Most Heathen rituals are simple affairs in terms of liturgy.
At the very simplest end of the spectrum, it might consist of the following steps:
- Procure and open some form of alcoholic beverage
- Invoke god
- Drink some of the alcohol, pour the rest out for the god
Following this format, apparently some Heathen rituals consist of nothing more than cracking open a Budweiser at a camping expedition and shouting “Hail Thor!”
Most kindreds and festivals are somewhat more thoughtful, thankfully.
- Typically people assemble in a circle around some focal point (such as a campfire).
- There is often a hallowing rite; modern Asatru uses the ahistorical but widely accepted Hammer Rite1 to Thor.
- People may or may not establish a common psychological framework such as chanting runes or god names.
- There is an invocation to the deity or spirit.
- There may or may not be a quick lore reading, or perhaps even song and music.
- Typically there are offerings to the fire, or some other focal point.
- A horn of mead (or some other liquid) is passed around where the celebrants say a quick prayer or praise to the god.
- The leftover contents of the horn are offered to the god or spirit.
- The officiating liturgist says a short closing prayer. People disperse.
In terms of efficacy, do such rites work? Yes, they do. They work well within the context of large gatherings with people who may not have much liturgical experience working with each other. But if this format has its virtues in terms of an easy-to-use, get-the-job-done mentality, it loses something in terms of liturgical artistry and sentiment.
At the other end of the scale, other pagan and occult groups are much more “high church” about things. Ceremonial magick and some of the religions it has influenced can become very involved in terms of invoking, banishing, prayers, gestures, etc.
As another example, the Druid group ADF has 18 core steps of liturgy for its public celebrations2. There is some leeway as to how people follow the core order. A rite typically last 45 minutes to an hour, but some large groups have been known to embellish it to a three hour ritual (!).
The “high church” method is liturgical artistry at its finest, but can become overly involved, even pedantic. Sometimes the feeling of religion is lost in all the ritual mechanics.
We are thus presented with a dichotomy between overly simple or overly elabote rituals.
A middle ground is possible with people who have close personal bonds and who share a close theological and liturgical outlook.
Some of the founders of GVK were familiar with not only the standard Heathen way of doing things, but had exposure to other pagan and occult groups. In particular, some of the founders were current or former members of ADF3. They decided that they were going to split the difference between standard Heathen practice and ADF liturgy.
The 18 steps of ADF liturgy can better be divided into five stages of “dramatic energy” (kind of like a Shakespearean play). A quick explanation of this flow of energy will prove educational.
- Introduction. People assemble. They are brought into the same collective psychological picture (“group mind”) with an explanation of the purpose of the rite as well as its general mechanics and etiquette. Finally, there are purification rituals that cleanse the area in preparation for invocation of the holy powers.
- Rising Action. The various spiritual entities are invited to partake of ritual.
- Climax. The holy powers, once invited, are propitiated with offerings. This, in so many words, is the point of polytheist religion. Gifting, a gift for a gift, do ut des. This is the reciprocal, votive relationship that unites individuals and communities to their supernatural benefactors
- Falling Action. With the beings honored, it is now time to do various “workings” that partake of their energy.
- Conclusion. With the workings done, there are final gestures and prayers which end the rite. The human celebrants disperse (often to food and drink and carousing).
That is the very general flow of liturgical energy. Now, let us look at this scheme with some more detail as it pertains to GVK.
- Introduction. The altar having been set up in advance (and the fire ring, if it is an outside rite), the group of celebrants assemble. The weofodthegn welcomes the guests and explains the purpose of that particular rite. She also briefs the general mechanics of the rite and ritual etiquette to any newcomers. From there the group proceeds to the Weonde song, which purifies the area
- Rising Action. The 7 Luck Givers, the ancestors and wights are formally invited with invocations, and sometimes preliminary offerings.
- Climax. The gods and spirits being invited, the oathed members of the kindred renew their oaths in their presence. Then the ritual area is turned over to individual celebrants to render offerings or praise.
- Falling Action. With the kindred having renewed its oaths and the gods propitiated, the group moves on to sumbel. At the end of sumble, a runic omen is taken on behalf of the group.
- Conclusion. The weofodthegn blesses the group with the leftover mead. Any leftover offerings are given to the gods. A quick prayer then closes the rite, and the celebrants disperse.
That is the general flow of energy; I think you’ll agree there is a certain logic as to why it works the way it does. But one might have questions as to some of the particulars. Herein we will address some details.
Why do you do a pre-ritual briefing?
We borrowed this from ADF (although most kindreds have some kind of welcoming statement). It simply makes sense. It aggregates everyone into the same frame of mind by explaining the purpose of the rite, ritual etiquette and ritual mechanics. In any case, GVK wants to make sure that any new guests have an idea of how we do things, as to avoid blunders that could damage the flow of the rite.
What is the Weonde song?
Thor (Thunor, to us) is the hallowing god of Heathenry. Most Heathen groups invoke him to ward away unpleasant spiritual forces at the beginning of the rite. Many use “The Hammer Rite” which is an invented (though largely accepted) ritual. It seems equally influenced by both pious Christians making the sign of a cross, as well as ceremonial magicians drawing a pentagram for banishing.
Anglo-Saxon groups invented a different method for making sacred space. Lore states that a new landowner circled his property while carrying fire in order to hallow the area. In modern times, this act is entwined with a chant or song to Thunor to make sacred the area4.
GVK uses the fire-circling and the Thunor chant, and one of its ritual celebrants also stands over the altar (or firepit) with a Hammer to further reinforce the sense of hallowing.
Ok, so you use the Weonde song to hallow the area. Why is it necessary to hallow the area?
It is about creating “sacred space.”
Religious experiences are about perceiving something special – something ineffable, transcendent and imminent – that exist apart from the ordinary world. It is about separating the “sacred” from the “profane.” The manifestation of the sacred has been termed a “hierophany5.”
According to the theories of Mircea Eliade, religious rituals generate a hierophany by ritually recreating sacred time and sacred space in a mythic sense. The celebrant places himself in physical and temporal terms at the center of the universe. S/he returns to a time, in that time (in illo tempore) where mythically humans and their supernatural benefactors can interact.
Sacred space is thus about delineating the ritual area apart from the profane world. It places us outside normal time and space into a point where we may experience the reality of the gods.
Eliade’s theories were a crucial theological underpinning of ADF ritual. Many Heathens do not necessarily internalize Eliade’s writing. But the act of setting apart a ritual area through an invocation to Thor and a gesture involving a hammer and/or fire implicitly recognizes the need to create sacred space for ritual.
As far as GVK is concerned, the Weonde song encircles the ritual area, creating sacred space. From there, the invocation to the 7 Luck Givers (and to the wights and ancestors) invites the presence of our spiritual benefactors. The time and place has thus been set to a point where humans and gods can interact.
Why do you have 7 luck givers?
In its very beginnings, the kindred decided that at every rite, it would invite some core deities as its “patrons,” while the ritual might otherwise focus on various other deities who were called specifically for seasonal rites or special celebrations.
As time progressed, as the founders honored various deities both as a group and privately as individuals, it was eventually decided that seven deities were especially important to the well-being of the kindred. Eschewing the term “patron deities” which is sometimes a contentious semantic issue in Heathenry, the founders decided to call them Luck Givers. Luck is a central concept to Heathenry, and thus those deities would underscore the kindred’s Luck.
Six of the deities – Woden, Tiw, Thunor, Ing, Freo, Eorthan Modor – are attested in Anglo-Saxon lore. The seventh, Hama, is not so well attested. But the kindred had meaningful experiences with that deity, and felt him worthy of inclusion.
Why do you take oaths at every rite?
The Kindred is not just about the gods, it is very much about the people in it. At the highest levels, the Elders feel that they have contracted into a kind of second family, or tribe. Elders take an oath of Frith to each other to underscore that feeling.
Once the gods are invited, the Elders recite the oath of Frith in their presence. It is a reminder to them, and to their guests, that the kindred is not just a place for monthly ritual. It is a brotherhood where personal loyalties run deep.
A description of an oath ring can be found in the 4th chapter of Eyrbyggja Saga6. It is a passage of dubious veracity, but some version of an oath ring has become standard in modern Heathenry.
Why do you make offerings to the gods?
Heathenry, like most other ancient, pre-Christian religions, is about a reciprocal relation between humans and spiritual powers. We invite the gods, spirits and ancestors into our lives through gifting, and they gift us back in the form of various blessings and boons.
The offering portion of the rite is the climax of liturgical energy, uniting supplicant and spiritual power though the act of gifting.
What is sumbel?
Sumbel is the quintessential Heathen rite. Words are spoken over a horn of mead. Gods and ancestors are praised, boasts are made, and toasts for success offered. What is spoken over the horn is considered sacred, uniting the Wyrd of the celebrants together.
Sumbel is seen as an inside activity, deriving from the time the lord and lady of the hall would entertain their retainers and their guests. The Hall was the apex of civilized life – within its walls, order, safety, and comradery flowed.
A very credible theory states that ceremonial drinking promoted a kind of “fictive kinship.” Social ties in the Germanic world were based on shared blood between family and clan; Frith was possible only among relatives. But a lord and his warrior retainers were not kinsmen in a genetic sense. In the absence of familial bonds, involved drinking ceremonies fostered a unified identity among the denizens of the mead hall. The drink in the horn served as a substitute for convivial blood7.
Many modern kindreds are not family in the genetic sense of the word. But they view themselves as a familial entity in terms of loyalty and spiritual comradery. Sumbel serves the same purpose for them as it did for Iron Age mead halls – a ritual of crafted kinship.
Why do you do sumble outside?
GVK has admittedly departed from historical practice, as we sumble outside. By hallowing the area before the rite and by ritually renewing our oath in the presence of the gods, we feel that a “hall” exists where we assemble, even if it is among nature.
The sumbel is an opportunity for our guests to praise the gods and ancestors, and toast the community. When you invite people to a rite, you need to give them something to do, after all.
Why do you do a runic omen?
Runes were a system of writing that had some esoteric purposes as well, but the historical tradition does not point to much evidence of them being used for divination.
Nonetheless, runes have become an extremely effective divination tool in modern Heathenry. Divination is also standard in other religious practices, such as ADF Druidry.
Drawing on these modern influences, GVK decided to perform a runic omen after sumbel. Runic divination may not be historical, but it is an excellent way to ascertain the will of the gods.
Why do you asperge people with mead?
Asperging people with sacred liquid has a fine history in many religious traditions.
Within a specifically Heathen context, two things can be said. The 4th chapter of Eyrbyggja Saga (again, a much-disputed passage) tells that when the blood of a sacrificial animal was collected, it was sprinkled on holy items. Also, as we noted from the section of sumbel above, the drink of sumbel vicariously depicted the blood of kinship.
After sumbel and the runic omen, GVK has its weofoedthegn bless people with the leftover mead. The mead has been charged with the words of sumbel, and the will of the gods as determined by the omen. Using the mead as a proxy for blood, the act of asperging further unites the ritual celebrants to each other and to their gods.
What do you do after ritual?
Eat, drink and be merry. Play music. Sing songs. Some play roleplaying games. Good times all around!
- Enright, Michael. “Lady with a Mead Cup.” p 16-17