Ásatrú and Ancestor Worship
by Radböd Ártisson
It has often been pointed out in modern Ásatrú literature that "we honour our ancestors, but we do not worship them like we do our gods". Many Ásatrúar are uncomfortable with the term "ancestor worship". Some go so far as to say "ancestral reverence" or simply "honouring our ancestors" to avoid this term. This is because it is true: we do not honour our ancestors on the same level as we worship the Tivar. But neither do other cultures that practice ancestor worship. There is no reason to have to apologize for our trú! Other cultures look to their ancestors for inspiration and advice, just as we do. We raise our horns to our ancestors on Álfablót, Dísablót (Disting), Einharjär Day, and on any occasion in which we need to be aware of our closeness to our forefathers. There is also a heavy ancestral reverence aspect to traditional JóltiðR celebrations. This is no different from what other cultures do in their own ways. The term "ancestor worship" itself-because of its implications-is problematic for many of us, although the concept in and of itself is a comfortable one. Sadly, no other term is available in our language. Therefore it is best that we clarify what exactly we mean by this term and why it is important to us.
Are the gods our ancestors? Yes and no. To say that the gods are not our ancestors would be to ignore a wide body of literature from the Norse, English, and Goths. The Anglo-Saxon kings knew themselves to be the scion of Wóden.. The Swedish kings, similarly, knew themselves to be the descendents of Yngvi-FreyR. The Goths referred to their ancestors as Ansis ( <P Gmc. ansiuz "sovereign divinities") who are further described as semideos (< L"half-gods").
On the other hand the idea that any of the Æsir or Vanir were at one time human beings who were later deified by their fanatic followers would be insolent. The gods are forever gods, and were never men. The gods are as real as the rocks, the sun, and the trees, as real as the passion of love, hatred, and cunning. The gods may live in men. They may even, on occasion, appear as men. But they are not, and have never been men themselves.
For almost 96 percent of the world's population, ritual offerings and prayers to deceased blood relatives are an integral part of everyday life. People of Eastern cultures such as the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Japanese, and Tibetans, along with great segments of the populations of South America, Mexico, Cuba, Indonesia, Polynesia, the Eastern Baltics, Africa, and New Guinea offer respect to and seek guidance from their ancestors. This is true in Iceland and Scandinavia as well. Yet because most of us in the Western world were raised in the abrahamic tradition--which condemns ancestor worship--Western newcomers to Ásatrú tend to be sceptical of it. However, ancestor worship fits perfectly into the Ásatrúar's integrated view of the physical and spiritual worlds.
We have the ability to access certain wisdom and comfort through the ritual of the minni-toast and other forms of ancestor worship. Like many other cultures, our Teutonic ancestors taught us that our essence comes back to life in MiðgarðR through out descendents. This phenomenon is known as aptrburðR (ON "back birth"). The gods are not our ancestors-we are.
Old Norse literature is rich in sagas, which involve the theme of aptrbrurðR. One of these is þórðar saga Hreðu. In this tale, ÞórðR battles a berserkR named BárekR. During the fight, ÞórðR is wounded on the arm by BárekR's poisoned blade. ÞórðR proceeds home and soon dies. A son is born to ÞórðR's wife, Helga, during his funeral feast. The child has a scar in precisely the same spot as his father's fatal wound! Nine days later, at the child's vatni ausa (water sprinkling) and nafn gefn (naming ceremony), the boy is named ÞórðR, after his father. At 12 years of age, the boy avenges his father by killing BárekR in single combat. It seemed to ÞórðR that he had grown great by this act.
The Anglo-Saxon kings demonstrated their belief in back birth by their very names, successive generations being named in with similar familial roots, e.g.; Swefred, Swebriht, Selred, Swithred, Sigeric, and Sigered; also Ælfrid, Ælfric, and Æþelrede. That the Æsir themselves are subject to aptrburðr is evidenced by the Ragnarök story. For example, VíðarR, who avenges the death of his father, Óðinn, while Váli avenges the death of Baldr. These two "gods of vengeance" may be considered to be the aptrburðR of Óðinn & Baldr..
But what about all the classic conceptions of slain warriors living on in Valhöll? It is true that our literature discusses an afterlife in Valhöll. Óðinn holds another hall for the dead as well, known as Válaskjálf. Warriors are not the only ones to attend these halls, however, as evidenced in Egil's Saga and Ynglinga Saga. Moreover, Óðinn is not the only god to hold halls for the dead. Grímnismál lists halls for ÞórR (ÞrúðheimR), UllR (Ýdal's Plains), Yngvi-FreyR (ÁlfheimR & GlaðsheimR), Saga (Sokkvabekk) and Freyja Sýr (FolkvangR). And, of course, Hel's hall, Ná-Strand, is discussed in Völuspásaga.. References exist to demonstrate that the folk attend the hall of the deity that best suits them. A good example is in Hárbardzljoð (St. 24-25). In this tale, Óðinn, masked as a ferryman, says to ÞórR:
"In Valland was I and waged battles,
urged on the athelings, nor ever made peace.
Begets Óðinn all earls slain by edge of swords,
But ÞórR, the breed of thrælar."
To which ÞórR replies:
"Uneven would'st thou deal to Æsir their followers,
if too great might were given to thee."
Does this not contradict the idea of aptrburðR? Not necessarily. While a variety of opinions exist to explain the coexistence of these afterlife beliefs (as well as other mentioned in the Sagas), one has gained favour in many Ásatrú circles. There may be various aspects of the mind/soul complex that are separated at death. Some of these-particularly the hamingja (luck, spiritual energy; also seen by some as something of a "guardian angel"), hamr (physical appearance), and the fylgja (totem spirit) are passed down the tribal line. Another way to view this would be to borrow from other tribal traditions. For example, the Yorùbá people of Nigeria--whose convictions have spawned such religions as Santería, Macumba, and Candomblé--believe that when a person dies their emí (soul) goes to Ikole Órun (the Realm of the Ancestors). Later, the emí may return to Ikole Aye (MiðgarðR) in the body of one of the descendants of the deceased. The Celts hold to a similar belief in souls that live in the Færy Mounds--much like our howes in which the Álfar reside--only to return in the bodies of their progeny. So perhaps our time in the halls of the gods is temporary, lasting only until our rebirth.. I leave it to the reader to decide his/her own belief in this area.
One would imagine that everybody would be thrilled to have "proof," or a way to authenticate knowledge, of an afterlife. If one were to ask 100 "average" Americans if they believe in life after death, one or two might say "yes". Five or ten will say "absolutely not." But about 90% would say, "Well, I'd like to, but I really don't know." Yet when Heathenry offers them a way to "know," they still resist. What is meant by Knowledge? Knowledge is what someone really knows in his or her heart or gut. It's not always logical, but it is totally real and true. A mother, for example, knows that she loves her child. If a person or thing starts to hurt that child, she will instantly, automatically, and without analysing the situation do anything in her power to protect it. Even if the child misbehaves, or grows up and ignores her, that love will not waver. Knowledge is derived from feeling and experience. It is not quantifiable. One knows when one loves another person. An individual knows when a book, music, or a sunset moves him or her, knows when he feels peaceful or angry. Not because somebody has listed all the good characteristics of the person loved or explained the sentence structure in the book, the mathematical precision of the music, or the light waves of the sunset, but because when experienced, it is felt. Logic has nothing to do with it. In fact, the truth of knowing something is much more powerful, accurate, and trustworthy than linear processes of "learning" or "understanding." Ancestor worship provides the knowledge that life is a continuum by enabling the individual to actually communicate with the energy of one's departed family members and feel the profound feelings that it engenders. This may not happen in a familiar form--you may not find your grandfather sitting on the edge of your bed--but it will nonetheless be real and true. It is not a product of wish fulfilment or hysteria; it will come through as irrefutable knowledge of the non-linear side of reality.
Why are we so afraid of this knowledge? When we actually experience this access to other worlds, we are forced to question the very foundations and premises upon which we have built our lives--questions that invite change. And people are naturally resistant to change. Try to imagine the kinds of decisions you would make if you knew you would continue to live after your apparent death. Think about the number of short-term choices you make now. After all, if you believe that this is your only time around, then it makes sense to cram it with gratification and sensation. Growth and development would seem less important than acquisition and indulgence. The national debt, environmental destruction, pollution, the elimination of plant and animal species, fast cars and fast food--all are products of our culture's fixation on the current moment. But if you knew that you'd come back through your descendents, you would be far less likely to cut down the rain forest, use non-renewable resources, or poison the rivers and oceans with lethal waste. Laws won't stop you from tossing a junk food bag out of your car window, but understanding that you need a healthy Earth (JörðR) for your own long-term survival might stop you from tossing the bag! Wouldn't you also be more interested in child education and youth activity programmes?
An obvious question would be, then, how do we go about honouring our ancestors? The Eddas and sagas tell us little. Béowulf mentions the rite of the minni-toast. And there are scattered references to individuals sitting on burial mounds-but this is more for spá-work than for ancestor worship. Modern Heathen must rediscover much of this, as the ways of worshipping our ancestors (except for the minni-toast) has been lost. Some may wish to borrow from foreign traditions, while others may wish to devise their own. Which is better? The one that works, of course! If nothing else, our lineage has always been a practical one. We need today to maintain this tradition of "whatever works" just as the Scandinavians and Germans did during the Bronze and Viking Ages.
Through the honouring of our ancestors-whether or not we prefer to use the term "ancestor worship"--one is able to experience life as a continuum. And once one has, nothing will ever be the same again. One does not have to die and be brought back to experience it; ancestor worship is our connection to the past and our road map to a better future.