Haethenra Hyht, or, More Tales of an Almost-Heathen

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Author's Note: This column is the second part of a series on my introduction to Heathenry. You may want to read the previous column, "Seidhr, or, How I Became Half a Heathen," to understand how I got to this point.

The night after the seidhr, Uncle Alaric held another ritual, called a blót. The blót was considerably simpler than most Wiccan rituals, which have intricate castings of the circle, invocations of elements, and so on. The blót, by contrast, was mostly a circle of toasts: a horn of mead was passed around, and each of us dedicated their draught to a god. (Alaric specifically warned us against Eastern gods—Kwan Yin is his usual example—but somebody invoked a Hindu goddess during the ritual anyway. I could hear him sigh from across the circle.)

But before the blót proper began, Uncle Alaric consecrated the circle—"hallowed" it, to use a more Germanic word. This was somewhat similar to the way my mother had always cast the circle, but instead of a sword, Alaric used a hammer, and instead of the vaguely archaic English my mother used, he used genuinely archaic English—as in Anglo-Saxon.

The language, like the seidhr, like the gods, had the wyrd quality to it. If you listen carefully, the cadences of the rhythm and the shape of the words are quite like modern English, but you can't understand them: something is wrong with the vowels. Even the words that sound familiar leave you doubting: eorðan-moðor. "Earth mother?" Well, maybe that's what it is. You can't be sure. But what made it confusing is also what made it compelling: something totally foreign might have turned me away, left me thinking that there was nothing there for me except academic interest. But with this . . .

I heard Alaric call the name Þunor, and recognized it as Thor. It was close enough that I had to follow through; perhaps, if I could understand the old tongues, I could understand this religion based on them.

I spent most of my last two years of college submerged in ancient languages, mostly Old English. It was the only language of the old Germanic families that had an entry in the course catalog, and the only ancient language period that contributed to my English major.

I was fortunate enough to have two Old English courses available to me at Truman State University, taught by the inestimable Adam Davis. The first course introduced us to the language, its grammar (case markings! gendered nouns!), and its vocabulary (Her cuomon twegen aldormen on Bretene, Cerdic ond Cynric his sunu . . .) and a selection of the poetry and prose that has survived the millennia since the Norman Conquest. The second focused exclusively on Beowulf, read via painstaking line-by-line translation.

Oddly enough, the poem that has remained with me the longest is neither English in origin, nor in any way related to the pagan religions of the Anglo-Saxons:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum Si þin nama gehalgod
To becume þin rice
Geworþe þin willa
On eorðan swa swa heofonum.
Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
And forgyf us ure gyltas
Swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
Ac alys us of yfele.
Soþlice.

If you don't recognize that one right away, it's the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us our bread this day
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive the trespasses of others
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
Amen.

The prayer illustrates much of what I loved about studying Old English. There's a jigsaw quality to studying the archaic form of your native language. Most of the words in the OE version actually make sense, once you look at them long enough.

Saying the first line out loud is enough to make you realize it's the Lord's Prayer, just with different word order: "father our, you that art on heaven . . ." Lines like "forgyf us ure gyltas" become quite clear when you realize that "gyltas" is the ancestor of our "guilts." (Amusingly, this connection comes much more quickly if you don't know how OE is pronounced: the g is pronounced as a y.) The stumbling block in the sixth line, gedæghwamlican, can be broken down into comprehension as well once you understand that dæg is our "day" and "lican" becomes our "like." "Day-like" becomes "daily."