View Full Version : Heathen Idolatry: On the Making, Care and Feeding of God-Images

Thursday, October 20th, 2005, 02:43 PM
Heathen Idolatry: On the Making, Care and Feeding of God-Images

"Although the holy stead stood within a beech-wood, only ash and oak grew there. Hailgi's spread arms could not have half-compassed many of the tree-trunks, neither the gnarled oak nor the smoother ash; some might have stood since the folk of early years had shaped the shadows on the stone. A straight path led from the rock to the middle of the clearing, where a harrow of heaped stones stood beneath the most awesome ash-tree of all, an old towering above all the others. Its branches shadowed a great wooden shape: the image of Wodhanar, his face masked by the shape of a helm with a crudely-cuteagle's head jutting from between the eyes and his body hidden by the deephack-marks that showed the folds of his cloak, sat throned behind the harrow. Aspear stood loose in the ring of his closed fist, its butt resting on the ground and its other end lashed to a branch of the tree. No rust marred their on point that gleamed above the God's head. Beside his seat stood a rootless tree-stump, smoothed by the same craftsman's hand and worn by use.

`Wodhanar, grant us leave to come here,' Hailgi said softly. `Fettered, wecome to Fetter-Grove; we bring you gifts won in fight.'"

--Stephan Grundy, Valkyrie

One of the finest words in the Icelandic language is skurdhgodhdyrkari, "idolater," literally translated as "one who cultivates carved gods." This was one of the greatest parts of the troth of our forebears: the cultivation of carved god-figures by adornment, the pouring of blessings, the giving of gifts--in short, by all the things we do as part of our worship.

Some might ask, "Why do I need a carven shape for worship when I can already feel the Gods and Goddesses above me and speak with them in my soul?" It is true that god-shapes are not absolutely needed for the practice of Germanic religion--which is a good thing, since most folk who are starting out have little or no access to such things. However, there are many reasons to have god-figures, not only for our own sakes, but for our deities'. First, and most meaningful to my mind, is the fact that a carven god-shape has blessings poured onto or before it, calls made to it, and so forth, becomes a storehouse of concentrated might in the Middle-Garth for the God/ess inquestion. The earthly god-figure helps to strengthen the linkage between the worshipper and the deity--each can reach the other more easily through it, whether giving gifts, asking questions and getting rede, or simply communing. The principle is somewhat the same as that of marking out and blessing a holy space, only more focused and longer-lasting. A tree-god also, clearly, gives the worker both an image and a specific point to focus on when doing a rite. Again, if this is not actually needed, it is at least helpful in strengthening one's awareness of the specific Person or Persons with whom one is dealing. A smaller god-figure, such as can be carried at all times in purse or pocket, makes it easier to do rites, call for aid, give thanks, or meditate on one's deity wherever one may be. Thus while the God/esses are always with us and about us, it is still good to be able to look upon them in the Middle-Garth--and know that they are looking upon us as well.

We know that carved gods, or tree-gods (Old Norse trégudh, German Holzgott), were made and blessed by the Germanic people at least from the earliest part of the Iron Age onward. In The Prehistory of Germanic Europe, Schutz cites the male/female pair of road-guardians from the moorssouth of Oldenburg (made slightly after 400 B.C.E.) and the holy pair from the Braak (eastern Holstein, ca. 500-400 BCE). These figures are notable in that they, like the tall Danish "Nerthus" made from a minimally carved forked stickin the early part of the Iron Age (Gløb, The Bog People, p. 180), were carefully laid to rest in peat-bogs when their time of work was over--and thus hidden and preserved by the bogs, were able to survive whole until brought forth into our day, like Líf and Lífthrasir coming forth from their dark hiding place to fill the world with folk after Ragnarök.

The sagas and historical accounts of the Viking Age are rich with tales of god-shapes both great and small which were worshipped by our forebears. The best-known of these, of course, is Adam of Bremen's description of the great temple at Uppsala, where "Thor" sat in the high seat, armed with his "sceptre" and flanked by "Wodan," who was dressed for battle, and "Fricco" with his large phallus. Other well-known tree-gods include the image of Thórr at Trondheim, which "was large and all wrought with gold andsilver. Thórr was set up so that he sat on a chariot. He was very radiant. Before him were two wooden goats... Both chariot and goats ran on wheels" (Flateyjarbok I, ch 268, p. 320). The practice of having a god-shape which could be pulled in a holy procession may go back to the Bronze Age, as shown by the Trundholm Sun-wagon (a bronze image of the Sun in a wain drawn by a wheeled horse).

Hákon the Great, one of the mightiest warders of Norwegian Heathenry, had his own hof in which the images of his family idises (dísir) Thórgerdhr and Yrpa, stood. As told of in Brennu-Njál's saga ch. 88, Thórgerdhr was "as big as a man; she had a great gold ring on her arm and a headdress on her head." When Víga-Hrappr came to burn the hof, he took one arm-ring from Thórgerdhr, another from Yrpa, and a third from the image of Thorr (which, like the tree-Thorr at Trodheim, also was set in a chariot). According to Flateyjarbok I, ch. 173, Hakon had also given Thórgerdhr a thrusting spear; in ch. 114 it is described how, when Hakon brought his friend Sigmundr Brestissonar to ask for her blessing, after due worship had been given her, Thórgerdhr loosened the silver ring on her arm, which Sigmundr kept as the embodiment of her favor and luck. It is clear from these and other references that tree-gods were adorned with treasures and clothes like human beings, and that these treasures could embody their might. In the prose of Hdlgakvida Hundingsbana II, it is mentioned that Dagr made sacrifice to Odhinn for revenge, and that the God lent Dagr his spear; this may well suggest that, as envisioned in the fictional quote above,the image of the God could have held a real spear which was used in ritual and which could have been lent (together with all its might and luck) to a human for a time in return for a fitting gift.

There are also references to tree-gods being made strong enough to walk and talk, as is the case with Thórgerdhr in Flateyjarbok I, ch. 173. In Gunnars tháttr helmings, the image of Freyr is carried about Sweden in a wain by his gydhja, who is also referred to as his wife. The tree-god is strong enough to wrestle with Gunnarr, but Gunnarr wins the fight and takes his place, causing much rejoicing among the folk when their God shows himself able to eat drink, and get his wife with child. While it is entirely probably that the portrayal of the over-credulous Swedes in this tale represents the Norwegians' first recorded "Swedish joke," it is also, as Ellis-Davidson observes (Gods and Myths, p. 94), almost certainly based on a genuine practice of carrying the god-image about in a wain for peace and prosperity, as was done within the Wanic cult since the time of Tacitus' Germania. The activity of the tree-gods is itself meaningful to us; whether we believe that such images were actually able to move about untouched by human hands (more likely, one may guess, in the case of the wagon-Thórrs) or not, it is clear that they were mighty sources of direct rede for our forebears--that it was, and still is, possible to speak to a carved god-shape and get a clear answer back.

Tree-gods also took an active part in other ways. Eyrbuggja saga tells how Thórólfr Mosturskeggi, when choosing a place in Iceland to settle, cast the pillars of his high-seat overboard. One of these was carved with the image of Thórr; Thórólfr decided to follow the guidance of his God and settle where it landed. It is very likely that Thórólfr had actually given worship to his God through this particular pillar in his house, as well as the images in his temple; for him the carven shape through which he could see Thórr would have been also the heart and the support of his home and clan. H.R. Ellis-Davidson also mentions the "god-nails" in the pillars of Thórólfr's temple, comparing them to the seventeenth-century Lappish thunder-god images which held hammers and had an iron nail and a bit of flint driven into the head for striking fire. She suggests that the "god-nails" might have been used for striking ritual fire, and also have been connected with the bit of whetstone left in Thórr's head after his battle with Hrungnir (Gods and Mythsof Northern Europe, pp. 78-79). If this is so, it would strengthen our understanding of the God/esses as taking part in our religion on every level--even the most physical, where Thorr stands as the earthly giver of the hallowed hof-fires!

At this moment, you may well be thinking, "Well, gee, this is all very well and good, but I live in a small apartment, not a great hof, and have no more idea of how to make a big elaborate god-image than I have of how to breed wombats." Fear not, you do not have to be a professional woodcarver to make an acceptable, traditional tree-god. You don't even have to have any great artistic skill. One of the mightiest, and most beautiful, tree-gods of our folk is the Danish Nerthus-figure mentioned above--a tall, very slender tree-trunk with a thin fork about halfway down (her legs), slightly carved to make it clear that she is female. No head, no arms, no elaborate detail: just the slim shadow of the Goddess, her mystery brought forth forever in the silent wood. One of her male counterparts, the Broddenbjerg God, consists of a more widely forked stick with legs planted in the ground and a third branch jutting out at "crotch"-level (yes, he's likely to be Freyr!), and the outlines of a bearded face very roughly carved at the top. The Oldenburg pair were even simpler: flatboards sawed into crude outlines--the male being a square head on top of a serrated rectangle, the female an oval head above three pairs of curves (breasts, well-fed waist, and hips), the bodies terminating not in legs, but in the single stakes by which the god-shapes were driven into the ground. In some ways, I have found when looking on the surviving tree-gods of our forebears, the stylization or crudity of the carving actually helps in sensing the God/ess beyond it; the eye is not distracted by detail, but can take in the whole gestalt of the deity.

In the Viking Age, sticks or posts tipped with heads were quite common as god-images. The Germanic peoples, like the Celts, knew that the head was the seat of the mind, and thus the part most likely to embody the whole. In fact, the Norse word stafr (stave, staff) was used both for human beings and for god-shapes; we know the former from poetry, the latter from the Lithuanian borrowing of the word for their own tree-gods: stabas. Such holy staves were most likely to have been god-posts of the sort that ibn Fadlan described the Rus merchants as setting up and worshipping along the Volga. As these carved gods were made of wood, none of the larger ones have survived, but we do have a smaller head-post (27 cm.) from a 10th century settlement. This figure is armless, but wears a cap or helmet and has been carved with belt and short pleated tunic-skirt (From Viking to Crusader, cat. #277, pp. 300-301). Small head-topped sticks (6-8" long) are also common in Trondheim and other medieval Scandinavian towns; the catalogs comment is that "They must have had a specific purpose, perhaps as dolls" (From Viking to Crusader, cat.#579, pp. 380), but it is also possible that these small posts show us the last survivals of hidden home worship in the North. To show our Gods in this most basic way, is to strengthen our sense of kinship with them; for it was thus that Odhinn, Hoenir, and Lodhurr made us--as staves of wood given breath, speech/madness, and warmth and good looks. Even as we are kinfolk of the God/esses, we see both them and ourselves in the simple staves that embody us all, from humans to deities, to the very World-Tree.

So go out into the woods and look for a fallen branch that already seems to have the might and shape of the God/ess within it, waiting for only the least touches of your trusty X-Acto or Swiss Army knife to bring it out, or go to a lumber store and find a post on which you can rough-carve a head. Another way to make portable pillars is to buy a flat plank of wood, draw your deity's faceon it, and then grave in the lines you have drawn with V-cuts (follow the lines in one direction with your blade slightly angled, then cut back with your blade angled in the opposite direction, forming a V-shaped groove). You might, perhaps, want to add symbols of your god/ess below the face: a Hammer for Thorr, a necklace for Freyja, and so forth. It is good if you can get a type of wood which is fitting to the deity in question, but some caution is called for here. Oak is a very holy tree, and hallowed to Thorr, but it is also very hard and should be approached with the greatest caution by the beginning woodcarver. I have found that the best woods for carving in are ash (rather hard, but with a good grain and not likely to break or split on you), birch, linden (called basswood in the States--soft, and carves easily, but will break if you press too hard on it), and pine (soft, clean-grain, easy to work). If you actually have to cut a branch (asking the tree's leave and doing a fitting rite o fthanks and repayment, of course), do not start carving it right away because green wood will split. Instead, seal the raw ends with wax and put it in a dry place to season for a time depending on size--a smaller piece will need only a couple of months; a section of medium-sized tree-trunk can take years. Careshould also be taken in dealing with large found pieces, as sometimes they can be rotting out from within.

But whatever sort of carved god you decide upon, and whatever kinds of wood you use, when you are carving, remember always to cut away from your body. Otherwise your deity will get a blood sacrifice right then and there-- whether you meant to give it or not--and Thorr didn't really want you to open your veins all over him, did he? (Odhinnists can only beware...)

Once you have your tree-god, you will want to start hallowing him/her. This can be done by holding a blessing to that particular deity and pouring drink over or in front of her/him, then sprinkling it from the blessing-bowl at every ritual. Holy fires can be lit or candles burned before your tree-god (being careful, of course, not to actually catch it on fire, which would be a very bad sign) to give him/her might. S/he can be adorned with flowers or crowned with a wreath of leafy branches, or offerings of flowers can be left in a vase; food and drink should also be left out in front of him/her (according to ibn Fadlan, the Rus on the Volga let the town dogs eat the food set before the god-posts as proxies for the Gods). In the old days, the carved gods were sprinkled with the blood of the beasts given them as offerings; while few of us still slaughter our own, in many places it is possible to purchase the blood of swine or cattlef or cooking, and this makes a very good offering, especially at Winternights when the autumnal slaughter (and thus hallowing the slain animals to the God/esses) took place. You can adorn your tree-god with jewelry and/or clothing and other gear--especially that gear which is meant to be in the deity's keeping at all times, except when you borrow it for ritual. Even the simplest head-post can have rings of silver wire twisted about its person or a cloak sewn on about its neck.

As well as the larger tree-gods, our forebears also had small carven shapes that they carried about with them at all times. As early as 500 C.E., some rich Dane had a tiny, beautifully crafted gold man with a gold ring about his neck and a helmet on his head, who could have been carried in a pouch or mounted on something by his feet (which had holes for this purpose) at need. It is hard to tell who this old figure might have been: perhaps Freyr, perhaps (though he had two eyes), since he is helmed and his left hand is cupped as if a spear might have fit into it, Odhinn. In Flateyjarbok I, ch. 274, Hallfredhrvandraedhaskald is accused before Olafr the Traitor (Tryggvason) of having "in his pouch a likeness of Thórr made of a tooth" (probably a walrustooth). A small silver figure of a man sitting with chin in hand and a substantial erection, thought to be an image of Freyr, was found in Södermanland, Sweden. In Vatnsdaela saga, Ingimundr inn gamli has just such a silver image that he carries with him. He loses it and is much distressed; but a völva tells him that it is in Iceland, and that it is the God's will that he settle there (ch. X). Ingimundr sends three Finns out to look for it; they find the piece in the place Freyr has chosen for him, but cannot bring it back; he must go there himself. One of the most famous, and most often reproduced, pieces of Viking Age art is the little bronze image of Thórr sitting with his Hammer in his lap (found in northern Iceland).

Such pieces would have been the earthly embodiment of the blessings and luck given by the God to his worshipper, the token of the ever-present friendship and oneness between the two of them. At the end of the Heathen era, small, personal god-shapes must have become even more important. Hallfredhr was, at least according to the rather biased saga-writer, a Christian at the time the above-mentioned accusation was made, but there is little doubt that Heathenfolk probably carried such figures with them when it was no longer safe to have great tree-gods in house or grove, and quietly held them to worship while their Christian associates were praying to the foreign invader.

Figurines of this sort are easier to find in stores than full-sized god-shapes, for obvious reasons. Any small, solid, well-carved figure or head which looks fitting for the deity you wish to have with you will do quite well. Should you have trouble finding something appropriate, you can cut a twig and make a miniature version of the god-staves described above--a simple head on top of a post. Likewise, a little figurine of an animal that is holy to your deity of choice can be used to embody that deity, and may come to you more quickly than a human shape. If you give special worship to your ancestors (alfs or idises), a small skull might be fitting.

Such a little carved god should be put in a pouch of a fitting color and material and carried with you wherever you go. I myself have a Wodan-head carved from a pieced of fossilized ivory, 2 which I keep in his own pouch in my pocket. When I drink alcohol, I always share a few drops with Wodan--an act which, with quick hands, can be done even in front of suspicious faculty members without drawing unwanted attention. When I write, he stands upon my computer; when I do rituals at home, he stands on my harrow, but wherever I am, even thirty thousand feet up in an airplane, I can draw him outand have the full blessings of my God and my holy stead about me whenever I need to call on him. Such small figures, as well as being blessed in any daily devotions you do, should be brought out and dipped into the blessing-bowl atrituals, and hallowed in whatever other ways seem fitting and feasible (as per the discussion of the large tree-gods above).

Thus it can be seen that carven gods, both great and small, help to bring us and our holy kin together, which is clearly a good thing. As Hár says in Havamal 119:

Veiztu, ef thú vin átt, thannz thú vel trúir, fardhu at finna opt; thvíat hrísi vex oc hávo grasi vegr, er vaetki trødhr.

Know you, if you have a friend in whom you trust well, you should fare often to find him--for bushes grow, and high grasses, on a way that is seldom trodden. The God/esses of the North are our friends in whom we trust well; when their shapes are ever with us in Middle-Garth, the way between us is short, clear and trodden always. So go forth today and start your Heathen idolatry.

Source (http://www.webcom.com/%7Elstead/June94/idol.html)

Monday, October 24th, 2005, 08:02 AM
Great read, thanks :D