(This is a repost from 2015)

Today marks the arrival of the first of the Yule-lads (IS jólasveinarnir); mischievous spirits who arrive one per day for the next twelve days, and each stays for exactly thirteen days, so on the 25th of December, they’re all present. They are the sons of the Icelandic trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and each has a specific attribute.

Of course, in modern times their hard edges have been smoothed over, and they’re seen as mostly-benevolent, Santa-like figures, but all the good wishes in the world won’t change the fundamental nature of a wight. They’re basically cautionary tales for children, as they would come out of the mountains and glaciers to frighten naughty children during the Yuletide.

Now that I’ve seen 

this story about a woman in Peoria who has the Yule Lads on her lawn as decorations

 (much like Christians might have a nativity), I want a set of my own for next year!

So today, watch out for Stekkjarstaur, and keep your sheep safe.

In a previous post, I made an offhand parenthetical remark mentioning a theory I had as to what happened to the Vanir in the mythology, which has garnered quite a few inquiries, so I thought I might take a minute or three to elaborate.

To set up the question; there are several races (perhaps clans or tribes is a better word) of gods in Germanic mythology. The Aesir are the gods known to be most friendly towards, and historically worshiped by, humanity, to include those beings that are brought into the Aesir through various means (marriage, blood-brotherhood, or the exchange of hostages). The other two groups most commonly thought of as being on a par with the Aesir are the Jotuns (giants) and the Vanir, whence came Njord, Freyr, and Freyja, who joined the Aesir at the conclusion of a great war fought between the Aesir and the Vanir, as part of an exchange of hostages to end the conflict*.

The trouble is, once the hostage exchange is complete, there is no more mention of the Vanir. They disappear from the narrative en masse, and no more mention of them of their home, Vanaheim, is to be found, even in the descriptions of the end of the world, Ragnarok.

So what happened to them?

I think there is a case to be made that the Vanir are indeed present in the mythology after the war. They are simply called the Alfar, or elves.

There is some circumstantial evidence to support the idea. First, we know that Norse poetics gave multiple names to individuals, groups, and even places as a matter of course; we see this not only in poetic kennings, but in straight-out naming, such as when Frigg is referred to as Hlin in Voluspa 53. Different names, it seems, were used either to meet the demands of poetic structure, or to emphasize a particular aspect of the thing being named. The many names of Odin, are of course famous and follow the same pattern.

As has been mentioned, the Vanir and Vanaheim are simply not mentioned in the sources after the Aesir-Vanir war, with one exception. Vafþrúðnir says that Njord will return to Vanaheim when the Ragnarok comes. Which, as we’ll see, doesn’t really harm the theory at all, although it does imply that the land of the Vanir survives the burning of Ragnarok. Possibly because it’s underground, like the elf-mounds? H.R. Ellis-Davidson would tend to agree (see below).

Some might say that the overall attributes of each group, connected with nature, is also suggestive. I don’t particularly concur (because I don’t like such reductive images of the gods), but I include it because I know some people do make those associations.

H.R. Ellis-Davidson makes the general point about a probable connection between the Vanir and the Alfar:

It is less clear where the Vanir dwelt, since the chief gods, Freyr and Njord with a number of others, are represented along with the Aesir in Asgard, but it seems probable that it was in the underworld. There is certainly a link between the Vanir and the land-spirits who dwelt in mounds and hills and in water, supernatural beings who befriended some of the early settlers in Iceland, and probably also between the Vanir and the Elves, who lived on in folk tradition as lesser beings. (The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, p. 70)

Rudolf Simek goes even farther, and claims that the classification of the Vanir as a separate clan of gods is an invention of Snorri at best.

But the most suggestive (to me, anyway) piece of evidence is given in the description of Freyr in Grimnismal 5: “The gods gave Freyr Alfheim as a tooth-gift.” The original Old Norse has it “Álfheim Frey gáfu tívar at tannfé.” Note the use of the word tívar for “gods” or “divinities” here, rather than Aesir or goðum. It is a more “generic” term, perhaps deliberately chosen to differentiate from the Aesir tribe of gods.

Who, then, would have the authority to give Alfheim to Freyr, and why would they do so? We know Freyr is the son of Njord, who was the leader of the Vanir. That would make Freyr his heir. And it would make perfect sense to give one’s heir the official title to one’s domain, to make the succession clear (or perhaps even symbolically abdicate him his favor).

One possible bit of evidence against this theory comes from Alvismal, where names for various objects (the sun, moon, etc.) are given for various homes and people, seven times a name is given for both the Alfar and the Vanir. But this does not, in and of itself, invalidate the idea, as Alvismal is a somewhat odd poem, there are overlaps in some other groups (mentioning the gods, the great gods, and the sons of the gods, for instance), and it’s not impossible that we’re seeing an example of different names based on the nature of the thing doing the naming. The warlike Vanir have certain names for things, and the more friendly (sort of) Alfar have different ones.

I don’t claim this is a certainty, by any means, but neither is it some vision-inspired UPG. It does solve a mythological puzzle, there is some suggestive evidence, and nothing directly contradicts it. So definitely keep it in the realm of speculation based on what little information we have, but hopefully more than just “Freyr told me this is true.”

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* One interesting anomaly in the story is that the Aesir and Vanir each sent two of their own to the other tribe. The Aesir sent Mimir and Hoenir, and the Vanir sent Njord and Freyr. Freyja is never actually mentioned as one of the hostages in the exchange, so how does she end up as one of the Aesir?

In the comments of my previous post, the question of the appropriateness of “divine revelation” and “visions from the Gods” came up. This is actually a subject I’ve been meaning to discuss for some time, so it seemed a perfect opportunity.

The commenter felt that such things led to “Leaders who cannot be questioned because their word is channeled from the gods”. In my own personal experience of Theodism, such is absolutely not the case. Indeed, although Garman Lord was the recipient of a well-known visitation which launched the Theodish movement as a whole, I’ve never heard it claimed that divine revelation was the source of loyalty to one’s king. As a matter of fact, Garman is quite dismissive of the Christian-inspired tradition of the “divine right of kings”.

But let’s broaden the conversation beyond Theodism.

Among Asatruar, there is a small tradition called “oracular seidh” (the inappropriateness of connecting the practice to traditional seiðr is a subject unto itself, but let’s set that aside for the moment). Practitioners of this art attend Asatru gatherings and will sometimes do public rituals, but the focus is almost entirely on the personal level.

Much like the famous example from the Saga of Erik the Red (whose details are quite possibly suspect, but once again that’s a topic for another post), such sessions deal with individuals asking personal questions, with little of import on a community level, let alone revelations that impact Heathenry as a whole, nations, or the world.

(I should at this point note that it’s entirely possible that such revelations have happened in the past, and I’ve just not heard of them. I can personally attest to have participated in a half-dozen or so oracular seidh sessions, and the results have always been as described.)

The devotional polytheist community also has a strong tradition of divine revelation; indeed, it’s pretty much their defining trait. It is the intense, personal, one-on-one relationship between a God or Gods and the individual (to the point of “god marriages” being a thing) that is at the heart of devotional polytheism.

That said, it should be no surprise that divination and divine revelations are very important in devotional polytheism. But I am similarly unaware of any prominent examples of such pronouncements being done at any but the personal level, and often then to the practitioner themselves.

There is, however, another perspective that needs to be brought into this, and that is the historical. In fact, there is a long tradition of prophetesses who have a huge impact on tribal decisions. Take this example from the Histories of Tacitus:

Munius Lupercus, legate of one of the legions, was sent along with other gifts to Veleda, a maiden of the tribe of the Bructeri, who possessed extensive dominion; for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germans and the destruction of the legions.

Munius Lupercus legatus legionis inter dona missus Veledae. ea virgo nationis Bructerae late imperitabat, vetere apud Germanos more, quo plerasque feminarum fatidicas et augescente superstitione arbitrantur deas. tuncque Veledae auctoritas adolevit; nam prosperas Germanis res et excidium legionum praedixerat.

They were not, however, allowed to approach or address Veleda herself. In order to inspire them with more respect they were prevented from seeing her. She dwelt in a lofty tower, and one of her relatives, chosen for the purpose, conveyed, like the messenger of a divinity, the questions and answers.

sed coram adire adloquique Veledam negatum: arcebantur aspectu quo venerationis plus inesset. ipsa edita in turre; delectus e propinquis consulta responsaque ut internuntius numinis portabat.

Here we have a clear historical example of a woman leader of a Germanic tribe (the Batavii), who ruled over them as a direct result of her prophetic powers. It’s important to note that Tacitus tells us that such was “attributed to many of their women”. There is some debate as to whether “Veleda” is a proper name or a title, but it’s really irrelevant to the point at hand. She was a prophetess who was granted command over the Germanic tribe by virtue of her direct contact with the Gods, proven by her successful prophecies.

There are other similar examples, but Veleda is the most striking. So where are our modern Veledas?

We seem replete with “little volva’s” who are content to provide personalized prophecy for a family or an individual, but where are our prophetesses or prophets who have insights from the Gods that we can trust to help Heathenry move forward?

The obvious answer is that it has become impossible to trust the prophetess in today’s climate, especially if they claim to make pronouncements that impact all of Heathenry. Seriously, who would take a sibyl at their word when she pronounces that the Gods Themselves have said that Universalism is anathema? Or that folkishness is a straight ticket to Nástrǫnd? Nobody, and it’s sad to say, rightfully so.

I can see a definite role for such a person on a tribal level, though. One who had proven themselves through a series of unambiguous, prescient, and above all correct predictions. Saying “the Gods speak through me!” isn’t enough. But a proven track record of being right, and having a general consensus of that track record, will certainly go a long way towards establishing the credibility needed to have that sort of influence.

Much like Veleda foretold the victory of the Batavii over Rome, and that led to her having the necessary credentials to rise to a position of influence and leadership within the tribe, we need to be cultivating a generation of prophets. Track their successes. Make sure they really do have the attention of the Gods. Heed their words once they’ve earned the trust of the folk.

Hel, if someone has a substantive enough track record, they might even have enough stature to be listened to by people on both sides of the various divides within Heathenry; folkish/universalist, Lokean/anti-Lokean, recon/modernist, and so forth.

But doing something like that, and achieving the reputation for neutrality, accuracy, and wisdom necessary to be believed, would take literally decades. Imagine how far Heathenry could go if we had not one person, but a coterie of prophets and prophetesses, each individually vetted as being accurate and impartial, yet coming from different sides of the various Heathen divides, all saying “the Gods say we need to do X RIGHT NOW”!

But the members of Hrafnar saying something will only attract the attention of a few people, especially if they start coming out with pronouncements that obviously advance their own preconceived notions. Ditto with the AFA (although the Folkish side of the house has always seemed to lag behind the unis when it comes to things magical). Hrafnar saying “the Gods say folkishness is eeeevil!” would be met with a yawn, as would a Gering Theod sibyl saying “the gods say we must not honor Loki!”

But what if, a decade or two from now, an AFA spákonasgild announced that the Gods think there should be a path of adoption into the folk? And what if, around the same time, Hrafnar’s sibyls said they were told that anyone just can’t walk into Heathenry because they want to, but there needs to be a path to entry with a relatively high bar?

Oh, it’s a complete hypothetical of course. But imagine the impact!! Especially if both had been successfully predicting events such as natural disasters, the death of prominent Heathen leaders, and so forth? What if they started looking beyond “should I look for a new job” and into “what will be significant to Heathenry as a whole in the next year”? Or if we could start to get consensus on unclear, contradictory, or otherwise difficult bits of lore? With a proven track record of success, such pronouncements might start to take on more weight.

I think there’s a place for personal revelation and prophecy. But I think it needs to be accompanied by stringent standards for accuracy (I would weigh such pronouncements against what we do know about the way our ancestors practiced their religion), and from that a foundation of trust can be established. Once that exists, then people might start to pay attention to pronouncements on a broader plane, and I think that’s something we sorely need.

Our ancestors trusted in Veleda’s prophecies enough to let her determine policy for an entire tribe. Surely we can take the first steps to establish some basic level of trust in our modern sibyls.

At least in the circles I run in nowadays, I’ve seen a resurgence in activity by the people who are followers of/inspired by the 19th century Swedish author Viktor Rydberg. They’ve published books, they’ve expanded beyond his original texts, and they’re very, very vocal on social media. They’ve been around for 25 years or so (first championed by William Reaves, who is still very active in the movement), and now call themselves the Epic School, or Epicists, after Rydberg’s main thesis that the corpus of genuine Norse myths constitutes a single vast epic narrative, and that the key to understanding it relies on such an interpretation.

Dave Martel gives a definition of Epicism over on his YouTube channel (forgive his lapses in grammar; this is a car video, so I won’t give him any grief):

…Epicism was drawn from Viktor Rydberg, and it is now being continued by Mark Puryear and the Noroenna Society, and it has the innate, the inherent, the origin intent to look at the Gods as real, because They are real, to look at the lore as real texts, not just, you know, a bunch of crap, or myth, or whatever; these are real texts. … … to stop relying on academics, to stop relying on atheists, to stop relying on, on, you know, crap, so we can, ourselves, have a proper formulaic approach to establishing, understanding, and teaching our spiritual philosophy, which not only is real, it is also legitimate. And what this does, is kind of cuts out any possible nefarious intent. And it ensures that the formula is for us, by us, as Asatru, as Heathens, as Pagans.

I’ve got to say, when I hear “stop relying on academics” my warning lights go off immediately. It feels a little… culty. Urging people to not look at the work of accepted academics who’ve spent their lives researching a particular topic? Who are objective reporters who base their conclusions on evidence? Who’ve got access to sources that laymen simply can’t easily see? Who attend conferences, write for and read journals, and otherwise interact with one another to share ideas?

And what do they replace the entire academic world with? A single 19th century author, his theories, and themselves and their interpretations and expansions of his work. Doesn’t that sound more than a little like “don’t listen to those so-called experts; they’re all wrong, and we have the real answers”?

And the reason they eschew mainstream academia isn’t because of some atheistic (or is it Christian? – they are inconsistent on that point) plot to distort pre-Christian Germanic lore for some nefarious reason, but because those mainstream academics reject their (and Rydberg’s) main thesis.

If the experts say your theory is wrong, the problem must be with the experts! It’s almost like the Flat Earthers of Heathenry.

More to come, I have no doubt, because if there’s one thing the Epicists cannot stand, it’s criticism in any form. Personally, I think it’s a sign of insecurity, but that’s entirely just my interpretation.

Well this was a wonderful surprise in my YouTube subscriptions today. Just in from Gering Heall, home of the King of the Gearings and founder of Theodism, Garman Lord, we have this wonderful Robin Goodfellow Mummer’s Play, with two pieces of Morris Dancing as entr’acte, from earlier this month.

Going through the content briefly, having the explanation not only of Mumming in general, but the specific themes present in this particular play, was perfect. Didn’t weigh down the audience with a lot of facts, but gave just enough to perceive the significance of what was being presented.

The interspersed Morris Dancing was also really nice, giving a quick break for the actors in the play to get ready for the next act, as well as giving the audience a diversion-within-a-diversion.

I personally find these sorts of activities wonderful additions to Heathen ritual events. Not necessarily as part of the ritual itself (although sacral dramas could certainly qualify), but as light-yet-significant entertainments (significant because of the hidden mysteries in the symbolism and dialogue of the plays themselves) to keep the assembled folk centered on the day, rather than on their phones. Plus it beats the monotony of yet another round of axe-tossing or kubb, while at the same time imparting wisdom for those who would seek it.

I’ve been banging this particular drum for years, of course, and have had some small success in bringing such things to my local community. I would love to see these sorts of traditions get much wider traction, and become a staple in gatherings both large and small.

As a caveat, it’s worth noting that there is nothing to indicate that Morris Dancing or Mummer’s Plays as we know them today date from the pre-Christian period. While there are some tantalizing possibilities, the threads are just too thin to hold up to casual pulling. But the pedigree of plays, guising, and dance as a general thing in Germanic Heathenry is undoubted, and when one is uncertain of the historical form, there’s no reason not to pull in something with deep roots in English custom.

EDIT 5/30/19 (and beyond): I replaced the original video with a longer version that was posted today on the same channel. It has the same Mummer’s Play and Morris dancing, but opens with a “Beating the bounds” ritual to hallow the area, shows a brief sumbl in honor of the King, and ends with a fire dance and a 19th century English garland dance.

I was chatting with a good Theodish friend of mine, and the subject of hold oaths came up. Specifically, the reality that too many people who take (or even hear) hold oaths simply aren’t ready to do so, or don’t fully comprehend what it means, and yet do so anyway. The result is usually disaster, broken oaths, and a whole lot of misery on both sides.

It occurs to me that that’s a phenomenon we see not only when it comes to hold oaths in Theodism, but many other aspects as well. The whole concept of thralldom and rank, and of course sacral leadership, seems to be glossed over and accepted at face value, rather than truly being understood and internalized.

The specific causes for this sort of phenomenon are many, but I think ultimately it comes down to an attempt to teach Theodism as if it were a subject to be studied, rather than a truth to be realized.

This is where the concept of the mystery religion comes into play, in the context of Theodish Belief. The Greco-Roman mysteries are usually thought of in connection with initiatory rituals, and there are certainly initiatory rites in Theodism (the whole process of thralldom and freedom is, essentially, one long initiation ritual). But I’m thinking here of the way information is transmitted in a mystery religion.

Rather than rote lessons, or even intellectual understanding, in a mystery religion the initiate is exposed to knowledge using gnomic forms and allegory. Eventually, the initiate forms a critical mass of wisdom, and understands the mystery. Doing so internalizes the mystery in a way that merely reading it in a book, or even being taught it by someone mouth-to-ear, cannot. It is not merely knowledge, it is truth, and it is known to be so because the initiate has come to its realization on his own. All that needed to be done was to give him (or her) the proper groundwork, and let him put the pieces together themselves.

Of course, that doesn’t do any good unless the person(s) doing the initiation can recognize when this A-HA! moment happens and the student is really ready to be initiated. In the particular case at hand, that would be recognizing when the thrall is really ready to be freed. If the initiator/owner isn’t willing to have the combination of hard love and patience necessary, then the thrall is going to be freed too early, and end up taking a hold oath too early, with the result mentioned at the top of this article.

It’s also worth remembering that sometimes the student never achieves the realizations needed to become an initiate. Sometimes one remains a thrall forever, or drops out. That’s a necessary part of the process, too. That’s why thralls have no luck, and cannot pollute the luck of the tribe or the lord. If they “fail to launch”, no harm has been done.

One never does a favor to a thrall by freeing them early. One should never free a thrall merely to boost numbers. Thralldom is an important part — an argument might even be made for it being the most important part — of the Theodish experience. By reminding ourselves that thralldom should only be left once we recognize the thrall has finally come to the essential truths of Theodism on his or her own (i.e., has encountered the Mystery of Theodish Belief by being exposed to its practice), we go a long way towards ensuring that Theodsmen in general maintain the highest standard.

The topic of “nature spirits” and “fae” seems to have bubbled up on the neo-pagan blogosphere of late (for instance here and here and here). So it seemed perhaps timely to address a common point of confusion regarding Norse mythology; namely, where to the landvættir fit in to this question?

What might jump out at you from those examples is a maddening omission of definition. They purport to discuss the question of whether “faeries” and and “fair folk” and “fae” are “nature spirits” but none seem to go to the trouble to actually define any of those terms. We get muddled gems of circular reasoning such as “a nature spirit is a spirit of nature”, or (better) outright admissions that “I’m not really sure what folks mean when they use the term “nature spirit”.”

So I’m going to start my own discussion by defining terms.

  • Nature spirit: A supernatural being associated with a particular type or specimen of natural features, such as hills, waterfalls, streams, trees, etc.
  • Landvættr: An Old Norse term translated as “land-being” which take the form of giants and animals, and who defend a given region against aggressors. They generally help a territory (and particularly the head of that territory) in an unspecified manor (by assisting with its general prosperity), and if they are driven off (by a curse, or by seeing the dragon-prows of ships), that would bode ill for the territory and its leader.
  • Fae: Also known as faeries, and euphemistically as fair folk, little folk, etc. An Old French term (derived from Latin fata) for a class of spirits, possibly of pre-Christian origin, some of which dwell in natural surroundings, some of which dwell underground, and some of which cohabitate with humans. Some are friendly, some are hostile, and others are neutral towards humans.

So. Where does this leave us?

Well, by these definitions, which I don’t think are at all off-base, landvættir wouldn’t qualify as nature spirits; they’re not necessarily connected with specific or general natural features.

That said, some fae could be considered nature spirits by these definition, although by no means all. If we include (as I have in my definitions) house-spirits, then they are most definitely not. However, since we include (ditto) things like fossegrim in the umbrella of “fae”, and such creatures are connected to a single natural feature (a waterfall, in this case), it would seem that at least some of them definitely are.

There is, of course, a load of history that goes unsaid in these definitions and in the question itself. Without a doubt the human conception of these creatures changed over time (whether their nature changed along with those conceptions remains an open question), and the definition of “fae” expanded to include a number of creatures who a thousand years earlier would have been thought of as distinct beings.

Take, for instance, the alfar (elves). In pre-Christian times, they were seen as beings on a par with the Aesir, master craftsmen and powerful creatures. By the later medieval period, they had dwindled in both stature and power to more like the sprites we think of today. We still see glimpses of their former status in some of the Grail romances, however, where they are presented as powerful and human-like beings.

So I think the answer to the question lies in the need to carefully define one’s terms of use. Once that is done, the answers to such seemingly thorny questions become clear. That said, a certain ambiguity and morphing of the definitions over time is an undisputed historical fact, but whether or not such changes reflect actual changes in the nature of the creatures being described, or simply a change in the human perception of those creatures (or some combination of the two), remains an open question.

Well, at least nobody could say this was a surprise. The Lokeans have been applying steady pressure on the Troth for years, even through their Warder of the Lore, who is married to a Lokean.

The Troth, the bastion of Universalist Asatru in the United States (and elsewhere) made their official announcement the other day that the ban on honoring Loki at Troth events was lifted.

But more than that, there will be a Loki blót at the next ten Trothmoots, “in primetime”. Presumably that means Friday or Saturday night. This is supposed to be some sort of Schuld* in recompense.

The whole ideology of “everyone should be able to do whatever they want, and if you don’t agree you’re a bigot” has the Troth firmly in its grip. It will be interesting to see if the Troth actually makes it to the ten-year mark after this decision. I predict… chaotic times ahead for them.

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* Which I presume means shild in Rob Schreiwer’s never-ending campaign to convince people that his Amish Heathenry is actually equivalent to Asatru in popularity, like the use of the word “Sege” which means nothing outside the context of his couple of dozen followers. You’d think the Troth of all groups wouldn’t let someone who appeared publicly in blackface to have such influence, but not my circus, not my monkeys…