King Radbod and the Importance of the Ancestors

This week on August 9th many Heathens who are members of the Asatru Alliance, or who opt to use their calendar, set aside time to celebrate the life and memory of the Frisian King Radbod (680-719 CE), who is a hero to many living Heathens and Pagans today.

16th Century Embroidery depicting the story of King Radbod's near-baptism on display at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht.

Christian missionaries came close to baptizing King Radbod, but before carrying through with the ceremony and conversion he asked a question, “Where are my dead ancestors at present?” Wolfram the Christian missionary answered, “In Hell, with all other unbelievers.” Upon hearing this, Radbod changed his mind about converting and replied, “Then I would rather live there with my honourable ancestors than go to heaven with a parcel of beggars .” Beggars here refers to Christians as a whole, but also to the long-time enemies of the Frisians: the Franks who were by this point in time primarily Christian. Radbod then expelled the missionaries from the kingdom for no other reason than how important his ancestors were to him. He could not bare the thought of being separated from them.

In the Heathen worldview, each individual is part of a vast tapestry, that connects and interweaves them to their Gods, the land wights, and yes the ancestors. Our personal fates are influenced by the ancestors that came before us, specifically by what is known as hamingja (ancestral luck). That is not to say that we are ‘fated’ to a certain destiny, but rather that we have inclinations to certain things. If we inherited ill luck, by working with the ancestors we can overcome those items and change the influence of those threads upon us. A real world example of this is that studies show that children who were sexually abused by their parents, tend to grow into abusers themselves. But this isn’t always the case, and someone of a strong mind and determination and perhaps aided by others can overcome this inclination and never be an abuser at all.

By knowing the orlog (that which has come before) and how it has affected your hamingja (ancestral luck), you can then work on turning the wyrd (the current threads of your fate) to your favor. Just because alcoholism runs in your family, you can work hard to make sure that you yourself do not succumb to it. Part of how you can turn the orlog to your favor comes about by being both willing to do the work on your end, but also in turning to one’s Gods and Goddesses, ancestors, and living friends and family for help.

Many groups focus on honoring the Gods, sometimes to the exclusion of the ancestors, or are stymied as to where to even begin to work with the ancestors. I find that a great place to begin is to set up an altar for your ancestors. All you need to do is find space: part or all of a bookshelf, part or all of some sort of counter space, or the top of a piece of furniture. Back in my college dorm days when space was at such a premium, I even used a small basket (a little smaller than the size of a12 oz soda can) and used that for my ancestral altar, placing items like photos & ancestral heirlooms inside to represent the ancestors, and I also placed offerings like chocolate & tobacco inside.

An altar isn’t a stagnate thing and as such should be cleaned and worked with regularly. After all, if you had family coming for a visit you wouldn’t want them sleeping in a guest bedroom crawling with spiders & roaches, and coated with inches of dust. If you are fortunate in that you have many items you’d like to use on the altar, but not the space to display them all, you can opt to rotate items out. Incorporating offerings of cut flowers, burning incense or candles, and laying out offerings of food and drink are also a great way of connecting with your ancestors via the altar, and in working with them. While it would be fantastic if you got into the habit of doing this daily, try to start by getting into the habit of making an offering to them at least weekly.

If you’re not sure what to offer, you can always offer a portion of the food you are eating from your own meals. Just as you might share a meal with a guest that comes to your home, you can never go wrong with sharing your own meal. Ultimately so long as you approach your ancestors with respect there’s no wrong or right way to construct an altar, at the end of the day you need to build the altar around things that are meaningful to you as being representative of the ancestors who came before you. As you grow more and more accustomed to working with them, don’t be surprised if you start being inspired or prompted by them to include other items.

Remembering the dead Heathen heroes, as well as our ancestors is always a good thing. So I encourage everyone to take some time out today and honor your ancestors, but don’t be shy in honoring the dead heroes as well especially those who fought for something you believe in or benefit from today.


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