Queer reconstructionist heathen trying to organize his thoughts. He/they. Norse rune worker, artist, and bird watcher. No frith with fascists.
5436 words

Loving the Landvættir

Paganism is often broadly associated with tree-hugging new-age beliefs about nature worship. Not wrongfully so, if you ask me; the veneration of nature is key to my version of Heathenry. Animism and panentheism are two central tenets of a heathen worldview, and they are the major drawing points for me as a budding naturalist and a child of a wooded hollow.

Of the many spirits heathens revere, one category that is ever-present and critical to maintain good graces with are the landvættir. Also known as land wights, landvættir are, in the biggest of nutshells, the spirits that reside in the land. Not simply the earth itself! Hell, sometimes something as small as a tree stump can have a wight residing within. Some of these wights have simply always been there, essentially manifesting as a personification of a natural feature that has never been occupied, and some mortal creatures like humans and animals can pass on part of their soul to become a wight to a familiar area. This is exemplified by the old Germanic belief and veneration of the Álfar, or elves.

Álfar are also capable of being either ubiquitous legions of the honorable dead residing in and around grave mounds, as well as being avatars of nature responsible for the fertility of the land. A festival at the end of the harvest season known as Álfablót is celebrated in gratitude to these powerful entities. One of the most important deities in my worship, Yngvi-Freyr, is the king of Álfheim, the realm of the elves. Freyr is deeply tied to fertility cults of the old Germanic societies, often portrayed with a prominent phallus and surrounded by grains. There are also husvættir, or house wights, that cling to specific buildings and properties. There's definitely overlap between the two, in practice. Perhaps your house wights and land wights stemmed from a previous family that lived there and they manifest together in the garden.

photo of a beaver dam at midday

A small beaver dam, Happy Jack, WY.

(I should note that in the broadest sense, the word "wight" includes everything from Óðinn himself to the spirit inside your body right now. But today, I'm just talking about the land wights.)

Historically, wights were revered as those that guarded the farms, villages, and shores of viking-age settlements in Western Europe. A 14th century manuscript tells of farm women bringing gifts of food to boulders and nearby woods to ask for the land wights' favor. Happy, well-loved wights make for a prosperous harvest and a happy homestead.

On the other hand, when neglected or upset, the land wights are believed to be responsible for serious damage to their land. The infamous beast heads at the bow of viking longships were put in place to scare the land wights of their raid targets and enemies. Driving out land wights is believed to render the land barren -- the crops will fail, the buildings will crumble, the animals will die, and the cities will collapse without the wights living within them keeping them afloat. There was even mention of a law in the 11th century story of the founding of Iceland, Landnámabók, that shows early settlements forbade ships from bearing their dragon-prows when returning home, as not to upset the wights of their homeland.

Heathens reconstructing the veneration of these eternal spirits have a lot of material to work with. Animism is present in a huge portion of world religions, from devoted worship to simple cultural superstitions, making it easy to work local folk practices into your praxis. It may even factor into modern endeavors of environmentalism, this act of trying to ensure the wealth of the wildlife. Transplanting helpful widlife, cleaning litter, and planting native species are beneficial to both the physical land and the spirits dwelling within. Some ways your worship can be directly beneficial to mortal entities is ensuring your offerings can be consumed safely by flora and fauna alike.
For example, let's say a heathen takes an offering to the base of a great tree. They pour water over the roots, and leave out a bowl of seeds and nuts for the landvættir in gratitude. Not only are these great staples that are easy to obtain and safe to offer year-round, the animals of the area can enjoy being a little more fed for the day after you let the land wights partake in their gift. Other nature-safe offerings would be milk, flowers, herbs, ground eggshells, and bone meal.

As someone devoted to the landvættir, nothing feels quite as intimate as walking through an untrimmed hollow, an unpaved marsh, or a mountain blanketed in silence. The dirt soft beneath your feet, the air clean in your chest, the plant life lush and blooming... These are places where people like me are overcome with gratitude, to be placed on an Earth as beautiful as this. In uncertain, hellish times like these, it's as if I am relieved of the burden of being human just for a moment, when I realize how much the land does on its own. No matter how many months I spend at home to protect my family from ill health, I am still swept along in the turning of seasons as the landvættir wake and rest throughout the year. Birds still reared their young in spring and trees still changed their coats in autumn. I see this world chug along without me and somehow I still feel invigorated. Nothing we as humans can do on this planet can compare to what it does for us, in exchange for absolutely nothing.

This has become less an education piece and more a love letter to the spirits within the land. At risk of sounding like one of those tree-huggers I mentioned, I'd like to share a bit about my perceptions of the local vættir, seeing as I have minor blessings to be spiritually tuned-in. Since moving to CO two years ago I have felt the landvættir awaken in and around my property. At first, they were exhausted; neglect and manipulation had made them weary. Simple adoration was enough to give cause for a great yawn and stretch as they realize someone "sees" them.

Pay attention to the creatures around you, folks. You are not seperate from them, you are surrounded by them, and most importantly, you are one of them.

Community in Heathenry

This blog was originally for me to collect my thoughts, but the idea evolved a bit as I wrote, and I felt a desire to make this a sort of compendium of one heathen's practices. Specifically, crafted to be understood by non-heathens and even non-pagans.

After my first two posts went public, I shared them with my raised-Catholic-currently-broadly-Christian mother. She appreciated the transparency and clarity, since my religion has always been pretty thoroughly obscured from her view. (She's almost certainly reading this. Hey Mama Llama!)
I took the opportunity to ask what she'd like me to elaborate on, what aspects of my faith she doesn't quite get. Her response was how heathens form communities without the worship being centered on a church gathering in favor of home practice. This is a great question, but it's one many heathens still don't have an answer to.

I'll split this into two parts: reasons we should strive for heathen gathering, and reasons we might not be able to.

The Positive: What kinds of benefits would come from heathens forming groups?

The idea of heathens in groups or communities is usually best executed in the form of a kindred or hearth group. A kindred is less of a church, however, and more of a pod or clan of people who may or may not be related by blood. These groups may meet for ceremonial holidays like Jól (Yule), Sigrblót, Midsummer, and Vetrnætr (Winternights) to name the main feasts in the Norse tradition. Maybe they also meet for weekly/monthly hearth worship. Every kindred is different, and we as a community are generally okay with that. I've personally never been part of a group or kindred so all my information is retold from the perspective of an observer.

Humans are social animals. We thrive when we find ourselves in a setting where we fit in and feel we have our needs met. This is critical when in a spiritual context! One of the core desires of every human searching for social circles is common traits and characteristics, and to be able to find that in a spiritual context is extremely fulfilling and lays a rich compost of fertile ground from which to begin personal spiritual growth. The gently abrasive practice of challenging, discussing, and comparing theology with your fellow human is exactly what it takes to grind your fresh rock of belief down into a polished gem.

The last bit is that a lot of people around my age are pretty dependent on online spaces. I'm in a lot of heathen Discord servers. This is the only way I connect with heathens at this point, and until the godsdamned plague is over, it's good enough for me.

The Negative: Why don't heathens already worship in groups?

My initial response is, well, we just don't have the numbers to warrant places of gathering. Even in my local in-person pagan meetups (pre-COVID), I was the only heathen. Hell, sometimes it seemed like I was the only polytheist. Neopaganism is extremely diverse in its beliefs, sometimes a little too broadly defined for my tastes. Typically in an effort to attract a crowd, pagan groups water down their criteria for members until it's...well...mostly water, barely coherent as its own substance. I heard this phrase somewhere once and I live by it when it comes to building safe communities: "Be open minded, but not so much so that your brain is dripping out your ears."

If I were to attempt to make a heathen group with my bare minimum criteria of "non-racist Germanic polytheists only" I would almost certainly be the only member within a hundred miles.

This brings me to a good follow up point: there's a lot of racist heathens that need to be culled to maintain a safe space for worship. The rise of nationalism and the invention of white supremacy in Germany pre-WWII is responsible for almost all interest in Germanic religion and mythology post-1900. Even today, you can find people that believe being in an "unbroken line" of "pure blooded Norsemen" being required for "real" heathenry. Sounds pretty familiar huh? The nazi revival of Norse mythos is so insidious and so well-blended into Old Norse and Viking era studies that even non-racist people part of a very similar religion to heathenry known as "Asatru" actually believe propaganda saying symbols invented by nazis are ancient heathen symbols. In the face of 2020's Summer of Protest, it is more critical than ever that we as heathens weed out these pests and take an actively anti-racist stance. Our ancestors would be ashamed of us if we saw wrongdoing and did nothing.

Truly, I would love to have a kindred I could turn to for support in person. But up until very recently, the overculture in heathen/asatru spaces is that you're not a real heathen if you aren't out there shouting at a bonfire with a bunch of biker dudes in a group. Modern heathens have fought hard to prove the validity of home worship (and there is historic precedent for it). Trying to break the cycle of shame for not having a group to worship with is hard work.

For now, I am fine knowing that every time I step into the sacred space before my altar, the sacredness is shared with my friends at their hearths around the world, even if we can't see the webs of Wyrd that connect us.

Ritual Praxis with Shepard

In this entry we'll be walking through the steps I take to give offerings to the gods, the vættir, and the ancestors. This is personal to me, and many heathens have their own takes on ritual practices in their own hearth cult.

Prologue: The Groundwork

The first thing to lay out is when and why to perform an offering. To maintain a healthy and cyclical relationship with the entities you give to, there should be some semblance of consistency. There is no real historic precedent for what days you should do this, but it's pretty easy to find a schedule for yourself. Don't make it so frequent that you're losing passion for it, but don't put such huge gaps between it that you forget to care.

For me, I've settled on doing offerings on the full moon each month. Most holidays, feast days, etc. in ancient heathenry were on, or based on, lunar phases and sun position. A lunisolar calendar is historically attested for most ancient civilizations, but it's really hard to reconstruct the specific days that major feast days happened because there's very little specifics in sources like the sagas. We typically are left to make inferences on things like this or build our own plans. Truthfully, a lot of heathens use the dates from the neopagan Wheel of the Year based on equinoxes, solstices, and various Celtic/Wiccan holidays. We do what we can with what we have. I'll make a separate post about feast days later on as they come around.

Step 1: Cleansing

First, I wash my hands and rinse my mouth. Ideally I will have showered that day.

Then, I make sure my altar is overall clean and organized. Dusting, straightening up decorations, and removing anything I feel is unnecessary for the current affair. Next, I apply a few drops of tea tree oil to my finger tips and trail the oil around the rims of candles and offering vessels. I chose tea tree because it has antibacterial properties and a very "clean" smell, so it works as physical and spiritual cleansing. I place my hands on the altar, and center myself by breathing deeply and attempting to clear my mind. I'm an ADHDer, so there is usually ambient northern folk music playing to keep random thoughts out of my head.

Why? Consecration and cleansing is a key part of establishing a space as sacred. The profane must be removed to the best of our mortal abilities -- dust, dirt, bodily fluids, and general bad vibes should be scrubbed from the worshiper and the space itself. These are profane and cannot be allowed in a sacred space. This can be accomplished a million different ways, but I have my own methods.

Step 2: Setting

I light all the candles on the altar. Typically, one flame is enough, but I enjoy the warmth and light that come from candles, so there's at least 5 lit for any given ritual. Offerings are placed in the bowls. I have four vessels on my altar: on the left, a bowl for the Landvættir, in the middle, a bowl for the gods, on the right, a bowl for my ancestors, and near the center, a wine glass or chalice for liquid offerings such as mead or water. My staples for offering are any of the following, usually multiple at once:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Bay leaves
  • Dried lavendar
  • Pennyroyal
  • Coarse salt
  • Juniper berries
  • Various incense

Why? I prefer to place offerings before beginning the ritual to keep from fumbling around while in a ritual mindset. Spilling or struggling to light a candle when you're in the zone can be kind of annoying.

Step 3: Opening

I speak out loud, and call the name of my hearth deity, Frigg, and a gatekeeper deity, such as Heimdallr or Hræsvelgr.
"Dearest Frigg, Hearth Mother, I ask that you stoke these holy flames and clear the way so I may pray. Hræsvelgr, Great Eagle of the North, I ask that you allow my words to reach the gods through your wings."

Why? This step is mostly present for the sake of the worshiper to get into a ritual mindset. It can definitely help for clarity's sake to petition a gatekeeper or hearth deity, as jumping straight to talking to the gods can feel like talking to a wall. A hearth deity changes your altar from a fancy bookshelf into a direct line to the divine, and the gatekeeper opens the doors on the divine's end for free flow of prayers and offerings. Think of the hearth/gatekeeper deities as calling an operator and asking them to put you through to your desired entity.

Step 4: Offering

Again, I speak aloud, and address the spirits to which I am offering. Sometimes, rituals are targeted to a specific god or spirit, but for the sake of simplicity I'll just give an example of how I pray to each of the main groups.

"To the holy, loving gods that give me strength and guide my path, I give my thanks."
individualized examples:

  • "Freyja, dear Lady of War and Magic, thank you for keeping me safe beneath your wings without allowing weakness or fear to corrupt my heart."

  • "To the sacred dead, my ancestors by blood and by kind, named and unnamed, I thank you for guiding my hands and granting me your wisdom."

  • "To the spirits that live in this soil, the souls of those who roam other realms, and the vættir who keep the land alive, I thank you for the health of the earth and the strength of the stones."

At this point, I pause, sometimes for several minutes, to allow the aforementioned figures to take part in the offering.

Why? Heathens generally don't believe that the gods et al. are omnipotent or able to read minds, and thus we call out to them by name to grab their attention.

Step 5: Closing

Once I feel the gifts have been received, I petition the hearth and gatekeeper once more, asking them to essentially end the call.

"I now ask that the gates be closed until I return again. Dear Frigg, Dear Hræsvelgr, I thank you for letting me through, and offer to you in gratitude for ensuring safe passage of these gifts."

A moment passes as I allow them to partake, and allow the way to shut. With a final thanks, the ritual itself is done.
The candles are snuffed, but any lit incense is left to burn down fully. The following day, I take any organic material (i.e. leaves, flowers, water) outside and dump it in the bushes, and anything not safe for the earth or wildlife (i.e. metal, salt, alcohol) is disposed of inside either in trash or in the kitchen sink.

Why? Since my rituals take place at night, I often plan to remove them the next day. A typical practice is to remove offerings before they go bad, but not too soon after the ritual. Think of the sacrificial goods as a meal you give to your guest; you wouldn't give them shriveled or moldy food, but you wouldn't take it before they've finished either.

Epilogue: Reading

After everything is is finished and the flames are out, I retrieve a bag of Elder Futhark runes, shake it well, and prepare to read them. (I plan to make an in-depth post about my rune divination practices later.) For a post-ritual read, I go by this formula: ask question->pull rune, ask question->pull rune, and so on until I get a sense of how things went.

Why? This practice helps me by letting me know if my offerings were accepted, and if I did anything that earned the gods favor. As an example, one night I read my runes after an offering of herbs, water, and sunflower seeds, asking the stones who received it. The answers pointed to Baldur, a shining god of beauty and power, often described as glowing. I asked what He enjoyed of the sacrifices, and the rune for "seed" came up. Now I knew Baldur preferred sunflower seeds, and tucked that fact away for the next time I needed to call on Him.

Overall, my home rituals typically do not take more than 25 minutes. They are direct, poignant, and satisfying at their current length and density. Feast days and holidays may warrant longer or more wordy rituals, as well as larger or more complex gifts.

How does a Heathen Worship?

Heathenry is orthopraxic, not orthodoxic, meaning that this religion is based on praxis or practices rather than specific accepted creed. In the days of pre-Christian Europe, the hearth was the center of the home. From its flames came food, warmth, and a central meeting point for the family and the broader community. The vast majority of religious worship took place around a fire, for flames were the means of transmuting offerings to the gods. Blood, animals, meats, alcohol, and baked goods were burned and sacrificed to earn the favor of the gods. While offerings are not recorded as happening in the home, we can see the hearth as an analogous structure of holy flames, and some heathens have reconstructed a purpose for the home fire that we call hearth cult.

dimly lit photograph of a home altar with a wooden statue of Freyja at the center

A photo of my altar after spring cleaning.

The barest bones of a good home altar for heathens are composed of two major components:

  • A flame
  • A dish for offerings

Beyond that, the altar can be decorated to the tastes of the individual. Maybe this means idols or images of gods, photos or tokens of their ancestors, bones and pelts of animals for the landvættir...Add as much as you like, or keep as it minimal as you like.

The Flame. Obviously, a fireplace or mantle would be the closest thing to an old-fashioned hearth, but many heathens either don't have space to worship there or don't even have proper fireplaces. Most often, the hearth fire is symbolized on a shrine by way of candlelight. For dorm-bound or high-hazard heathen homes, even electric candles can do the part of symbolizing the holy fire.

The Offering Bowl. In lieu of burning an offering directly, most heathens opt for the indoor-safe practice of relinquishing gifts in a bowl or cup near the flame. Perhaps a chalice for drink and a bowl for food.

I'd like to acknowledge a bit of an elephant in the room when talking about pagan rituals. The words we use -- offering, sacrifice, and the like -- tend to evoke negative images of someone slaughtering an animal on a stone altar, bathing in blood, and burning its body. Living in the modern age means we realize not everyone can shake a whole sacrificial cow once a week for worship!
...I'm just joking, obviously. Many heathens take issue with animal sacrifice. Only when someone is informed on best practices and is prepared for all parts of the death does a heathen kill for the sake of offering. It is uncommon, even then. Heathen offerings nowadays often include water, grains, salt, cooked food, incense, and herbs. Personally, I prefer herbal offerings because they can be disposed of safely in nature.

This is the groundwork for heathen worship at home. In my next post I'll walk through the steps of my usual rituals. So far, my intro posts have been generalized on purpose, but now that I have the basics out there I'll begin explaining my own praxis.

What is Heathenry?

Several heathens have tasked themselves with defining our religion, my favorite of which is the brilliant mind behind the Longship. Blogs from individual, established heathens are incredibly helpful to new heathens. It's a snapshot of someone's life, a personalized toolset to help them uncover the groundwork for their own reconstructionist faith. My goal here is not to explain myself to other heathens, however; this is to help non-heathens and even non-pagans understand what people like me believe.

So, what does it mean when I call myself a "heathen?"

Let's start with the title. The word "heathen" comes from an Old English word, hǣthen, probably best translated to mean something like "country-dweller," and was used to describe people who held pagan beliefs further into the less-developed areas of Germanic Northern Europe. This can be tracked as far West as modern France and as far East as the borders of Russia. It later became synonymous with "non-Christian," and was used in a less endearing tone against those whom the Church could not reconcile with. Now, people who align with these pre-Christian Germanic beliefs have reclaimed the title of "heathen" and use it to describe our religion broadly as Heathenry.

There are a few main beliefs that count as the foundation of heathenry--belief in many gods (polytheism), belief in the spirits of the land and waters (animism), the cycle of gifting, and the World Tree. To get an in-depth description of these concepts, check out the Longship pages on each. I'll give my little summaries here of the parts I want to add information on.

Sepia toned line drawing of Yggdrasill
  • Polytheism. Belief in the gods is fundamental to heathenry. There were many regions that practiced heathenry, such as Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Gothic...the list goes on. One hurdle to get past is the modern construct of "pantheons," or forming distinctions between these groups' god beliefs. The borders we see between civilizations simply weren't as apparent to our ancient ancestors. These were travelers, sailors, and traders, constantly exchanging both goods and ideas with other cultures around the world. In fact, I and many other polytheists believe that all the gods exist, we merely choose to or are called to worship specific ones.

  • Animism. The heathen worldview sees spirits in all things -- from stones to mountains to streams to oceans -- that we refer to as wights or vættir. These beings can be appeased and offended, and their favor dictates the wellness of their domains. In the Viking era, respecting the vættir was of utmost importance. The iconic beast heads at the front of their ships were intended to scare the landvættir of their enemies homelands, driving them from farms and shores and leaving the land barren and weak. The vikings took care to remove these beast heads before going ashore at the rocks of their homes, lest they shoot themselves in the foot.

  • The Cycle of Gifting. The gods, vættir, and ancestors give us an incredible amount of blessings. They foster our crops, heal our bodies, and strengthen our bonds with our kin. We as human worshipers can aspire to "repay" this debt by offering gifts to them. The point of gifting is not to treat the gods as vending machines for blessings, however--it is critical to continue giving to someone even when you expect nothing in return. Giving to your fellow human does not have to be material. You can give time, love, care, acts of service, and even simple hospitality. Giving to the gods, however, requires a material aspect. The only hope we have of reaching the gods in their unknowable place in the universe is by transmuting the goods we reap on their beautiful Earth. This is completed by offering to them at an altar or shrine, where fire is lit to act as a gateway to the divine. That being said, no god wants their devotees to bankrupt themselves in debt to the divine. Most heathens offer things as simple as salts, herbs, and incense.

  • The World Tree. Heathen cosmology places humanity squarely in Miðgarðr, one of nine worlds on the branches of the World Tree we call Yggdrasill. These nine worlds house various classes of being that hold power in different spheres, from the chaotic and wild-hearted jötnar of Jötunheimr to the holy gods on their thrones in Ásgarðr. At the base of the tree is a great well of a mystic substance known as Wyrd. The Well of Wyrd is a basin from which our actions' consequences flow to create orlæg, or "first law", for those who come after us. To put it simply, Orlæg is circumstances we are born into, and wyrd is the tapestry of thread that make up potential futures we weave for ourselves, and the ripples that flow from every action we take.

These core ideas are the pillars of my heathenry. Many heathens place priority on different aspects of the religion, but these are ones I felt were necessary to lay out in the open right away.
I know from the outside, paganism may seem like a lot of hippie, new-agey nonsense, but we as heathens actually hold a surprisingly coherent worldview if you just care to look.