Ritual Etiquette for Visitors and New Ásatruar or Heathens
Written by: Steven T. Abell (with permitted used)
Hail, and Welcome!
We’re glad you’re here. Are you new to Ásatru or Heathenry in general, or a visitor at one of our gatherings? If so, there is a lot you might want to know, and we’ll talk about only a little of it here. This short description covers some of the practical issues, so your new experience goes smoothly for everyone.
Ásatru (pronounced OW-sa-troo) is also known as heathenry. It is a re-constructionist religion, continuing in modern context the beliefs of Northern Europe prior to roughly 1000 C.E. We do what we can to follow the practices of that era, but the historical material is sparse and we often don’t have much to go on. As a result, you will find a lot of diversity in heathen rituals from one group to the next. But the points mentioned here will provide you with a good set of ground rules: things to do, and things to avoid, while you’re getting to know us.
Things to Do
There are three principal kinds of heathen rituals: blót, sumbel, and seidh.
Blót (rhymes with boat) and blessing come from the same root word far back in linguistic history. A blót can take many specific forms. It involves an assembly of participants and a leader who manages the rite. Before a blót begins, there may be instruction from the leader on what is about to happen. These instructions might contradict what is described here. Listen carefully and use your good sense before, during, and after the blót. Many blóts include the passing of a horn of mead or ale. At some blóts, a non-alcoholic horn is provided for those who do not drink. Please choose whichever horn you prefer. Most horns are curved: keep the curved point pointed down or sideways, or you will end up taking an unexpected bath. If you have, or think you may have, something the rest of us would rather not have, or if you are uncomfortable drinking from a communal vessel, or if you simply prefer not to drink, just raise the horn and then pass it along. No one that matters will think any the less of you. If the horn was given to you by one of the people conducting the blót, give it back to that person when you are finished with it.
Sumbel (rhymes with bumble) is a ritual that focuses entirely on the passing of the horn. With each pass around the circle, some verbal contribution by each participant can be made, but is not required. Each round has a theme that will be announced beforehand. A common sumbel is the Toast-Boast-Oath. If you are not clear on the themes, let us know, and someone in the circle will be happy to help you. And just in case this sounds like a drinking game to you, rest assured that it is not: words spoken in sumbel are not casual speech. As explained earlier, you do not have to drink from the horn. As explained later, never make an oath unless you will carry it out. Oaths are not expected of you, and oath rounds often proceed with no oaths being made.
Seidh (rhymes with bathe) involves questioning a seer. Its mythic aspects are hard to explain in a short space. Blót and sumbel are religious rites, but seidh is in a different category and not all heathens practice it. Seidh is often performed outdoors, and usually at night. A seidh can go for a long time, and leaving before it is finished is disruptive. If you plan to attend, have someone explain it to you beforehand, consider what you will need to get to the site and back safely, what clothing might be necessary for your comfort, and whether to take something to sit on.
Other Things You May See
You’ll often see people dressed in archaic clothing styles at Ásatru gatherings. This is a point of preference for them, and you’re welcome to do so, too, if you wish. Wearing such clothing does not make you more heathen; not wearing such does not make you less. Also, there is the question of how much clothing is enough. Unlike some other pagan traditions, ritual nudity is not found at public heathen rites, and is extremely uncommon even at very private ones. You may sometimes see a lot of skin, but participants are generally expected to be dressed in a street-legal fashion.
You’ll often see people carrying weapons. Yes, they are real. No, a person carrying them is not going to attack you, unless you do things that normal well-mannered law-abiding modern citizens aren’t likely to do. While edged weapons are commonplace, most groups require that you leave your firearms at home or in your car. However, even groups that permit heavy artillery often have at least some rituals where no weapons of any kind are allowed, so listen carefully to the instructions given beforehand. Failure to heed this may require restarting or even abandoning the rite.
We often leave gifts for the landspirits of the places we visit. Gifts can be of many kinds, with small amounts of food or a beverage being the most common. Your leftovers that you no longer want are not appropriate. Also, put some effort into making your gift such that it will not be seen as litter if it is discovered by other persons.
Things to Avoid
First and foremost, don’t do anything you’re not comfortable doing. As our guest, we respect your beliefs. We ask that you respect our beliefs and yourself by not involving yourself in any thing that you don’t understand, or in any way that does not feel right to you. You are welcome to stand quietly in the assembly or nearby, and no one that matters will think any the less of you.
Many of our practices are highly participatory, often involving calls to our various gods by name. But unlike some pagans, most notably Eclectic Wiccans, most Ásatruar do not mix pantheons. Invoking non-Norse/Germanic gods during our rituals is not appreciated and will not win you any friends. Similarly, if you follow one of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), invoking elements of your religion at an Ásatru event is simply wrong, no matter how fervent your belief. If we ever visit one of your gatherings, you may be confident that we’ll return the favor of your respect in kind.
Within the larger heathen community, there is disagreement about the appropriateness of hailing Loki or his children, especially Jormungand and Fenris. If you do this, reactions will range from none, to thinking you have really bad taste, to the perception of grave insult or even assault. Unless you are familiar with your group and know their feelings on the matter, it’s best to assume that hailing Loki is a very bad idea. Hailing Surt or other non-allied Jótnar is in the same category.
Oaths are taken seriously by Ásatruar. Before you swear to do something, first be sure it is an honorable thing to do, then be sure it is something you can do, and furthermore something you will do. That doesn’t mean it has to be easy. In fact, if you go to the trouble to make an oath, it’s better that it not be easy, as many of us will tell you that insignificant oaths are made by insignificant people. Oaths made to the god Tyr are especially sacred and are therefore discouraged. Failing to uphold an oath is a mark against your character that no heathen will overlook. Measure your oath carefully before you make it, or don’t make it at all. Oaths create consequences and obligations for those who witness them as well as for those who make them, so discuss your intentions with your host before you swear: this might not be the right time or place or company.
You’ll quickly notice that alcoholic beverages play an important role in many of our rites. But take the advice of Odin, the leader of our gods: drinking to excess is an overrated pastime that often exposes a fool. We’ll prefer that you’re able to remember the time you spend with us, and that we remember you positively. If you know yourself to be alcoholic, we will respect, admire, and honor your abstinence. If you are under the legal drinking age, assume that you will not be consuming alcohol.
Ásatru gatherings are usually organized under a bond of frith. This is an old word whose casual translation is peace, but that’s not really it. Heathens can and do disagree about all kinds of things, often loudly. We can do so and still remain frithful. We don’t even have to like each other. All that is required is that we get along and maintain at least civil behavior. So if you’re a drunk or a troublemaker, leave now. If you are inclined to behave dishonorably, especially toward women or children, leave now. If you are likely to damage or walk off with things that don’t belong to you, leave now. If you do not intend to respect the rite you are attending, leave now. Persons who break the frith will quickly find themselves ejected, or on the wrong end of the law, or worse. Don’t make it necessary for us to demonstrate.
We know that heathen religion and culture may be outside of your current experience. You will find heathens at any event who will happily tell you whatever you want to know about it, and about us. We won’t try to convert you, so you needn’t hesitate to ask at any appropriate time.
Once again, Welcome!
Copyright (c) 2011 by Steven T Abell