When reconstructing ancient heathen rites and practices in a modern day setting, a person can easily be left wondering how to implement them in a respectful way that leaves our ancestors’ worldview intact. As life is an organic (and thus evolving) process, we’re left negotiating a delicate balance between proper reconstruction of ancient rites and the necessary use of modern means. We must work to understand reciprocal gift exchange in order to carry out our rites in a way that encompasses both ancient viewpoints and modern practicality.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of spending time in a ritual and enjoying good company in the Theod that I am part of. I cannot properly convey how much it meant to be with those of like mind while taking part together in religious rites and celebration. I could easily spend the length of an article singing the praises of my Alderman who makes it all possible. One of the most important things that I have learned from him is that the internal emotional experience that comes from being part of face-to-face community is almost impossible to fit into words. It’s something that has to be personally experienced.
We can read and study, but until rites and practices are integrated into real world living, they remain only words on someone else’s page. I cannot convey the pure joy that I feel to hear my Alderman sing the old words. His presence when he begins the ritual feels like a stone being dropped in a pond. As his voice echoes, so to do the ripples flow out from his presence. It is a palpable, but indescribable feeling that touches everyone in attendance. Additionally, sitting around a table eating a meal together and sharing our experiences creates a continually forming bond among the participants. In my opinion, it is this experience that reflects the ancient worldview of heathen kinship and community.
I’ve often been asked what a person should do if they don’t have their own circle of heathens to gather with. This is a tricky question because I realize that many people do not live in areas that make it easy to gather with other heathens. My first response is that the most important factors in community are our families, ancestors, and selves. Working to maintain the peace, welfare, and prosperity of the home cannot be stressed enough. If a person is looking to expand outside of that, then up to a day’s travel may be necessary in order to meet with others who are willing to build a local community.
Travelling hours to meet others may not sound like an ideal solution, but it is a practice that was not foreign to ancient people. While independent tribes existed as their own communities, after trade and exploration became commonplace, travelling became something that was an ordinary expectation for many people. For those willing to travel and invest in creating a solid group, I think the time spent going back and forth is worth it. Working within one’s local community helps build a network and also establishes a reputation with neighbors. Note that I’m not talking about weekly treks halfway across the country here. These should be special trips spent with people who have a vested interest in you, and in whose success you are likewise invested.
Sometimes, we can be our own defeating element when it comes to heathenry if we allow a sense of ignorance to influence our practices. You do not need to know the names of every ancestor in order to make an offering to them. The act of tending their gravesite, or leaving them a precious offering, is still appropriate. It is also not required that levels of initiation be passed before a person can study a particular area of history as it pertains to heathenry. Do not be afraid of the academic material because you think that it does not reflect modern-day realities of living. Often, we can see particular aspects of daily life from the past that are still reflected in the present day. Using the example above of my experience this past weekend, we can see how the experience of gathering carries the past into the present in a way that allows us to better understand of our ancient forebears. When we can personally adopt such practices, our experiences in heathenry become enriched and meaningful.
When constructing rites, consider how certain elements of nature may have been viewed. Grain, for example, was valued, and thus its harvest is recognized by giving thanks for an abundant supply of food that sustains us through the year. Also, when leaving offerings to ancestors, consider the things that were a big part of who they were in life. Was your grandmother a gardener? Did she have a favorite flower? Was your grandfather a baker? Did he have a trademark recipe? Use this knowledge to determine your offerings. Display pictures of your more recent ancestors around your home where they can be seen and appreciated. Tell stories about them. Remember them.
Researching your ancestors’ country of origin, their cultural folk lore, and development of their tribes and land can all help. Further, if you feel so inclined, the study of your ancestors’ native language (if it is different from yours) can give context for how certain terms were used and aid in writing prayers in their remembrance. While religious experience is personal, applying these techniques and building communal bonds can help create a practice that is continuously enriching.
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