Are there ritual quarters in the Northern Tradition?

One of the questions I have been asked alot in my more than 20 years as a Heathen is if our Northern Tradition also uses ritual quarters.

To answer this question, I’m going to back out a bit to the bigger picture to hopefully explain the connection from what we know of the ancient past, to certain aspects of the evolution of the modern religion and how it is practiced today. When someone goes searching through the vast amounts of ‘lore’ (sagas, skaldic and eddic poetry), as well as accounts written by outside travelers (like the Romans, or various Muslim travelers) to try to reconstruct religious practices, while there are indeed many references to such practices, unfortunately they tend to be rather brief and essentially consist of “they held a ritual”, which in the scheme of things isn’t terribly helpful for those of us today who would like to know exactly how such rituals may have been performed.


One of the few detailed surviving examples for a ritual comes from The Æcer Bót found in the Anglo-Saxon text, Lácunga. Unfortunately, this ritual has been Christianized and focuses on rectifying problems with the land whether it is infertile for some natural reason or if something unwholesome had been done to the land through some form of sorcery. So it’s not terribly useful for most people who are looking for a ritual structure that they can use to honor the Gods.

One of the most thorough descriptions of a ritual, can be found in Heimskringla, as it outlines a specific ritual known as blot. The word blot derives from the Old Norse word for ‘sacrifice’ and indeed refers to animal (and sometimes human) sacrifice. In the modern context many in the Northern Tradition use the term blot to refer to any ritual where items are given in offering specifically to the Gods. There are a few believers who choose to only use the term to refer to an actual animal sacrifice, and for other type of rituals with offerings given specific to the gods (ancestors, etc.) these persons tend to opt to use an alternate term faining instead for these rites sans blood sacrifices.

 

HALLOWING IN THE ANCIENT PAST

Rituals were usually conducted in sites that were already attributed by ancient believers as being sacred sites, these included sacred groves, temples, and so forth. We don’t see much mention in the lore as to how these sites were specifically consecrated or hallowed, or if they needed to be re-consecrated with every rite.

We do know that depictions of Thor and/or his hammer were used as a means of consecration or blessing as found in Bronze Age rock carvings, Danish and Swedish runestone inscriptions, as well as in the consecration of marriage as seen in Þrymskvida. We also know thanks to Heimskringla’s Saga of Hakon the Good that there’s at least one reference to the sign of the hammer being made (although the context of this particular tale suggests this may not have been a normal occurrence).

Now why do we see SO much evidence of Thor as a consecrator here, and not much with the other Gods? The ancient cultures that worshiped these Gods were primarily oral in nature, and we see that there are transitions in popularity with the Gods both as time passes, but also from one community to another. For whatever reason, at the time of Christian conversion Thor tended to be one of the more popular Gods, and since this was the period of time when we first begin to truly see a written record with these peoples much of our historical written texts are but a ‘snapshot’ of a culture that had existed for thousands of years in varying forms. Some scholars have theorized Thor’s prominence during this period of time may have been because of his function as a defender of Asgard and Midgard in the tales, so that as native Heathens felt their way of life threatened by the encroachment of Christianity they turned to HIM to protect their faith.

800px-marten_eskil_winge_-_tors_fight_with_the_giants_-_google_art_project
Thor’s Battle Against the Jotnar by Martin Eskil Winge

There were many sacred spaces found in groves, mounds, and other wild and natural areas, but sources are vague if special consecration happened in those areas, or if they were inherently sacred to begin with. There were laws in both ancient Norway and Sweden that expressly prohibited the execution of rituals on those perceived areas, but rituals could be performed just outside those perceived areas such as an offering left just outside of the area. So to my thinking that implies some areas were perceived as sacred to begin with and needed no consecration.

Boundaries were created to demarcate areas using everything from stones, ropes,  fences, etc. These boundaries were a visual representation of the  frið-garðar (“peace-enclosures, frith yard”):, where it was understood special cultural rules operated in the boundaries within. There’s also a brief mention in the lore to fire being used to help consecrate.

But do we know of any ancient types of consecration that may have referenced the cardinal directions?

The Æcer Bót does reference physically taking tufts of sod from the 4 corners of the unwholesome land in question. While not being used specifically to hallow the space, certain things are done to these 4 pieces of sod to help rectify, cleanse and bless the whole of the land in question. To my recollection, this is the only thing that comes close to the ‘quarters’ being used in a ritual setting in the ancient past. Some other of the Anglo-Saxon Charms, feature evangelists names’ at the quarters, and so some theorize (myself included) these were Christianized versions of what were once pagan rites that had Gods or other numinous beings at the quarters instead.

The only other mentions I recall to the directions comes in the snippets of our lore that tell our creation story.

OUR CREATION MYTH

To find our origin story and learn of the nine worlds we have to read, compare and contrast the information from multiple references:VöluspáGrímnismálVafþrúðnismálAlvissmal,etc. By doing so we learn that the primordial world of fire Muspelheim existed in the South, as did the primordial world of ice and cold Niflheim in the North. Between them stretched the void, Ginnungagap. Into this void poured forth the elements of fire and ice, and in the intermix, contact, and friction between them the first living being–a giant–Ymir appeared in the melting ice. From his living body comes humans, giants, dwarves, and gods. Eventually, Odin and his brothers will kill Ymir.

Ymir’s body will form the world as we know it. Ymir’s blood become the waters, his flesh the earth, and his teeth and bones become the mountains. His skull becomes the sky, and the Gods set four dwarves (named for each of the cardinal directions) whose sole task it is to hold the skull aloft over the earth.  Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri (whose names literally mean in Old Norse: North, South, East and West). Little else is ever mentioned in surviving sources about these four dwarves.

HALLOWING TODAY

While the Northern Tradition is at its heart reconstructionist in nature, many of those who have come to this path including some of the original leaders and early influencers came from various branches of general paganism or Wicca. So yes, there is undoubtedly some influence happening from people’s previous exposure to other forms of paganism including Wicca.

Today, while not all those of the Northern Tradition do so, many will use some variation of what is known as a Hammer Hallowing to consecrate sacred space or to begin their ritual. The Hammer Hallowing is a modern invention, combining the historical proof we have of Thor being called on to consecrate combined with aspects of ceremonial magic, which impacted the form of rituals in the general pagan community. In a hammer Hallowing, Thor is invoked to consecrate the area, and the sign of his hammer may also be made. Sometimes this is done as a simple prayer devoid of any connection with the directions. In other cases this is done where Thor is asked to consecrate each of the directions. These Thor-asked blessings of the directions are not to be confused with the quarters used in other aspects of the general pagan community that connect with other concepts like the elements (earth/wind/fire/water) or a connection with the Goddess (for those who adhere to the Maiden/Warrior/Mother/Crone four-fold ideology).

 

One such examples follows:

Hamaar y Nordhri (Hammer in the North)
Helga ve thetta ok hald vordh (Hallow and Hold this Stead)
Hamaar y Austri (Hammer in the East)
Helga ve thetta ok hald vordh (Hallow and Hold this Stead)
Hamaar y Sudhri (Hammer in the South)
Helga ve thetta ok hald vordh (Hallow and Hold this Stead)
Hamaar y Vestri (Hammer in the West)
Helga ve thetta ok hald vordh (Hallow and Hold this Stead)
Hamaar y Ober mir (Hammer Over Me)
Helga ve thetta ok hald vordh (Hallow and Hold this Stead)
Hamaar y Undir mir (Hammer Under Me)
Helga ve thetta ok hald vordh (Hallow and Hold this Stead)

 

 

Now that is not to say that the elements do not belong as an aspect of our religion, for if we think of it in terms of our creation story… the elements are indeed represented, and even represented in the various numinous races found throughout the nine worlds. The gods, the giants (Fire Giants, Frost Giants), the elves and dwarves all are connected to and sometimes represent aspects of natural forces. In the Northern Tradition afterall, fire and ice are in a sense the original ancestral forces that gave life to the original ancestor of all of us – Ymir.

In addition to the more prevalent hammer hallowing, there are other types of hallowing. Some individuals/groups may call on the Gods and Goddesses, a specific one for each unique direction. Or others may simply hallow the place with an all-inclusive prayer that never mentions the directions at all.

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One thought on “Are there ritual quarters in the Northern Tradition?

  1. Pingback: Are there ritual quarters in the Northern Tradition? — Wyrd Designs | Magikal Journeys Art Studio

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