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Posts Tagged ‘house god’

In a previous post I wrote about the origin, meaning, and development of “god” from it’s Indo-European roots and how our ancestors used the word prior to the coming of the White Christ. The way in which educated Christians of the Medieval period discussed “classical” pagan divinities from Greece and Rome strongly influences the way we talk about our troth today. We often talk about “the gods” but are referring only to the Æsir and Vanir. Those of us who do not live in the ancient homelands of our ancestors have almost no connection what so ever with regional gods of lakes, rivers, forests, and so on that were known to our ancestors. We also seem to have a serious lacking in our understanding of the relationship we should have with the landvættir, the gods of the very land upon which our homes dwell. We seem to have almost no understanding of house gods, those beings that share the very rooms of our homes!

This is something that I am working very hard to correct in my own life. Part of it, frankly, is because I now own my own home instead of living on someone else’s property. I am now responsible for the land, the house, and the relationships with the beings that dwell there in. It is an understanding that I am just beginning to have and one that perplexes me greatly. When I was a child I was told only a few tales of the tomten, spirits of the house and farm, from Swedish folklore. What I was told wasn’t first hand knowledge or experience but Viktor Rydberg’s poem “Tomten” and Astrid Lindgren’s book The Tomten. I got to see pictures of some of Jenny Nyström’s famous paintings. I did get to see little decorations at Christmas of gnome-like beings that sat on the fireplace mantel. This was the extent of what I grew up with and it does inform some of my thoughts today.

What we see with the tomten are elements of the landvættir, as both are beneficial and protective to families and homes that treat them well and trouble-makers when they are spurned. It’s clear that the tomten are lasting memories of a larger belief, the belief of personal gods of home and land. The cultic practices of our ancestors are largely lost to us today but we do have memories passed down to us as folklore. We have the gnomes and brownies, the kobolds and nixies, the hob and the nisse, and goblins and trolls galore. They are so important to Germanic folklore that Jacob Grimm talked about them in his works. Folklorist and historian Thomas Keightley found the subject important enough to explain that the kobold of Germany is the same creature as the nisse and brownie. William Edward Hearn and George Henderson wrote about how these beings are surviving elements of ancestor worship that are derived from early animistic practices. Clearly, the gods of the land and home are not minor elements of our past but major considerations that we all too often neglect.

In modern practice, KveldulfR Gundarsson has written about the nature and relationships our ancestors had with these beings in his book Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry: Vol. I. This book includes an article he wrote regarding the day to day practices and beliefs and presents the argument that our ancestors engaged in regular and direct worship of these beings. We can see elements of this in much of the practices of our troth in Scandinavia today. It has been remarked on that the Icelanders in particular focus very strongly on the local wights and beings.

Since we now know that these personal and local gods were important enough to our ancestors to warrant the kind of honor and reverence that they received it is up to us to move forward with this knowledge and determine how we are going to reawaken this part of our troth. This is, at least to me, one of the hardest and most difficult things we can look to do for those of us not in our ancestral lands but it is not impossible. In truth, we have an advantage that we often neglect to consider. When settlers came to Iceland, they found it teaming with wild beings and they had to create new bonds of frith and troth with them. While Iceland was largely unsettled and untamed, the New World wasn’t but that should not be an impediment to our goal. It is also reasonable to believe that we have with us family gods and spirits that followed us from the Old Country to the New World. As the Æsir and Vanir went with our explorers and settlers, so too did the family gods. They didn’t abandon us just because we moved. That isn’t how our troth works. Those that remained with us through folklore and considerations after the conversion of the cross are waiting for us to take up our side of the agreement again.

So, how do we do this? How do we forge new bonds and repair old relationships? I am not a person born with sensitivity to the presence of these beings. I don’t see or hear them but I do recognize their aid when I see it. When I moved into my new home I made offerings to the landvættir that dwell here. I can’t say how they reacted, at least not at that time. Since then, I’ve made offerings to all of our gods, great and small, and this past Vetrnætr I know that this was rewarded. I had plan to ask a boon of one of the evergreens in my yard by cutting a small piece from it to use as my blessing tine. I did not have to. A perfect piece was on the hood of my car when I went to pick up the meal for that night. When all was said and done, I thanked them for their gift and returned it to them. I believe that the relationship between us is starting to be forged and that the best thing I can do for them is to recognize their place in my life, their homes on my land, and to treat them and the land with respect. There will be a place set in the house to serve as the home for the house ghosts as well. Following Swedish folklore, I offer oatmeal with butter and some fabric as the annual payment for the tomten. They are the way in which I see the house gods and it is in this fashion that I honor them. If we are to rebuild what was lost then we would do well to look to our folklore to guide us to the proper means of showing our respect and devotion.

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The nature of the word “god” is one that we rarely discuss in modern Heathen circles but its linguistic heritage is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to in the last few days. How did the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and continental Germanic peoples use and understand the word and how is it different from the modern, monotheistic construct? How does their concept explain obscure references to things like “house-gods” and what does this mean for us today?

In order to answer these questions we have to start with the etymology of the word. The linguistic consensus is that the Proto-Indo-European word is *ǵhu-tó-m and is based on the root *ǵhau(ə)-, meaning either “to call” or “to invoke.” This means that Proto-Germanic word *ǥuđan could mean “one who is called upon.” It is worth noting that the Germanic words for god were originally gender neutral, meaning that they applied to male and female supernatural beings equally.

What we can see from this is that a god is any supernatural being that was called upon, or invoked, not just what we understand today as beings who occupy the highest strata of a spectrum of supernatural beings. The nature of being called upon also indicates a belief in a positive relationship with humanity as we are effectively inviting them into our homes, our communities, and into our lives. This differs from offerings made to otherwise hostile entities as acts of propitiation. In such cases it appears to have been common to go to the “home” of the offending wight, such as the entrance to the troll’s cave, and make offerings there so that the being will leave people alone rather than acts of veneration held in the home or village center.

This gives us insight into what KveldulfR Gundarsson suggests might well have been the most common form of day to day religious activity, offerings made to house and land wights. We regularly see the concept of “house-gods” arising from multiple areas of the lore and we can see additional evidence in folklore, such as the Christmas porridge for the tomten in Swedish folklore. Simply put, a house-god would be any wight with whom we share living space that we call upon and give honor and worship to. It is seemingly the most logical course of action when addressing day to day concerns, especially regarding the home and property, to call upon these beings because they share the same space as us and have a direct investment in the prosperity and well being of the home and land.

One of the regional differences in Ásatrú is the focus of the religion. In the USA, our focus is largely on the Aesir, the Vanir, and our ancestors. We discuss the land wights but they take a minor role in our religious practices. In Europe, and Iceland in particular, emphasis of worship is on the wights. This has, until recently, puzzled me but I believe that the understand of a god as any supernatural being called upon for aid and veneration, and the possibility of “house god” worship being the most likely common practice, explains this proclivity. It also seems to me that we might benefit from bringing these concepts and understandings into our daily lives. When we see discussion of “spirits” in a mythological context, the power and authority it would have had as a god to pagan worshippers gets stripped away. He observed that this is because the dominant view is a monotheistic normative wherein power and authority is derived from the greater pantheon and not from its own inherent nature. This seems to easily explain the reduction in status and power that “minor” river, lake, stream, or spring gods once enjoyed from local worshippers. It also seems quite possible that many of us today aren’t aware that we are functioning under that monotheistic normative of “trickle down divinity” instead of recognizing the inherent might and main of these local “spirits” and thusly don’t give them due credit or consideration.

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