Wyrd Designs – Musings on Memorial Day

For those of us who are so lucky, we have a lovely three-day weekend before us. Memorial Day is far more than an occasion to exercise your checkbook (or should I say debit card swipe) in pursuit of retail bargains. Rather it is a holiday rooted in American history that has shifted overtime in the American consciousness, and yet it is also a holiday that many in the Northern Tradition have taken to claim as their own.

Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial Day is a U.S. national holiday. The official birthplace of Memorial Day is in Waterloo, New York, which since 1866 has annually observed the holiday of decorating the war dead in their nearby cemetery. The original holiday was known as Decoration Day, when local communities would visit their grave yards and decorate the graves of soldiers who had died in battle. It began first to honor Union Soldiers who had died in the course of the American Civil War. After the First World War the holiday was expanded to include the honoring of any military man or woman who died in battle. Today the holiday is also used to not only honor those who died in military combat, but also to pay respect to those who served in the military but either died later from injuries received in combat but were removed from the field of contention, or those who died after leaving the military service.

In the Northern Tradition, respect for the comitatus (war-band) and the warrior cultus is well documented. Even people unfamiliar with the vast histories and stories of our lore are usually familiar with the more popular aspects of this literature like the later occurring story of Beowulf. Let’s face it, this tale has been adapted to cinema numerous times, has become an aspect of popular culture in its modern adaptations. Many of us read it in school as part of our core curriculum as a classic and early example of English literature along the likes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Beyond this we also know the importance of the ancestors to the Northern Tradition. We have evidence in surviving lore of religious rituals performed to honor the ancestors: the disir and the alfar*. One of these rituals was known as disablot. In ancient Sweden it was held near the Vernal Equinox, in other areas it was held at Winter Nights. So the timing of the celebration varied.

The respect that those of the Northern Tradition have for the military can be seen in the wide variety of programs out there supporting the military community: including the Open Halls Project (and it’s also on Facebook), The Asatru Folk Assembly’s Hammer Project, and their Asatru Military Family Support Group, an Asatru and general pagan rally on July 4, 2007 on the national mall in Washington, D.C. to get both the pentacle and the hammer as approved symbols for military tombstones. Daniel, the blacksmith at White Hart Forge is offering free Thor’s hammers to any service men or women currently serving over seas (just email him). Others of us have also personally donated to service men and women. I myself just sent off a care-package of altar items to the Bagram Pagan Open Circle(May the Gods bless the packages with both a swift delivery, but one where all items arrive in superb condition!)

If you ask most Americans to explain the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans day, the sad and simple fact is that most can’t. The two days have slowly morphed over time into a seeming amalgam of sameness. Veterans Day is intended to specifically honor those veterans of military service who are still alive. This confusion can even be seen mirrored in the Asatru community.

The Asatru Alliance, has taken Veteran’s Day and recycled it as the feast of the einherjar, which like Veteran’s Day itself and Memorial Day is a solely modern invention (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this). Einherjar is a term used to specifically refer to the battle dead escorted by the Valkyries to Odin’s hall Valhalla. Now since I’m not a member of the AA, I don’t know what their motivation was in the choosing of this date for this invented festivity. Perhaps since May and June already had traditional rituals associated with those months, they were looking for something that seemed appropriate to a heathen religious viewpoint to place into the month of November. Regardless of the AA’s motivations for associating this feast with Veteran’s Day, the simple fact remains that like the larger mainstream American culture, many in the smaller Asatru religion also confuse the true meaning of Memorial and Veteran’s Day.

Of course, just as words can shift meaning over time influenced by the culture that uses them, so to can holidays. Memorial today while it still honors the war dead, has slowly shifted in the American consciousness to become this vast amalgam Memorial Day/Veteran’s Day celebration, as well as a day like El dia de los muertos where families may also tend to other graves regardless of military service to the persons resting therein.

Some of the Northern Tradition take this more all-inclusive approach to this holiday. Others opt to honor the war dead at Veteran’s Day instead, and a few of us (like me) make it a point to honor the war dead at Memorial Day. In my case I specifically look to my own line and those who served there. My grandfather who was a chief petty officer in the Navy for the first great war, my Uncles who served in World War II or in Vietnam… to my great-grand father who served in the Confederacy and as my late grandmother told it “even after losing an arm to them, he never asked those ‘damn yankees’ for a thing!”

Regardless of when people opt to honor the war dead, I believe it’s important that sometime during the year you do take the opportunity to honor them. These can be both your ancestors, but also just dead soldiers known and unknown. ‘Texatru’ that rare breed of Asatru who happen to hail from Texas and LOVE being Texans can be just as patriotic about the lone star state as they are patriotically American; They have a tendency to give a shout out to Daniel Boone on the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo. Just as some Anglo-Saxon heathens may honor the late Mercian king Penda.

Of course, it should go without saying that honoring the war dead is something you should do as part of a periodically regular routine of respecting your ancestors. Sure just as we had disablot to honor the mothers in ancient times (and today)… it’s certainly not a foreign concept that we at times of our own determination have ‘themed’ celebrations to pay homage to the different types of dead.

So somewhere between the 50% off sales, the picnics and bar-b-q, I’d suggest taking a page from our President who tends to the tomb of the unknown solider in Robert E. Lee’s former residence reinvented as Arlington National Cemetery. Take the time out to honor the war dead and those who have served the military in ways that enabled you to the type of life and freedoms we now enjoy. Don’t be shy in just honoring your war dead, but if you’re lucky to live near a veteran’s specific cemetery, or even a normal cemetery with a veteran’s section… why not pick up some flowers, and decorate each grave with a single bloom. And don’t feel that you HAVE to go to a cemetery to honor the war dead. If you don’t live near the grave of your war dead, you can always put out pictures on your ancestral altar of them, or items that remind you of them. If you don’t have pictures, you can also write out their names and place them into a small basket or trinket box on the altar. You can set out offerings of items they enjoyed in life perhaps tobacco, cornbread, steak, etc. My uncle had a proclivities for candy corn, popcorn, peanut butter, Diet Coke, and Mr. Goodbars. He always had a deck of cards lying around too. So when I’m honoring him it’s not uncommon for me to incorporate all or some of those items into the ancestral altar.

But to get your creative juices flowing, here is one of my prayers for Memorial Day:

If not for my ancestors, if not for those soldiers who fought for my current government, or those who fought to defend the multitude of cultures of all my ancestors…  I would not exist. I would not know the life that I know.
My life has been hallowed in their struggles to survive, to make the world renewed, invigorated, better than it was before.To these men and women I owe a debt of gratitude, and at this time, and at this hour, and for all time evermore I hail thee–those who fought, who persisted, who endured, who took up arms and when none were in grasp fought with bare hands–your sacrifice is remembered, your devotion honored. You did not die in vain, and the promise of your efforts still bears fruit. May it follow like sweet reverb to future generations who will hear the call, and add their own harmonies to strengthen it.
So do I hail!

So for those of you who celebrate this holiday, what do you do to honor the dead?

*alfar – in the lore this term is used in two ways, usually it describes a race of people we would call in modern English elves; at other times this term is used to describe ancestors NOT elves.
  • Galina

    Beautiful! This is an excellent article and in my opinion ought to be required reading for Pagans and Heathens across the board.

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