, whose writings predate Snorri Sturluson’s by approximately 125 years. His are among the most important writings regarding the religion of the Vikings and includes an account of the temple in Uppsala written c. 1075 A.D.

In his famous description of the temple of Uppsala and the rituals that occurred there, Adam describes a temple which housed pagan idols where, every nine years, the kings of the land gathered to pay homage to the gods. All their people were to send gifts of offering and sacrifice. No one, he noted, was exempt from this duty.

During this time a sacrifice was made consisting of nine “of every living thing which is male…with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathens that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims.” He does, however, go on to relate how this information was passed on to him second hand, namely by “a Christian seventy-two years old” who had witnessed the sacrifice, a detail which reminds us that Adam of Bremen never himself witnessed these rituals or laid eyes upon the temple. Furthermore, we are made to understand that some portion of what was related back to him was not, in fact, preserved in his writings, as he states: “…the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” (1)

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Woodcutting print of the Temple at Uppsala from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus. Image based on Adam of Bremen’s descriptions.

Of course, by the time of Adam of Bremen’s writing, Christianity had a solid presence in Scandinavia. In fact, a great number of the stories he writes in regards to paganism in Scandinavia are stories about Christians fighting the evils of paganism either by attempting to convert the people, destroying idols and places of worship, or simply plotting to do so. It is reasonable to assume that “the temple, priests and statues may all have been influenced by Christian worship, for they are not known from earlier sources” (2) and evidence of the existence of temples in pagan Scandinavia remains scant to nonexistent.

Nonetheless, aside from place-names, which can point us to cult places and locations where certain gods were popular among the locals, (3) we have little evidence outside of Adam of Bremen’s account about what religious ceremonies and rituals in the Viking era looked like. This makes his account incredibly valuable though we must read it with approximately a quarter pound of salt because 1) Adam of Bremen never himself visited or laid eyes on the temple at Uppsala. His account is based on the stories of those who had. Furthermore, 2) his bias as a member of the Christian clergy undoubtedly colored his perception of these ceremonies and rituals and therefore colored his descriptions of them (as is evident where he chooses to omit details about the rituals).

What kinds of conclusions can we then draw from Adam of Bremen’s account? It seems reasonable to assume that the pagan religion of the people of Scandinavia was relatively malleable and capable of adaption if, as scholar Else Roesdahl suggests, the building of the temple and the incorporating of priests was the result of contact with Christianity. Likely because the pagan religion was a polytheistic one there was little perceived threat from the appearance of the Christian god, as the existence of this god and the fact that he was worshiped by these newcomers would not have drastically altered their view of the world in terms of religion and their own relationship to the divine—if there are a plethora of gods, after all, why should one more be so surprising?

From Adam of Bremen’s account we further know that the use of idols was practiced by the pagans of Scandinavia—something which can be corroborated by archaeological evidence—and that sacrifices of life and blood were performed in the presence of these idols to pay homage to the gods they represented. Archaeological evidence of various kinds of sacrifice in the pagan religion of Scandinavia has been found throughout the land, including the so-called “Bog People” in Denmark, which “appear to reveal…the presence of a religion devoted to fertility, in which humans were sacrificed to secure an abundant harvest.” (4) Though very little if any evidence has been found at Gamla Uppsala to support Adam of Bremen’s assertions of sacrifices which included humans, this cannot be discounted entirely given the incontrovertible evidence that human sacrifice was practiced elsewhere in pagan Scandinavia.

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One of the most famous of the “Bog Bodies” is known as Tollund Man. He is famous for the heightened degree of preservation, including preservation of his clothing and the noose around his neck.

In addition to offering up blood to the gods, we also know that practitioners offered up incantations to accompany their sacrifice, though once again what those incantations are must be relegated to the realm of theory, imagination, and possibly UPG/PVPG. Because of Adam of Bremen’s refusal to record them due to their “unseemly” nature, we know these incantations run counter to his own Christian faith. This doesn’t, however, tell us overly much as this could simply be a reflection of the unseemliness of the worship of “false gods” in his eyes, or it could allude to incantations relevant to fertility, and perhaps the sexuality inevitably involved in matters of fertility. Adam of Bremen could have chosen to exclude these “unseemly” incantations for any number of affronts to the Christian religion, and it is impossible to know which of Christianity’s laws were broken or in what way those laws were being broken in these incantations without having access to them.

Depictions on various rune stones together with Adam of Bremen’s account of the activities at the temple of Uppsala give us an idea of what religious practice may have looked like in Scandinavia both during the time of conversion and the time shortly preceding conversion. Aside from telling us that the people engaging in these practices believed that they could please the gods to achieve some worldly purpose, the practices themselves don’t shed much light on the beliefs. To learn more about the beliefs themselves, we will turn in the next post to records of the myths of pagan Scandinavia, the most important of which being Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century The Prose Edda (5) along with the works upon which Sturluson based his Edda. These are the most known and most heavily relied upon sources for the majority of modern heathen practitioners, so stay tuned for a close reading of them.

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(1) Adam of Bremen. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Trans. Francis J. Tschan. Columbia University Press: New York. 2002. Pps 207-208.

(2) Roesdahl. pp 152

(3) Roesdahl, pp 18

(4) Nordstrom. Pp 9

(5) Roesdahl. Pp 148

Odin, Loki, and Elohim

I have a friend who came back into my life recently and approached me asking for advice on how to connect to the divine. Like most people in the United States, he was raised with a Christian worldview. Unlike most Christians, however, he told me that he had gotten in several arguments with other Christians about the evidence of multiplicity and plurality within the Bible. He also told me that he had never managed to really connect with the Divine because of the skepticism he has always held towards religion in a general sense.

That conversation led to introducing him to a Christian friend who does ritual work with Elohim and many angels. She did a ritual that my friend attended and he met Michael through that ritual, and he has been able to connect to the Divine ever since. He has also started to learn more about energy work and magic, and it seems that he has been called to the path of the mage. He may eventually become a Christian high magician.

Throughout all of this, I saw Loki’s touch on my life because the work that I do for Loki often consists of helping people and the gods connect to each other. I don’t always help Loki and those meant to walk his path connect with each other – it is often other gods. I’m not entirely sure why I am called to connect gods with their intended devotees, but I have no problem doing the work. Some of my greatest joy in life comes from seeing someone connect deeply with the Divine, no matter who the gods are that they form a connection with. There is something indescribably beautiful about seeing gods and their devotees come together.

To be honest, though, I found the whole series of events a little frustrating because while my friend was able to connect to Michael and Elohim, he was having trouble conceptualizing the other gods as being just as real as Elohim. He told me that because he hadn’t experienced them as real, he couldn’t really conceptualize them in the same way. I personally found that frustrating because I understood that him coming to me about wanting to connect to the Divine came from my gods pushing me to help someone connect to the Divine.

Interestingly enough, Odin helped with that. I did a midsummer ritual to Odin the other night to reaffirm my oath to him. My two Christian friends, ironically, were the only ones there to witness the oath. The night after that, both of them came over to discuss the ritual they had done and to continue with energy work lessons. When he was centered, I had him just open himself up to feel the energy in the apartment. At first, his immediate reaction was “I feel negative energy.” And then he caught himself and said, “No. Not negative. Foreign. Unfamiliar.”

Then Odin stepped forward and asked for a drink. And Loki stepped forward and asked for chocolate. I provided the drink and chocolate – the intent wasn’t to try and get him working with Norse gods! – and I basically got confirmation through his experience that Odin had heard and accepted the reaffirmation of my oath to him. I was kind of amused at Odin’s attempt to get my friend to give him an offering (that did NOT happen; I poured out the offering myself) and found myself reminded that Odin is just as much (if not more so) a trickster than Loki himself.

For me, it was just evidence that the Gods do what they need to do to connect to the devotees they choose. Odin and Loki made themselves known to a Christian practitioner to demonstrate to him that they are just as real as Elohim, and the politics of the Gods are not the politics of humans.

Body Positivity And The Gods

We’ve probably all heard the expression “So-and-so has the body of a god”. But with so many traditions and pantheons full of deities what does that mean and why does it matter? This is my take, one that has helped bring me comfort in the face of an increasingly harsh, shallow society.

Most people in the Western World are familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. At least in terms of Their names and how They are depicted. Male gods shown with muscled frames, defined abs and legs that appear to be carved from steel. Goddesses have a bit more body diversity but still tend to conform to a certain “ideal” type.

This is what most people have in mind when they think about what gods “look like”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t a slam or argument against any particular depiction of deity but rather an appeal to explore others.

Modern artwork showing deities is often characterized by this concept that all gods are muscle bound and all goddesses are slender with big breasts and tiny waists. I remember coming across a lovely work of photo art from a modern Hellenic temple showing the smith god Hephaestus as a slightly heavyset man. The comments on the work were extremely disheartening. “Gods are supposed to look perfect!” “He wouldn’t be able to do His job like that!”

One commenter explained in detail that he was unable to connect with deities not depicted as “physically perfect”. I remember being completely taken aback not only by people’s complete disregard for the fact that the model was an actual human being but also the association between a specific body type and “perfect”. Perfect by who’s terms? Are you saying that despite His noticeably strong muscles He wouldn’t be able to perform His work because His stomach isn’t flat? Absolute absurdity.

“Physical perfection” is a demonstrably artificial concept anyone. Perfect for what? A sprinter isn’t built like a football player, a strongman doesn’t have the body of a swimmer, etc. Outside of our shallow, image obsessed media it has no actual definition. We have been collectively trained to strive for a “perfection” that simply doesn’t exist so that companies can sell more products.

Cultures across the world have carved, drawn and imagined their gods in a wide variety of different ways. The Egyptian god Hapi is shown with a large chest and big belly, representing His associations with abundance.

Another god Bes, (also Egyptian) is envisioned as short and plump. Despite these features (which would be labeled as “flaws” by our modern society) Bes was beloved in ancient times an in the modern day by Kemetics.

Fertility and mother goddesses the world over are given the image of a curved woman with a large, round body emphasizing Their creative powers. These ample goddesses are beloved and venerated in nearly every tradition. Their images adorn jewelry, altars, artwork and books.

Another much loved god Who doesn’t match the image of a deity so many have in their head is Hotei, Japanese (as well as Chinese) god of happiness and contentment. His image can be found not only in temples but also outside of bars and restaurants, of which He is considered the patron god.

Yet another of the “Seven Lucky Gods” of Japan can be included here. Ebisu, patron god of fishermen, luck and wealth. Ebisu is described as a “full-figured” man dressed as a fisherman. To this day He plays an important role in Japanese culture, appearing in many mediums.

One of the most popularly worshiped Hindu gods of all time is Ganesh or Ganesha. Considered by some branches of the Hindu faith to be the Supreme Being, Ganesha is shown in images as an elephant headed man, sometimes with multiple arms and a large protruding stomach. Depending on the tradition this can represent everything from satisfaction to the infinite number of worlds existing within Him.

These aren’t the only body types that are left out when we view gods through the lense of modern ideas of “physical perfection”. As I don’t have infinite room here however I’ll have to discuss them next time!

What does all of this mean thing? It means that the images we create of our gods reflects ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with buff gods but there is also nothing wrong with heavyset or even fat ones either. People aren’t meant to look alike or have the same builds and neither are our gods.

Rise the Wind and Rise the Waves: An Ego-Sacrifice Ritual for Jörmungandr

Note: the following is a person story about my efforts to de-center myself during a time when we all need to prioritizing community. It’s an account I share in the hopes that it might be meaningful and helpful for others who are similarly realizing that they need to engage in a sort of “ego death” to better de-center themselves and prioritize community and movements that aren’t about them, but which they can support. I don’t discuss it explicitly but this is also a story about me beginning a path toward healing from recent traumas and mental health problems. It’s not going to be perfect, and I understand that. I only hope that it might be valuable to other imperfect practitioners seeking to improve in deeply personal ways.

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This holiday post is a little bit different. For many of us time has ceased to have meaning during quarantine, and I’m no exception. If you’re interested in my take on how to celebrate Litha in a way catered to Rökkatru, check out last year’s post. Today, I want to tell you about my inadvertent solstice ritual for myself, for Jörmungandr, and for the world at large.

If you haven’t noticed, the world is in a bit of a state these days. I’ve seen and heard many Rökkatru and Lokeans discussing what they’ve been experiencing on a spiritual level, and it’s interesting to say the least. While there are communities in Africa practicing traditional religious rituals to curse American police and witches and pagans from all over America joined to do spells in support of #BlackLivesMatter (that were additionally supported by Christian prayers, nonetheless) many who work with the Norse gods are reporting a certain rumbling.

I’ve recently seen an uptick in people seeing a lot of activity from Loki and his kind in recent meditations and divinations. I recall seeing at least one person getting the distinct impression that Loki was well at work—and that the entire pantheon was behind him. It only makes sense that the Breaker of Worlds would have a hand not only in a pandemic that had shaken the entire world to its core and in the process us unveiled many ugly truths about our societies, but also in a simultaneous uprising that has laid bare a deep vein of corruption and oppression in a particularly potent system of power. This has been laid so bare that #BlackLivesMatter protests have been staged across the globe.

Now is a time for endings. Now is a time for beginnings.

It occurred to me recently that my own ego was getting in my way, preventing me from more effectively supporting the cause from the sidelines, where I’m stuck due to COVID-19 and close friends and chosen family who are immunocompromised or have loved ones who are. I had to prioritize my community and my ego was throwing a hissy fit about it.

I’m not sure why it struck me then that Jörmungandr could help me with this, but that notion struck me hard and felt right.

Gosforth_fishing

I’ve not worked with Jörmungandr much, though not for lack of trying. Jörmungandr is a deity of the liminal. The concept of the ego is itself a bit of a wishy-washy thing, certainly much more in the realm of the mind and psyche than anything solid and tangible. This made sense to me—and if I wanted to shed my ego like a snake sheds its skin, then it made additional sense that it was the Midgard Serpent that I should petition.

The ritual itself was, fittingly, rather nebulous in my mind. I would go to a body of water, for greater connection with Jörmungandr, and I would enter the cold waves as a minor ordeal. I would cut off my hair—which I’ve been growing out for years and which I had a certain amount of pride in—as a physical symbol of the ego I would be sacrificing to the Great Serpent. I might try to sing, might chant, but I did not know what words.

From the day that I decided to do the ritual, I counted out nine days of preparation for the ritual, which largely took the form of working on undoing energetic blockages associated with recent trauma and mental health problems. That put me at the 21st of June—the summer solstice, though again I didn’t realize that until the day of. Additionally it ended up being the first day of my menstruation, which I wasn’t particularly stoked about but which lent an additional, um….flavor? to the ritual.

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I went to an inlet connected to the ocean. I stripped down to my underwear and walked into the water. It was late morning and the sky was overcast. The water was biting cold, and I immediately began to shake and shiver as I began casting my circle, calling on Jord of Earth, Hati and Skoll of Air, Surtr of Fire, and Ran, Aegir, and their Nine Daughters of the Sea. At last I faced west and knelt in the water and called on Jörmungandr.

“Let my blood call out to you

Great Serpent, the Circumscriber of the Seas

Let my blood call out to you as it calls to all hungry

Watery beasts.

Come find me Jörmungandr of magick and liminal spaces

Where the sea meets the soil.”

For all my attempts to sing these words, my voice was shaking and my teeth chattering as the cold settled into my flesh. My voice was weak but I gave it a try, having been told that Jörmungandr is quite fond of singing.

“Come to me you who encompass Midgard

You whose hide is emblazoned with

The constellations of the Milky Way.

Come find my sacrifice, Jörmungandr

And may it please you well.”

Putting the scissors to my hair, pulled into pigtails for the occasion, and I began to cut.

“Let me shed my ego

Like the serpent sheds its skin.

Come take this ego as offering ad sacrifice

Consume this ego and all its pride and self indulgence

Feast on this sacrifice, Jörmungandr, and feast well.”

I pinned the locks between my knee and took the scissors to the remain pigtail.

“As the snake sheds its skin

So I shed my ego.

As I shed my ego

So let this world shed all its old fetters

Of cruelty, of fear, and hatred;

Of tyranny and terror and oppression.

Let the world shed that heinous skin

And be born anew of all its cold viscera.”

While I spoke, my eyes closed and my face turned out across the water, I felt the waves rise around me. They rocked me, my whole body moving back and forth under the gentle force of their push and their pull. Along with the waves, the wind rose as well. A tree leaned out over the water beside me, and I could hear the wind whispering through the leaves just as I could feel it stirring my now cut-loose hair. For most of the ritual I was too enraptured by the cold of the water to get a good spiritual sense for what was happening around me, but in this moment I felt a great swell within me as I felt the swell of the water around me. I felt and heard my voice becoming strong, commanding, and forceful as the scissors snipped through my hair.

With my hair cut, I dug into the silt and rocks beneath the waves. “Take this sacrifice Jörmungandr,” I half prayed and half pleaded as I pressed the locks into the bottom of the hole and began to cover them with rocks and silt. “Take this sacrifice and take this ordeal—may it please you well Jörmungandr, and I plead you hear our words.”

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It struck me then that I wasn’t quite done. My hair was cut, my sacrifice was made, but something felt incomplete about the ordeal (however minor). Another swell rose up in my chest—an impulse or impression. It felt right to do, and so I dunked myself and my freshly cut hair beneath the cold waves, feeling the shock roll through my body from the top of my head and down my spine. I dunked myself nine times over my buried sacrifice in the waves that were beginning to calm.

After the ninth dunk I stood shakily up. Shivering, I put my hands together and began to thank Jörmungandr and bless their name before bidding them farewell. I thanked Ran, Aegir, and their Nine Daughters, Surtr, Hati and Skoll, and Jord for baring witness to my sacrifice, and bid them all farewell.

When I scrambled out of the water, shaking and covered in goosebumps to where my fiancee was waiting with a towel, I did feel lighter. It had been a sort of catharsis, leaving me less burdened with my own nonsense. More clear of vision, and ready to keep showing up for the fight—however I can, in whatever capacity best serves the community, regardless of my own ego or preferences.

The Lion, Great of Strength

The Netjeru. Deities of Ancient Egypt–or as it was known by the people of the time, Kemet (from whence the modern religious term Kemeticism is derived). This pantheon was numerous and rather fluid, with multiple myths depicting the same event and different religious cults coming to power or being brought into Egypt from foreign cultures.

Today, I’d like to share one of the many deities whose cult arose from the long-lived Ancient Egyptian culture: a protective spirit whose worship enjoyed its rise in the Late Period (usually designated as being from the 600s or 500s BC to the early 330s BC). He would continue to be a popular god into the Ptolemaic period (Greek rule over Egypt) and even the Roman period (Roman rule over Egypt). Throughout these times and cultural shifts, he was understood as a particularly accessible god, venerated by the common people and featured on amulets.

Meet Tutu. (Known to the Greeks as Tithoes.)


                   God Tutu as a Sphinx, 1st century C.E. or later. Limestone, pigment, 14 1/4 x 5 1/16 x 16 11/16 in. (36.2 x 12.8 x 42.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1509E. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, CUR.37.1509E_view1_divinefelines_2013.jpg)
Limestone, 1st c. CE or later (Brooklyn Museum)

Tutu is most often depicted as an Egyptian sphinx–he has a human head wearing a nemes, a leonine body, and a snake as a tail. He is often depicting trodding down dangerous animals, such as the snakes depicted in the above statue or the scorpions in the stela below, or walking over arrows, depicting dangers such as the Seven Arrows of Sekhmet that cause illness. As “He Who Keeps Enemies at a Distance”, Tutu is believed to hold sway over malevolent spirits and has the ability to protect his devotees from danger. A mighty son of the goddess Nit (spelled Neith by the Greeks), he is also especially petitioned to protect a person while they sleep, fending off nightmares.

Certain of Tutu’s epithets, such as “Who Comes to the One Calling Him”, showcase his perceived accessibility by the Ancient Egyptian people; this availability has often been interpreted as the reason for the unusual choice in many ancient reliefs to show him with his face frontwards, fully looking towards the viewer.

Limestone, circa 332-330 BCE

So what does all this mean for the modern Kemetic devotee? In my religious practice, Tutu currently dwells on my Kemetic altar alongside my other Netjeru in the form of a sphinx statue, which I’ve adorned with a necklace I made of glass, carnelian, and lapis lazuli beads. Personally, I have found him to not only be as approachable as his reputation suggests, but also to be particularly calm and collected in his demeanor, to a reassuring effect. He always seems to know when there’s a problem, before you tell him anything, and is ready to listen and offer advice or assistance.

Tutu can still be invoked as a powerful personal protector. Petition him if you suffer from nightmares; keep a small altar to him in your bedroom, and offer him cool water before going to sleep. Buy a sphinx charm and cense it with frankincense, then wear it as part of your daily jewelry for protection during the day. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Tutu can be a wonderful addition to a personal spiritual practice, as he has the power to keep spirits of illness at bay.

My Protection Prayer to Tutu:
“Fierce Tutu, Great of Strength, He Who Keeps Enemies at a Distance, I offer You henu as I ask Your protection. Son of Nit, guard me from any malevolent manifestations, be they netjeru or netjeri. Master of the Demons of Sekhmet and the Wandering Demons of Bast, protector of the people, in You I trust, and to You I give thanks. As it was in Your temple in ancient Kellis, so may it be now as I honor You here, as You are victorious in all places You go and all evil flees before You. Where I walk, You walk with me, and I am protected. Dua Tutu! Nekhtet!”

*henu: ritual gestures used in Kemeticism to honor the Netjeru; the simple henu to offer praise is done with arms extended forwards, then bent upwards at a 90 degree angle at the elbow, with hands open and palms facing forwards.
*netjeru (malevolent manifestations): illness-causing spirits, such as the Arrows of Sekhmet, can be interpreted as a manifestation of the goddess herself or her messengers; they are included in the dangerous energies that Tutu protects from.
*netjeri (malevolent): non-divine spirits, against whom Tutu guards.
*Kellis: the ancient town with the only known temple to which its main dedication and function was Tutu’s worship.
*“Dua Tutu! Nekhtet!”: a modern rendering of Ancient Egyptian words that may be generally understood as meaning “Praise Tutu! Victory!”

Netjeri: The Divine Spirits

We just love “Net” words in Kemeticism.


For the average ancient Egyptian the world was filled with gods and spirits. Spiritual entities and creatures lived alongside the physical world and could be interacted with.

These creatures were often considered spiritual manifestations of physical phenomenon with medical treatments combining medicine with prayers and rituals aimed at influencing these creatures.

Amulets were worn to encourage protection of the person by the gods but also by these spirits. Or to keep them away entirely. Some of these beings are identified as serving specific deities while others do not.

Accounts of the ancient Egyptian underworld also populate it with a vast array of different spirit beings and creatures. While they seem to be less popular subjects in modern media Egyptian religion and mythology is not far behind that of the Greeks in terms of exotic, amazing mythological beings.

Such spirits include Sha beasts, Bennu birds (Phoenixes), griffins, sphinxes, serpopards, stas and more. The Sha is a sleek canine with large, square ears, a forked tail and long snout.

The Bennu is a heronlike bird with connections to the Phoenix myth. Serpopards are beings with the body of a leopard and the long neck and head of a snake. Finally, Stas are described as having the head and neck of an asp (a venomous snake) and a large, catlike body.

So we know these spirits were considered important in ancient times but what about nowadays? Working with various spiritual entities is common in many religious and/or spiritual traditions. In the Kemetic Orthodox tradition the name netjeri is given to any and all nonhuman, non god spirits.

Because the ancient Egyptians would often incorporate aspects of other religions into their own faith many modern Kemetics have no issue calling upon spirits from other cultures (angels and fae are common examples) in addition to traditional Kemetic spirits.

Certain gods such as Sekhmet (though certainly not limited to Her) are known to have spirits who serve as emissaries. These emissaries are often referred to as Arrows or as members of a deity’s retinue. It’s highly likely that all Netjeru have these emissaries in Their service.

Pysanky and Egg Healing

Image From: kinderart.com

This post is extremely belated, but the environment we are currently living in has made it difficult to keep up with a lot of things for many of us, and induced a lot of stress. Now, I hope many of you have been able to take some time to rest and recoup. But, regardless of if you have, or haven’t, I really wanted to add to the healing process. Which is why I wanted to talk about a wonderful Slavic shamanic practice—egg healing.

Egg healing is a huge part Slavic shamanism, which is a “branch” of shamanism that puts heavy emphasis on healing. Now, while it’s hard to find a lot of information on a lot of Slavic traditions, egg healing is more widely known, as it’s extended its reach into other practices. That’s not to say it’s easy to find proper information on it, though. Even when you can find someone well versed in Slavic shamanism (a Znakharka, or healer), there still tends to be an air of mystery they maintain around their techniques. But there are indeed some basics out there that make this something you can practice yourself and on others when you need a bit of cleansing.

Traditionally, Shamans will instill within decorated eggs (called pysanky) blessings, healing powers, and protection charms. The egg will then be used in these healing ceremonies or as a talisman. Sometimes the eggs are rolled over the body and used to pull out fears and other dark energies from within the body.

For a bit more detail on why egg healing is so powerful, I think Itzhak Beery puts it best when he says: “Eggs are excellent tools for healing…[t]he egg absorbs energy though the seven thousand pores of its mostly calcium shell…[a]ll life begins with an egg. Bird eggs are the largest single living cells in nature and are a metaphor for the universal life structure” (Shamanic Healing: Traditional Medicine for the Modern World). In short, the egg is the perfect symbol to represent the life force that started us all, and, because of its physical structure, it becomes an absorbent force for different energies.

One problem that one might run into when wanting to do egg healing is that, traditionally, a fertilized egg with life forming inside it is use, as that egg is actively absorbing energy to keep that life alive. But this doesn’t mean you can’t use regular eggs to perform a healing—like I think in any practice, it’s the process and intention that matters the most.

These eggs also aren’t just used to help the body. They’re used to protect one’s home and family as well. Pysanky are truly powerful and full of magic, and there is so much more that can be said about them, their meaning, how they’re used, and even how they’re decorated. However, there is just too much to dig into for one blog post.

This divine feminine symbol has layers upon layers that can be unpacked, and maybe I’ll write more about them in the future. For now though, I’ll leave you with this to say: If you’re in need of some healing, I hope I have opened you up to looking deeper into the amazing power of egg healing.

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Works Referenced:

Beery, Itzhak. Shamanic Healing: Traditional Medicine for the Modern World. Destiny Books, 2017.

Lynn, Christa. “Slavic Shamanism – Egg Healing Ceremony (Pysanky).” Shamanic Spirit, Shamanic Spirit, 6 Aug. 2013, http://www.shamanicspirit.ca/blog/articles/slavic-shamanism-egg-healing-ceremony-pysanky.

“Springs Rebirth: Slavic and Balkan Pysanka.” Elder Mountain Dreaming, eldermountaindreaming.com/2018/03/18/springs-rebirth-slavic-and-balkan-pysanka/.