Before Christianity replaced the religion of our ancestors, religion was not structured and organized the way it is today. It was not separate from the culture of daily life. There may have been temples for public rituals, but they were not in widespread use. More commonly, the Heathen religion, as we call it today, was practiced in people’s homes with daily rites where images, alters, and small shrines were used to worship the Gods and Goddesses, as well as the ancestors and wights. Worshippers would ask their favour for good health for themselves, their crops, their animals, for wealth, happiness, and luck.
Hearth stones are any medium sized stone left on the hearth to represent the house wights and would be a place for daily or weekly offerings. These offerings would ensure their continued favour and cooperation in running the household.
Outside the home heaped stones, harrows, sacred groves, halls and hofs, or a large tree were also places of worship where temporary or permanent alters could be set up and offerings made.
Standing with arms up-stretched (think of the algiz rune), bowed, kneeling on one knee or both, as well as rolling or laying on the ground are ways in which prayer was performed.
The notion that Vikings never bowed before the Gods and Goddesses is a modern one, not historically based.
A major difference between the Heathen worldview and the Christian worldview is found in the way in which prayer is practiced. Christian practitioners pray to their God asking any number of favours and in return they offer naught but their obedience to him.
Heathens may also ask for favour from their Gods and Goddesses, but in return offer them gifts. Gift-giving creates a bond between the folk and the gods, goddesses, ancestors and wights. Gift giving also strengthens fellowship among kin and to show admiration and appreciation.
Poetry and Praise
A spot of poetry or a few words structured to reflect the situation can be said to praise and to pray in a variety of situations. In Sigrdrífumál, Sigrdrífa awakens and speaks to Sigurd:
Hail, Day! Hail, Day’s sons!
Hail, Night and her daughter!
Look down on us twain with lover eyes,
and grant speed to those sitting here!
Hail to the gods! Hail to the goddesses!
Hail Earth, who gives at need.
Good strength and man-wit grant to us, well-known,
and healing hands through our lives.
Not all prayers have to be a specific request. Here Sigrdrífa is asking for general good health, strength and success in magic and communication.
Many places in the lore mention the use of oath rings and blessing bowls. A blessing bowl is a bowl where offerings of drink may be poured for the ancestors and deities.
Idols in the image of the Gods and Goddesses may be placed on altars or in shrines.
Photos, or other representations of one’s ancestors may be placed on or around altars and shrines to help focus the intentions for prayers and offerings.
A horn from a steer or ox is widely used to hold alcohol that has been hallowed for use in blessings and as a shared drinking horn during group rituals.
Although at one time offerings of animal sacrifice, and at times even human sacrifice were made, this is not the only way to offer a gift. Ale, mead, porridge topped with butter, meat, milk, vegetables and grains in the form of breads, are the most likely now. The best portions of a feast, the finest ale and mead, the greatest fruits and vegetables are what is given. Never give something that you yourself do not highly value. Offerings can be seasonal as well. During Ostara spring flowers may be given, or at Winter Nights ears of wheat tied in a neat bundle or a large squash, or at Yule homemade fruit pies and roasted meat are a great offering.
Anything at all may be used as an offering be it a piece of jewelry or artwork, an effigy, a poem or song, an item of clothing or weapon, even an action, such as walking a marathon, or helping someone in need, if it is dedicated, if it is offered, it is considered an offering. Whether the offering is accepted will depend on whether one’s prayer is answered.
Most commonly mead is poured into a blessing bowl, or straight onto the ground as an offering. This form of offering is most common in rituals such as symbel or blot which will be covered in part 4, along with prose and poetry to use for some of the more common rituals.
Sources / Reading:
The Elder Troth by KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson, Lesson Four: Worship, The Troth, 1996
Eyrbyggja Saga translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, Penguin, 1989
Teutonic Religion by Kveldulf Gundarsson, Ch 16, Llewellyn, 1993
The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices by Claude Lecouteux, Inner Traditions, 2013
Our Troth: History and Lore, Vol.2, The Troth, Ch 6, 7, 8, 9, 10-14, 15-23, 24-27, Booksurge, 2006
A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru, Patricia M. Lafayllve, Ch 14, Llewellyn, 2013