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Paganism: Part V - Sacrifices

In the Viking Age the Christians reported that some Pagans made sacrifices to the Æsir, Vanir, elves (id est spirits of the dead) and other vettr ("creatures") "out of season", asking them for favours. They also reported that many Pagans looked upon these sacrifices with contempt. The Christians believed that these people weren't "real" Pagans. Instead they had what was known as trúa á mátt sinn ok megin ("the belief in your own strength and power").

Like always Christian interpretation is ignorant. These Pagans were indeed just as Pagan as the Pagans who made such sacrifices (also) "out of season" were. The reason some Pagans didn't make sacrifices "out of season" was that whatever you need help from the gods to get, you don't deserve to have. If you ask for help from the gods, in some context, and is granted aid, the profit belongs to the gods. You don't deserve it yourself unless you acquired it by the help of mátt sinn ok megin ("your own strength and power").

We see this from some archeological finds, where weapons, boats and human remains are found in Scandinavian bogs and lakes. Perfectly usable and high quality weapons and equipment were destroyed and prisoners were executed and thrown in a holy lake or hung in a holy tree. The booty was given to the gods. The victors chose to do this, after the battle, rather than take their dead enemies' arms as war booty or sell it, and use or sell the prisoners as thralls, because they had asked Óðinn for help to win the battle. They probably destroyed all the equipment to make sure nobody tried to recover it, or possibly to symbolically "kill" it and thus make it available to the gods, who live "in the realm of the dead".

We actually have a well known historical example of this too, when Herman (Arminius) of the Cheruski tribe in year 9 lead the Germanic resistance against a Roman invasion of Germania east of the Rhine. Apparently they exterminated two of three whole Roman legions and after a total victory hanged more than 10.000 (!) Romans in the trees in Teuteburger Wald in Thüringen, as a sacrifice to Óðinn (or Wōþanaz, as his name was at that time). This fairly brutal outcome prevented a Roman conquest of Germania east of the Rhine, and the Romans weren't too keen on sending any more legions to try and conquer Germania east of the Rhine after that.

Had these Germanic tribes not asked Óðinn for help, they could have used or sold the people captured as thralls (something that was common practice in Antiquity). They owned the victory to Óðinn, though, so it all belonged to him - to Hangatý ("god of the hanged", one of Óðinn's nicknames).

When (all) the different Pagans made sacrifices "in season", on the high festivals, they were not supposed to ask for special favours from the gods, but it was done to strengthen the ties to the gods. Therefore a sacrifice in Pagan Scandinavia was known as a blot ("blood", "to strengthen"). When you have visitors, you show them hospitality and serve them food and beverage. On the Yule-Eve the gods visited the living accompanied by the elves ("eternal", the spirits of the dead), whom they brought with them from Heaven. Although Heimdallr, Þórr or Óðinn is said to lead this procession of gods and ghosts - best known as the Oskorei ("Army of Thunder") - the other gods were present too. To make some of the food available to the Oskorei they hanged cakes and other food items in the trees (id est they "killed" them to make them available to the dead) and they poured mead over the grave mounds to make the dead feel welcome, and they drank and ate in honour of the gods. They even made their beds especially carefully on the Yule-Eve, and then slept on the floor, to enable the guests from Ásgarðr to sleep well, in the beds of the living.

The banquet was held not to ask for a good and peaceful year, but to thank the gods for the peace and prosperity the gods decided to give them in the coming year. They let the gods decide what they deserved, and gave thanks to them for whatever they would get from them, be it much or little. The other sacrifices of the year served the same purpose; to give thanks to the gods for whatever fortune the gods decided to let come their way. It served little purpose to ask for much or to ask for special favours, because - like I stated above - what was gained that way belonged to the power helping them gain it. Such extra gains had to be given (sacrificed) to the power that had helped them, or else they would be struck by bad hamingja ("luck").

We all receive favours from the gods, that we (should) thank the gods for in the high festivals of the year. We show respect for the gods by just accepting our destinies and appreciating all the favours that come our way, as we do our best in life. Trúa á mátt sinn ok megin was in other words not a lack of faith in the gods, but rather complete trust in the gods (it was Ásatrú: "belief in the Æsir", "faithful to the Æsir"). These Pagans didn't ask for special favours from the gods, but instead welcomed whatever fortune came their way anyhow. They relied on whatever the gods and chance (destiny) had equipped them with from birth; their own strength and power.

The Pagan philosophy is well described by the saying: "each man gets what he deserves". If you ask for something extra, for something more, then you have to pay for it, one way or the other. If You don't annul it yourself (by giving/sacrificing the extra gain to the gods), the "wrong" and the "injustice" of extra favour will be somehow annulled by bad hamingja - fully in accordance with the Pagan understanding of justice. The gods will restore the balance on their own, some way or the other, and the bad luck can come when and where you least expect it. Each man gets what he deserves. Nothing more, nothing less. Asking for special favours is a risky business.

The custom, mostly in the late Pagan era, or in the case of Southern Europe even in Antiquity, of asking the gods for favours "out of season" is simply religious decadence, and should not be used as a model to modern Pagans. The most extreme religious decadence and ignorance would then be prayer; a pretty sacrifice of time and (often egocentric) thoughts intended to make the gods grant the wish of the person praying. Not only is this very disrespectful, in the sense that the person praying suggests that he or she knows better than the gods; it is also folly to ask the gods to change the destiny of someone - and thus ask them to deprive that person of the purpose with his or her life. Whatever happens in our lives is meant to happen, so why would we want to change that?

We should never try to misuse the power of sacrifice. Besides, only the initiates, that had gone through the initiation mysteries, could communicate with the gods, so prayer is in any case nonsense unless you have gone through the Pagan initiation mysteries. Normal uninitiated human beings cannot communicate with the gods anyhow. They don't know the asamál ("language of the gods") and don't have the keys to their realms. They don't know the runes ("secrets").

What you don't experience in this life you have to experience in the next life, so there is really not even a point in trying to avoid your own destiny, no matter how horrible it is, how unjust it may seem to you or how much you would like your life to be different. Accept your destiny, and accept other people's destiny too. Like Julius Cæsar said it: amor fati ("love your destiny"), and don't try to change it through petty sacrifices or prayer. Influence life and the world only with mátt sinn ok megin!

Unless the situation is very special, or if you are ready to pay the price and annul it afterwards, we should only make sacrifices, lead by the initiates, to thank the gods for everything they have given us in life. Be it rainfall or sunshine, adversity or prosperity, bad luck or good luck. Everything has a purpose - and each man gets what he deserves.

However, I will stress that a so-called ill-fated life is not handed out as a "punishment" (and I can add that punishment is a term that is alien to the Pagan philosophy), but to enable us to grow, prosper and thrive in the long run. It is handed out to us to enable us to become stronger, better and nobler human beings. All adversity in life is an opportunity to become better (purified), and not a punishment. Only the adversity we face can bring us closer to the gods. Besides; the "evil" in our world brings forth the opportunity for the "good" to do its deeds.

We are all responsible for our own lives, in the sense that we decide for ourselves what to bring into the grave when we die - how "white" (pure) we are when we die. What we need to learn and go through in life is decided before we are even born. It is decided by our past (id est our past lives). We are always responsible for our own past, and because of that we are all responsible for what we are today. We all always get what we deserve.

The belief in the gods and their free will and the belief in destiny seems like a paradox, but it is only a result of the fact that the gods seek to penetrate and improve everything, while the laws of necessity offer them some resistance. Mankind balances between the free will of the gods and these laws of necessity.

There are indeed many paradoxes in the universe, and mankind is one of them: we are earthly and divine creatures; our bodies come from Jord (Norse Jorð, "Earth"), Mother Earth, but our minds (or so-called "souls") come from Bore (Norse Búri, "born"), the Sky God - and while the mind longs for home (Ásgarðr), the body keeps it on Earth, and will continue to do so until we have been sufficiently purified and improved.

Varg Vikernes
January 2005



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