For most followers of the Northern Tradition upon learning about this path they read the myths about the Gods, and many tend to also study the Havamal. The Havamal is one of many sagas found in the Poetic Edda, and many of the stanzas are known as being a depository of advice as it applies to wanderers and guests when they travel abroad; it talks about what is proper behavior beyond one’s own homestead, and cautions the traveler to be wary so that he might eventually return to home having suffered no mischief or misfortune.
The Havamal is divided into sections:
- Gestaþattr – guidelines for the traveller, and the guest as it applies to hospitality
- Women – romantic love and the nature of women; it also tells the story of how Odin seduces a giantess to obtain the mead of poetry
- Loddfafnismal – morals, ethics, code of conduct
- Runatal – relays the story of Odin learning the runes
- Ljodatal – references a series of ‘charms’ or ‘spells’ while only one is explicitly connected to the runes, many believe since this follows the Runatal, that all the charms speak of spells one can use with the runes.
But a trend that I find alarming, is that some are taking the Havamal as guidelines on how to religiously honor the Gods, the Ancestors, and the Vaettir. The Havamal was NEVER intended to be used as a religious guideline on how to HONOR these numinous beings. One of the stanzas in particular being misused derives from the Havamal’s Runatal:
“Better ask for too little than offer too much,
like the gift should be the boon;
better not to send than to overspend.”
Those misusing this stanza are using it to state that while we should honor the Gods, we should not overly do so, that rather any offerings we make should be modest. This particular stanza comes from the section of the Havamal where Odin learns the runes hanging from the tree. It is important to note that this particular stanza which comes at the end of the Runatal has a different poetic structure than the previous stanzas in this section, so there’s a great deal of debate in academia about why this is. It is also important to note that some translations of the Havamal change up the order of the stanzas because the translators felt it made more sense ordered in other ways.
So when you’re reading things don’t always take it at face value that you’re reading the text as it appears in the original source. But since this stanza does appear in the Runatal, it is most likely that this stanza is in particular referring to the runes. As true runemasters know, the runes have a certain level of sentience about them. There is a cost associated with learning them, and in using them.
Odin hung, impaled on a tree for nine days and nine nights to learn them… They are not tools one idly picks up, or uses for frivolous purposes. The runes, much like a horse may turn barn shy with a new rider, have a reputation for testing those that use them and if they find the runester ineffective and unskilled may turn the casting back on them.
Of course it could also be likened to the type of advice offered earlier in the Havamal as found in the Gestaþattr or Loddfafnismal sections. If this advice was found in those sections, then it would refer more to exchanges of hospitality between a guest and a host, i.e. exchanges between people. Afterall, a guest shouldn’t gift greater than their host for two main reasons:
- it may embarrass the host amongst their community causing negative political repercussions both for the guest, and also for the host amongst their own people
- it could make the guest a target of envy for dishonest men who wish to steal your wealth away
But since the Havamal when it offers advice of this nature is intended to be for people (specifically men in antiquity) as they travel among other living men… these ‘words of wisdom’ are irrelevant if used to codify the worship of the Gods & Goddesses, Ancestors, and Vaettir.
The mere notion that we could be overly generous in our offerings to THEM is ridiculous. The Gods and Goddesses, the Ancestors, and yes even the land Vaettir ALL make our very existence possible. Without Them or Their blessings we wouldn’t exist at all. We can NEVER offer enough to make up for the very gift of existence They’ve bestowed upon us.
If we look to antiquity, we do see examples of major sacrifices in ancient rites (as found in the lore and in the archaeological record); we can glean other practices in the daily bits of folkloric tradition that survived to more recent times as well.
In the lore we see an elite priesthood mentioned in Hrimskringla whose sole function was to serve the Gods, and we can see a variety of other persons in religious roles (magicoreligious, judicioreligious & politicoreligious) throughout the breadth of the lore for these cultures as well. In Tacitus’ Germania we see that there are priests and even priesteses who travel the countryside with the Gods and Goddesses in processionals. We have countless references to blot, where animals were slaughtered, and sometimes yes, people ritually sacrificed too in offering, including the royal family.
In the Ynglinga saga, the Swedes were plagued with bad crops and starvation. So that following autumn they sacrificed oxen at the Temple of Uppsala, the next autumn things were still bad so they sacrificed men, and the next year as the harvest was still greatly lacking the Swedes sacrificed their King Domalde and in the year ahead the good harvests returned.
There’s a reason why the ritual name of blot is tied etymologically to concepts of both blood and sacredness. Blood is life.
I was awed during a visit to Denmark’s National Museum in Copenhagen a few years ago. Amongst the museum’s displays were a selection of retrieved offerings that had been bogged in antiquity. There were countless artifacts made from precious metals and gemstones, but also the more humble and intimately personal: woven braids of people’s hair. Think of that, the pride people take in their appearance, and yes in their hair. It was such a beautiful offering from the self, and may have been the only thing those devotees could sacrifice.
Now obviously the Gods, Ancestors and Vaettir understand that we may not have the financial means to bestow upon them great and tremendous gifts as part of our regular and daily practice… in these instances sharing what you can is still of vast import, even if it’s just a bite or two from your meal, or a swallow or two of whatever you have available to drink. Nor would our Ancestors probably thank us if we go bankrupt in giving them offerings; you still need to take care of the basics of life: food and drink, warm clothes, and good shelter. But we can honor Them not just with physical offerings, but also with heartfelt, sincere devotion—prayer and great thoughtfulness of Their impact on our lives. Painting the Deity, creating a song, etc. are offerings that can be put forth that are rich in the self.
But it’s impossible for us to ever be more generous than THEY when it comes to us bestowing gifts upon the Gods and Goddesses, the Ancestors, and the Vaettir. We simply wouldn’t exist without Them.
I find that there is a certain miserly spirit present in huge swathes of the Northern Tradition religious community. You will go to a gathering, and there will be tables ladened with food and drink, and the Gods might get a cup, and usually of something less desired than other items there for the humans in attendance.
People will bring food and drink to share with others and complain if you go to take a portion of that food to put on a plate for the Gods, because the people wanted to eat it. I find for some people, that the offerings given are at best a ‘token’ done not from a place of true respect or awe of the numinous, but rather something they do with little thought. It’s a far cry from the depictions in antiquity.
In part I find it is a combination of baggage from Christianity (man not nature is the center of the universe, and rebellion to Christian piety), and the hubris that comes out of ego and selfishness. Where I live it also is quintessentially American, we bow to no man, we don’t dip our flag at the Olympics to the host country, so why would we show true reverence to the Gods?
This is quite a contrast to the human understanding of awe that ancient heathens had towards their Gods. In Tacitus’ Germania there’s a passage describing the prostrations used to the Gods:
At a stated period, all the tribes of the same race assemble by their representatives in a grove consecrated by the auguries of their forefathers, and by immemorial associations of terror. Here, having publicly slaughtered a human victim, they celebrate the horrible beginning of their barbarous rite. Reverence also in other ways is paid to the grove. No one enters it except bound with a chain, as an inferior acknowledging the might of the local divinity. If he chance to fall, it is not lawful for him to be lifted up, or to rise to his feet; he must crawl out along the ground. All this superstition implies the belief that from this spot the nation took its origin, that here dwells the supreme and all-ruling deity, to whom all else is subject and obedient.
Now I’m not suggesting we should start up human sacrifices again, but we should be more mindful in giving the Gods the offerings and reverence They are due. But there is a decided lack of sacred mindfulness both in ritual, and in the offerings many within the community give. And using the Havamal as justification for stinginess is markedly poor scholarship, parsimonious and frankly asinine.