A Ritual for Surtr

Surtr is a fire giant who, in Voluspa 47, is described as passing from one world to another through Yggdrasil, functioning as a portal, which “shudders” as he passes. Attested again in the Lay of Fafnir 14. In Voluspa, Surtr is described as “moving from the south,” which indicates an alignment or association with the direction south. His name means “black” or “the swarthy one.” He is attested again in Vafþrúðnismál in which Odin and a jötunn named Vafþrúðnir question one another. They refer to Ragnarok, mentioning Surtr’s fire and part in the battle. It is in the Prose Edda that Surtr is associated with Muspelheim, being described in a manner which suggests he is the region’s defender. Surtr and Freyr are slated to meet in battle at Ragnarok, and to slay one another. Of note: Snorri’s descriptions have been criticized as bearing more similarity to the anti-semtic “Red Jews” motif than to the Voluspa source material,1 so (as is always the case with Snorri) it’s wise to take his rendering with a heaping scoop of salt, if you feel the need to take it into consideration at all.

The Giant with the Flaming Sword (1909) by John Charles Dollman

It is generally agreed by both scholars and practitioners that Surtr is a personification of fire. Surtr appears, however, to be specifically associated with volcanic fire, and there’s actually a placename associated with Surtr that demonstrates this. There is a volcanic cave in western Iceland which has long been called Surtshellir, having been recorded as such in a book which details the settlement of Iceland called Landnámabók, though it was only thoroughly documented in the 18th century.2 Place names are often indicators of locations of cultic activity. Though there doesn’t appear to be a plethora of evidence that this site was a site of cultic worship for Surtr, and it is worth noting that Christianity came to Iceland only about a hundred years after it was settled, it is interesting to note that there is a lot of superstition still attached to Surtshellir. Many locals believe that the cave is haunted, and legend says Surtr used to call this cave his home, and perhaps either created or caused the creation of the cave. Scholar Rudolph Simek has stated that he doesn’t believe the idea of Surtr as an enemy of the gods originated in Iceland, but rather that Surtr was simply a personification of volcanic fire.3 I’m not going to make any bold statements here, but this all is quite intriguing, and I for one wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Surtr was honored here in some capacity in the past—even if that capacity was offerings of sheep or goats with a plea to not destroy local villages.

The battle between Surtr and Freyr at Ragnarök, illustration (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

Less relevant to our purposes but still of interest are modern place names. A volcanic island that appeared in 1963 was named Surtsey, or “Surt’s Island,” while one of Saturn’s moons is named for him and a volcano on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, is named for him as well. Even more delightful is a planet named for him which orbits a star named Muspelheim. Like I said, less relevant, but very fun!

Appropriate offerings for Surtr would include the basic safe options such as mead, beer, and wine, but could also include candles dedicated to him (especially red, orange, yellow, or white candles); matches could be offered to him, so that each strike of a match is in Surtr’s honor; or volcanic stones could be offerings to him, such as obsidian or pumice. If you, like me, just so happen to have easy access to raw coal, offering a chunk of this might also be a decent offering. When it comes to offerings, I encourage you to get creative but don’t push yourself beyond your means or feel bad if you’re limited in what you can offer. The best that you can offer is the best offering, no matter what it is.

Though I have a preference for performing rituals outdoors, performing them indoors is also great! Wherever you perform your ritual—this or any other ritual—you’ll want to ensure that you’re unlikely to be disturbed and will be relatively comfortable, so you can focus on the working at hand.

Once you’ve selected your offering and location and are ready to proceed, prepare your ritual space in whatever way is most appropriate to your practice/works best for you.

When your space is prepared, take some time to center. I like to center using mindfulness of my body and my environment—tuning in to my senses, what I can hear, what I can feel, what I can smell, etc. Focusing on the stimulus input from the environment brings me solidly into myself, into my environment, and into the moment. Once you’ve selected your offering, your location, have prepared your ritual space, and are ready to do so, say:

“Hail Surtr, the Charred

Hail Surtr, Overseer of Underworld Fires

Hail Surtr, the Swarthy One

Hail Surtr, Who Will Meet Freyr in Battle

Hail Surtr, Yggdrasil-Shaker

Hail Surtr, Flame-Blade Wielder

Hail Surtr, Freyr’s Doom

Hail Surtr, Herald of Fire

Hail Surtr, Muspelheim’s Defender…

“I call on you Surtr to receive my reverence and this offering of _______, which I bring to honor you. I pray it pleases you well.”

If you have a specific intention in this ritual besides simply honoring Surtr, you may state that now. My intention (as an example) was: “I call on you Surtr in gratitude for the furious power of fire lent to me in workings past. I call on you Surtr to humbly acknowledge that you’ve been with me before, and to ask that you continue to be with me in future workings. In gratitude and with due reverence/respect, I bring you this ________ in return for your assistance.”

In addition to this, I personally took a moment to offer specific gratitude for the creative power of fire in the form of magma. This particular force of nature is often only acknowledged for its power to burn forests and destroy cities, and sometimes for its cleansing power. Much of the dry earth on which we stand, though, is literally a result of magma activity beneath our feet: the movement of the mantle deep down below moves continental plates, grinding them into each other in ways that can uplift land, making it habitable, or recycle it down back into the mantle. Volcanic hotspots are responsible for the creation of islands such as the one in Iceland, and in the long-run these can also provide habitable ground. Gratitude for this might look like:

“Lastly, I wish to offer my endless gratitude, Surtr, for the movement of the continents that has created the land on which I live. I offer my humble gratitude for your creative forces, Surtr, which makes new land. I thank you, Surtr, for your long-term vision, and for the careful balance between destruction and creation you hold on the flaming blade of your sword.”

As you are preparing to bring the ritual to a close, hail Surtr one last time before bidding him farewell:

“Hail Surtr Who Has Heard My Call!

Hail Surtr Who Has Received My Offerings!

Hail Surtr of Magma and Lava!”

When you are done, properly dispose of your offerings in whatever way is most appropriate for you and your practice (though, as always, if you live in America I discourage the pouring of alcoholic libations directly onto the earth, for reasons previously outlined). If this must be done outside of the ritual circle, then simply bow your head to the earth, placing your palms down on the ground. Ground out any energy you may have raised in the course of this ritual as a final offering. I almost always use this moment to bid farewell to the entity I’m honoring in ritual, usually saying something like, “Thank you Surtr for being with me. With love and with gratitude, I bid you farewell as you go.” Something very simple but respectful and from the heart.

Lastly it is time to close the ritual and clear the space, in whatever way best suits you and your practice. As always, I strongly recommend taking some time after to hydrate, snack, and journal about the experience.

1Cole, Richard. “Snorri and the Jews”. Old Norse Mythology – Comparative Perspectives.

2Browne, George Forrest (1865). Ice-caves of France and Switzerland. Longmans, Green and co. pp. 244–6.

3Simek, Rudolf (2007). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer. p. 303-304.

The Values of Rökkatru: Part 2

Before I get too far into this, check it out! I did an interview on Rökkatru for Talking My Path by Rebecca Buchanan, who happens to have been the first person to have ever given me a shot at this publication thing. Pretty neat!

Now, to get back to it! In my last post on the values of Rökkatru, I introduced some of the values as embodied by the gods and interpretations of them and their stories. I’ll do the same here, but without the preamble — let’s jump right in.

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My vision of Sigyn

 

Sigyn is best known for being the wife of Loki and the mother of his children Narvi (also rendered “Narfi”) and Vali. She lost her sons when one was turned into a wolf to kill the other. After, she stayed by her imprisoned husband’s side, holding a simple bowl above his head to capture the venom that dripped from a snake tied above him.

This minimal suriving lore leads to the most common interpretation of Sigyn as being a goddess of loyalty and fidelty. As a result, Sigyn’s value or lesson is most often attributed as loyalty, and is expanded upon to highlight the importance of standing by those you love when they are cast out or pushed out.

However, other scraps of lost lore, such as the meaning of her name (alternately interpreted as “victory woman” or “friend of victory”) and the kenning “Incantation Fetter,” we can clearly see that there was so much more to this goddess than has survived into the modern era. Looking to kennings she has received from modern practicioners, including such names as “Balm for the Broken,” “Safe Harbor for the Heart,” and “Lady of Unyielding Gentleness,” we can see a very common theme of how she is understood among her adherents. According to the UPG/PVPG of many in the Rökkatru community, Sigyn offers en encompassing comfort to those who have been wounded and/or ostracized. For this reason I would propose that she additionally embodies the values of compassion and empathy.

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Surt is a fire jötunn from Muspelheim, who is fated to kill Freyr during Ragnarok. The historian Rudolf Simek has proposed that Surt is an embodiment of eruptive volcanic force, something which doevtails well with the interpretation of the jötnar as nature spirits as well with the fact that Eddas were written in Iceland, which hosts quite a lot of volcanic activity.

Surt is yet another for whom not much has been recorded, but according to Gylfaginning, Vafþrúðnismál, and Völuspá, Surt will lay waste to the earth with a flaming sword before the whole mess is swallowed by the sea. For this reason he has also been associated in the Rökkatru community with wildfires.

Volcanoes, wildfires, and the spirit of fire generally is nothing if not overbearingly intense. Surt’s actions in Ragnarok certainly mirror this intensity, and it is for this reason that the value attributed to him is simply that of intensity—pouring your whole heart and soul into what you are doing, and never half-assing a thing.

 

Jord is a jötunn woman who embodies the earth. She is the mother of Thor and is referred to in Gylfaginning as the daughter of Nótt and Anarr. Because she plays no role in the myths and we have no surviving lore about her outside of these tiny scraps, some scholars think she likely wasn’t honored or considered literal and personified in her own right. Some scholars believe it is very unlikely that Jord was recipient of worship in the past, but more represented the general concept of the earth.

Nonetheless, this has not prevented modern practicioners from honoring her and learning from her. As the embodiment of the earth upon which we live, many Rökkatru have come to see her as representing the value of nature or the value of reverence for nature. For Rökkatru, many of whom are keenly in tune with the damage that humanity has done to the planet, this value is of the utmost importance in the age of climate change.

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Nidhogg is best known for being the dragon coiled among the roots of Yggdrasil, ever gnawing upon its roots. Though this is recounted in Grímnismál as a terrible evil suffered by Yggdrasil, along with the rotting of its trunk and eating of its leaves by a group of harts, it is often interupted more as form of therapuetic exfoliation by Rökkatru—in essence, Nidhogg is seen as that which consumes the dead substances which erode from the surface of the world tree.

In Völuspá Nidhogg is also noted as presiding over an underworld called Náströnd, but due to the nature of this underworld as being overtly concerned with moral reprecussion, especially for crimes such as adultry and falsehood, scholars have highlighted this as a possible Christian revision. Nonetheless, this has, in addition to the aforementioned interpretation of Nidhogg’s chewing on the roots of Yggdrasil, has contributed to Nidhogg’s value being understood as recycling.

I might pose a rephrasing of this value to better reflect the nature of Nidhogg in these interpretations of the dragon, and to accommodate our cultural understanding of the word “recycling.” Rather than recycling I might rather describe Nidhogg’s value as the value of decay. All things must decay, even stone which is eroded from mountain ranges into sand. Leaves which fall in autumn decay back into earth, returning nutrients to the soil and providing habitat for insects in the meantime. All creatures which die are consumed by bacteria, fungi, insects, and scavengers of all variteies. Entire ecosystems have decay at their foundation, and though it may not always be pretty to look at, it is important to remember its value.

 

Gerd is best known for being the jötunn wife of the Vanir god Freyr, and is often called the Lady of the Walled Garden. She’s only known from the story of Freyr’s pursuit of her, in which he sends his friend and servant Skírnir to woo Gerd on his behalf. Though she resists repeatedly, she eventually succumbs to Skírnir’s threats and agrees to marry Freyr.

Because Gerd eventually married Freyr, effectively making peace with him and by extension his people, her value has sometime been attributed as that of frithmaking, essentially the concept of making peace and “building bridges” rather than making war.

Based on the UPG/PVPG many have experienced with her, however, she may represent different values to different people. Somewhat ironically I’ve heard multiple women report having good luck seeking counsil and aid from Gerd with regards to stalkers and abusers. Many others associate her more strongly with the walled garden of her name than with the story of her marriage to Frey (myself being among them). Given this her values could just as easily be that of farming and permaculture, especially as a goddess associated with fertile soil (according to commonly accepted scholarly interpretations of the story of her marriage to Freyr) and through this potentially connected to Jord (community gardens and farms which focus on sustainability are one avenue for communities and individuals to address climate change). She could also easily embody the value of survival—sometimes frithmaking is less about building bridges and more about living to fight another day.

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Skadi is one goddess who not all Rökkatru agree upon. Because she is known for having made peace with the Æsir, marrying (and eventually divorcing) Njordr and taking up a hall in Asgard. It is often assumed that this means she has sided with the Æsir during Ragnarok, though this is not attested to in any surviving lore.

Some Rökkatru reject Skadi for these reasons, while others still accept her due to her jötunn nature. Nonetheless, she is still sometimes has the value of self reliance attributed to her as a Rökkatru value, and certainly this is something many in the community value deeply.

Self reliance is attrributed to Skadi as a value due to the nature of her story: when her father was killed by the Æsir she marched into Asgard to challenge them for the loss, taking control of the situation and her life in doing so, and winning a place for herself among the Æsir in the process, thereby exercising absolute autonomy over the direction of her life from thereon out.

Who are the Rökkr?

The easiest answer to the question “Who are the Rökkr?” is that they are a subgroup of jötnar that have been highlighted by devotees and practitioners as occupying a special or important role, particularly roles associated with the darker sides of the natural order (decay, death, chaos, etc.) So let’s start with the jötnar (singular: jötunn).

The jötnar are a class or delineation of entity in the Norse pantheon. They are often, though not always, described in strange and fantastical ways—sometimes monstrous and sometimes beautiful, but almost always primal. They are so frequently associated with primal energies and natural forces that many, including myself, believe they are a remnant of an older, animistic hunter-gatherer religion which arose in a pre-agricultural Scandinavia, much as the Titans of the Greek pantheon have been viewed.

There is some debate about whether or not the jötnar can be considered gods. A few are listed by Snorri Sturluson among the gods, but godhood according to Snorri’s Edda is almost exclusively reserved for the Æsir and Vanir. Notable exceptions to this are Skadi and Gerdr—both female jötnar who gained a place among the Æsir, and both scenarios involved marriage to Vanir who were already considered to be gods.

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Jötnar are most often called “giants” in English, but the word has also been translated at “trolls,” “etins,” and more. Painting by John Bauer.

The debate about what exactly constitutes a god is one that is quite a bit above my pay grade, but I do believe that there is sufficient evidence in comparing and contrasting Germanic mythological forms not only with the Greek but also with the myths of the Babylonians, Hittites, and Phoenicians (all of which preserve in their mythologies the existence of older, more primal gods being subverted by newer pantheons1) to believe that the jötnar are older, primal deities. The mythology we have inherited is fragmentary at best, having been collected into a written format only after Scandinavia had begun converting. The myths themselves often seem to refer to other stories which are entirely unknown. This doesn’t even take into account the sheer length of time people have occupied Scandinavia and the long evolution of the religious practices the first people in Scandinavia brought with them, as well as the co-mingling and evolution of religions brought by subsequent immigrants into the area. Given all of this, I tend to err on the side of believing that the jötnar were once gods, and that the passage of time and the erosion of their myths and legends doesn’t change that.

There are too many jötnar to list here, though I am in the process of compiling a list of jötnar mentioned in the Eddas and sagas as well as their associations and what is known about them. This list will be shared when it is completed in a post of its own, so hopefully it will suffice for now to say that there are many of them. They show up in the myths wearing many different shapes and forms, some more and some less human, and they show up with all variety of morality and motivation. As a group they seem largely amoral, something which fits in nicely with the interpretation of the jötnar as nature deities/spirits. Individual jötnar are known to behave in ways that are more antagonistic toward the Æsir while others, such as Gerdr and Skadi, actively make peaceful alliances with the Æsir.

Within the ranks of the jötnar are the Rökkr. Which deities do and do not fit into this list is up to interpretation, as Rökkr is not a sub-pantheon defined by the old myths in the same way that Vanir or Æsir are. Rökkr is a new delineation conceptualized by modern practitioners, and what precisely defines the boundaries of what makes an entity Rökkr or not is, as is much of Rökkatru, in flux due to its newness. Generally though, there are certain deities which are consistently named among the Rökkr:

  • Loki
  • Angrboda
  • Fenrir
  • Hel/Hela
  • Jörmungandr

Also frequently listed among the Rökkr are:

  • Sigyn
  • Surt
  • Nidhogg
  • Skadi
  • The Nine Sisters/Undines of the Sea
  • Rind

This is not an exhaustive list of which deities do and do not fit into the definition of Rökkr, but it is a starting place to begin getting to know what Rökkatru is all about. Each of these deities carries with them particular lessons and values that are important to Rökkatru and the communities that Rökkatru practitioners are developing. This is a list that we will look at more thoroughly later, and will very likely be expand on as well.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what the values of Rökkatru are.

Skål.

1 Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Revealing Antiquity). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1995. Print. Pgs 94-95.