How do Heathens celebrate their religion? They blót.
Pronounced “Bloat”. Literally, “sacrifice” with an original meaning probably of “strengthen the god”1 but often (unfortunately) taken to mean simply “ritual.” as in "we're having a blót tonight!" The essential component of a blót is sacrifice. Without it, you're doing something else.
Just as it is wrong to think of a mosque as an Islamic church, so it is wrong to think of a blót as a coven meeting. A blót is not about magic. It is not about spells or summonings. Any effect or influence achieved is not through magic, but through bringing gifts – sacrifice.
- blotlundr = Sacrificial grove
- blotmaður = Sacrificer
- blotgoðar = Sacrificial priest
- goðablót = A sacrifice to the gods
- blóthús = House of Sacrifice
As Simek observes, “Among the oldest attestable forms of sacrifices in Germanic tribes is the laying down of votive gifts at sacred places such as moons, springs, waterfalls, stones and trees.”2 They also took place in bogs and swamps.3
These might be made in order to ask for something that has not yet happened, such as a safe journey, or the intent might be to give thanks for something that has previously come about, such as a victory already won.
The sacrifices are not necessarily blood, though blood is potent. They might be almost anything, from gold to food to domestic implements. As in Classical Paganism, different sacrifices were preferred for (or by) different gods. For example, oxes and bulls were sacrifice to Freyr (Víga-Glúms saga), as well as boars (Heiðreks saga). Brandkrossa Þáttr 1 also brings up the sacrifice of a bull for Freyr. One animal for which there is hardly ever used for a sacrifice is the dog, despite Adam of Bremen's description of the sacrifices at Uppsala.
According to Snorri (Ynglinga saga 8) these were held at least three times per year during the solstices and in the early spring, although there was often a harvest festival and many smaller rites amongst the community. It has been argued that this systemization “probably does not correspond to reality”.4 Certainly, any information Snorri had would not account for the varied practices of every Heathen community. Austrfaravísur (c. 1020) tells of the Christian skald Sigvátr traveling through Sweden, being shunned by all the local farmers because the local folk were making sacrifice in honor of the elves (elfblót). Apparently, Sigvátr was not familiar with this local practice. There were undoubtedly other local customs. In Iceland we find that there is a taboo against opening a door on the Winter Nights (Njáls saga).
Winter Nights was the time of the sacrifice to the dísir . This was usually held in a private house and presided over by women, but sometimes in a dísarsalr or "hall of the dis." In Heiðreks saga, this included a woman smearing blood on the altar late at night. It was also the occasion of heavy drinking, as is shown by the example in Egils saga 44.
In Gisla saga 10, we are told of Winter Nights:
Now summer passed and the time of the winter-nights arrived. It was then the custom of many to greet the winter, holding feasts and a winter-night sacrifice. Gísli had given up sacrifice since he had been at Viborg in Denmark, but he kept up his feasts and all his munificence just as before.
And later in the saga (15) we see that Winter Nights are not for the dísir alone, but also for Freyr:
Thorgrím Freysgoði (Priest of Freyr) intended to hold an autumn feast, to greet the winter and to sacrifice to Freyr, the chief fertility god.
In this connection it's useful to note that Freyja, goddess of fertility and sister of Freyr is called Vanadis (dis of the Vanir) and is seen as the supreme dís.
Snorri gives an account in Heimskringla (Hákonar saga góða 14) of a sacrifice in Norway. There is another in Eyrbyggja saga 4 but Simek believes this is probably based on Snorri’s account so is not an independent attestation. In Simek’s opinion neither are entirely reliable as he believes they are “obviously an imaginative reconstruction of Christian liturgy onto heathen practices. For example, the hlautteinn (a twig sprinkler) was originally a divining stick (Hymiskviða). This may or may not be the case. It has elsewhere been argued that the syncretism was not only from Christianity to Heathenism but that Heathenism heavily influenced Christianity as well. Personally, I am a proponent of the hlautteinn and used a spruce version to bless the house before moving in.
There area wherein the blót takes place is considered sanctuary, and no arms or weapons may be carried there, and no violence done. The penalty for violating this sanctuary was severe: a man who killed another on holy ground was considered accursed and was exiled (Egilssaga, 49)
From Egilssaga, 49, we see a description of a summer festival that took place during the joint rule of Erik Bloodaxe with his father, Harald Finehair:
That spring, a huge sacrifice feast was arranged for the summer at Gaular, where there was a fine main temple. A large party attended from the Fjordane, Fjaler and Sognefjord provinces, most of them men of high birth. King Eirik went there too.
Simek argues that the “main forms of the late heathen communal sacrifices” amount to a “reddening of the altar” and a ritual meal of the sacrificial meat. It must be noted that this was a main feature of Pagan sacrifice in Classical Paganism as well. That said, Simek allows that “sacrificial rites were, however, probably more complex than we can recognize from the sources available and characertized by secret knowledge about the cult regulations, if we are to trust stanza 144 of the Hávamál.” 6 DuBois agrees, speaking of “tantalizing hints at a system of religious thoughts and symbolism that can only be guessed at today. In many cases, the rituals were probably mysterious to the writers of the sagas themselves, who may have learned of them from textual accounts or hearsay reports.”7
Gunnhild said to her brothers, "I want you to take advantage of the crowd here and kill one of Skallagrim's sons, or preferably both."
They said they would do so.
Thorir the Hersir made ready for the journey. He called Arinbjorn to talk to him.
"I am going to the sacrifice," he said, "and I don't want Egil to go. I know about Gunnhild's conniving, Egil's impetuousness and the king's severity, and we cannot keep an eye on all three at once. But Egil will not be dissuaded from going unless you stay behind too. Thorolf will be going with me, and their other companions. Thorolf will make a sacrifice and seek good fortune for himself and his brother."
Arinbjorn told Egil afterwards that he would be staying at home.
"The two of us will stay here," he said.
Thorir and the others went to the sacrifice and a sizeable crowd gathered there, drinking heavily. 5
Finally, it must be observed that these sacrifices sometimes called for a specialist, or priest, but at other times could be performed by heads of household, male or female, “or even ordinary individuals”. Furthermore, these sacrifices need not take place in a specially constructed setting, such as a temple, but might take place in a home or in the open air. And it was not simply seasonal cycles that prompted them; other factors could include “moments in the lifecycle (birth, death)” or “situations of crisis”.8 In short, any important occasion would be marked by sacrifice, and that includes many activities we no longer engage in as individuals, such as going to war or building a ship, but also more common things as building a house or embarking on a long journey. Sacrifice was part of everyday life to a degree that the modern Heathen can barely comprehend.
One event that might prompt a sacrifice is crop failure and famine. Here, the king himself might be the sacrifice. An example can be found in the fate of Olaf Trételgja (Wood-cutter). Turville-Petre observes that
As Snorri says, it was the practice to attribute both good and bad harvests to their king. Since Olaf was an irreligious man, little given to sacrifice, his followers gathered arms, seized his house and burned him in it as a sacrifice to Óðinn, believing that harvests would improve.9
Those of us who have lived through the Bush years might see wisdom in such a system.
In a word, it would be impossible to reconstruct in its entirely the religious practices of our Heathen ancestors. And if we could, we would have to recognize that these systems varied from place to place, from Sweden to Norway to Denmark to Iceland. Religious is not static, but dynamic and adaptive. That said, we have somewhat wider latitude that we might like to revive these customs and traditions. We must recognize that there is no ordered system to follow, and that any such system must come from ourselves. We can choose to include whatever occasions are important or significant to us and to exclude others. We will most of us exclude that most important element of ancient sacrifice, blood sacrifice, because of its impartibility in the modern world. Rather than ox and swords, we will offer our gods incense and cakes.
1 Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993), 271.
2 Simek, 271.
3 Thomas A. DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1999), 51.
4 Simek, 272.
5 Egil's Saga (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar) trans. Bernard Scudder, The Sagas of the Icelanders (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 78. Unlike in Classical Paganism, alu (ale) and mjothr (mead) were popular.
6 Simek, 272, DuBois 51.
7 DuBois, 123.
8 DuBois, 123.
9 E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North (New York and San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 192
A blót is not about magic. It is not about spells or summonings.
Simek argues that the “main forms of the late heathen communal sacrifices” amount to a “reddening of the altar” and a ritual meal of the sacrificial meat.