Tuesday, July 4th, 2006, 06:42 PM
Old Norse blót meant a “sacrifice” or “feast” while the verb, blóta meant both "to worship" and “to sacrifice.” Old English blót simply meant “sacrifice” while Old English blótan and Old High German blozan both meant "to sacrifice." Old English blót seems related to Old English blétsian, modern English bless.
All of these words seem to derive from the word blood. In Hákonar Saga goða from Heimskringla, Snorri described how blood was sprinkled on the altar and on the temple walls and such ancient practices may be the origin of the word blót. Mythically it was Odin that ordained men to blot. Snorri says in the Ynglinga Saga from Heimskringla, that Odin decreed:
"þâ skyldi blôta î môti vetri, til ârs, enn at miðjum vetri blôta til grôðrar, it þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblôt."
"On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle."
Unlike symbel which owes its survival to Old English texts, blot for both Asatruar and Anglo-Saxon Heathens is drawn nearly in total from the Icelandic sagas and Eddas.
The Purpose of Blot
The Elder Edda contains some material that may give the purpose of blot. In Fjölsviðmál, it is said:
Tell me, Fjolsvith For I wish to know;
answer as I do ask
do they help award to their worshippers,
if need of help they have?
Ay they help award to their worshippers,
in hallowed stead if they stand;
there is never a need That neareth a man
but they lend a helping hand.
(Fjölsviðmál, Hollander translation 39 and 40)
In Hynduljóð the idea of men being rewarded for blot is touched upon as well:
He a high altar made me Of heaped stones–
all glary have grown The gathered rocks–
and reddened anew them with neats’ fresh blood;
for ay believed Óttar in the ásynjur.
(Hynduljóð, Hollander translation verse 10)
Similar statements appear in the sagas as well. In Víga-Glúms Saga, Þorkell states Frey had "accepted many gifts from him" and "repaid them well." The Anglo-Saxons appear to have held similar views as the Norse, the Old English word gield, (modern English yield) meant not only “payment, tax,” but also “sacrifice.”
Old English gieldan meant not only “to pay for, reward, requite," but also "to worship, to sacrifice to." One of the primary purposes of blot then was and is to give gifts to the Gods and Goddesses in return for the help they give us.
This exchange of gifts between Man and the Æsir, the Vanir, and other sacred beings, no doubt was seen as forming bonds, much like gifts between friends. Such bonding is referred to in the Havamal:
Not great things alone must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.
(Havamal 53, Bray translation)
Hast thou a friend whom thou trustest well,
from whom thou cravest good?
Share thy mind with him, gifts exchange with him,
fare to find him oft.
(Havamal 44 Bray translation)
Vilhelm Grönbech furthers this idea of gifting as a form of bonding:
“When an article of value is passed across the boundary of frith and grasped by alien hands, a fusion of life takes place, which binds men one to another with an obligation of the same character as that of frith its self.” (Grönbech. The Culture of the Teutons, Vol.2, p. 55)”
There is no reason that ancient Heathens would have changed the rules of giving because the Gods and Goddesses were involved. Giving meat and mead to the Æsir, Vanir, and other holy beings therefore not only ensured their help, but also made them a part of the human community, and in a sense one with the folk.
Blot may also served as a form of communion with the Gods and Goddesses Discussing passages on blot Turville-Petre notes:
"The meaning of the sacrificial feast, as Snorri saw it, is fairly plain. When blood was sprinkled over altars and men and the toasts were drunk, men were symbolically joined with gods of war and fertility, and with their dead ancestors, sharing their mystical powers. This is a form of communion." (Turville-Petre. Myth and Religion of the North, p. 251).
This can be seen in the choice of words for the Christian act of Communion, Old English húsel was used both of Heathen sacrifices and the Christians’ Holy Communion. Its Gothic cognate hunsl was only used of Heathen blot. It is probable then that the first Anglo-Saxon converts saw blots and the Christian rite of Communion as having similar aims, one of those perhaps being communion with the Gods or in their case God or Christ.
Communion with the Gods and Goddesses would mean a sense of oneness with them, a sense that the Gods and Goddesses were part of the human community. The sacrificial animal having been given to the Gods or Goddesses may have been seen as containing some of the Gods and Goddesses’ mægen or power. The blessing of the temple and folk with its blood therefore may have been viewed as spreading the mægen or power of the Gods and Goddesses amongst the folk.
The fulls or prayers offered with the horn may have been viewed as a form of communicating with the Gods and Goddesses. And finally, the sacred feast its self, may have been seen as the folk sharing with the Gods and Goddesses, or perhaps as absorbing some of the Gods and Goddesses’ mægen. Turville-Petre noted that vaningi "son of the Vanir" was applied to both Frey and the boar in poetry, and that:
“This implies that when the flesh of the boar was consumed at the sacrificial banquet, those who partook of it felt they were consuming the god himself and absorbing his power." (Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North, p. 255).
While it is doubtful that Turville-Petre is entirely correct in his assessment (ritual cannibalism of this sort seems unlikely amongst the Germanic peoples and is probably drawn from comparisons with Christian Communion), the idea that some of the deity’s mægen or power is transferred to that of the folk is one that is in keeping with Heathen ideas seen elsewhere.
In addition to a form of communion, blot also served as a method of conveying the wants and needs of the folk to the Æsir and Vanir. The fulls or prayers of blot probably contained appeals for aid in time of famine, drought, or epidemic. At other times, they may have contained words of thanks. In Víga-Glúms Saga Thorkell offers Frey an ox with a request for revenge on the man that had taken his land.
In Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Rus traders, he told how they prayed to the Gods and Goddesses with requests for customers. The Æcer-bót an Anglo-Saxon rite found in the manuscript called the Lacnunga may contain portions of Heathen prayers that are basically requests for fertility of the land. Blot therefore served as a means of communicating with the Æsir, Vanir, and other holy beings..
Blots in ancient times and now therefore serves many purposes. Primarily, blot is a form of giving back to the Gods and Goddesses just a little of what they have given us. But Blot is also a form of communication with the Gods and Goddesses, a way of giving thanks, or of asking specifically for help in a certain area of one’s life. Finally, blot is a way of bringing the Gods and Goddesses into our community, becoming a part of their community, and in some respects becoming one with them. To understand how this was done we need to look at the accounts of blots in the surviving lore.
The Blot Description from Hákonar Saga goða
Thanks to Snorri, we have some idea of what an ancient blot looked like. Each step has a specific purpose, and those steps will be outlined here. The most detailed account from Hákonar Saga goða follows:
Það var forn siður þá er blót skyldi vera að allir bændur skyldu þar koma sem hof var og flytja þannug föng sín, þau er þeir skyldu hafa meðan veislan stóð. Að veislu þeirri skyldu allir menn öl eiga. Þar var og drepinn alls konar smali og svo hross en blóð það allt er þar kom af, þá var kallað hlaut og hlautbollar það er blóð það stóð í, og hlautteinar, það var svo gert sem stökklar, með því skyldi rjóða stallana öllu saman og svo veggi hofsins utan og innan og svo stökkva á mennina en slátur skyldi sjóða til mannfagnaðar. Eldar skyldu vera á miðju gólfi í hofinu og þar katlar yfir. Skyldi full um eld bera en sá er gerði veisluna og höfðingi var, þá skyldi hann signa fullið og allan blótmatinn. Skyldi fyrst Óðins full, skyldi það drekka til sigurs og ríkis konungi sínum, en síðan Njarðar full og Freys full til árs og friðar. Þá var mörgum mönnum títt að drekka þar næst bragafull. Menn drukku og full frænda sinna, þeirra er heygðir höfðu verið, og voru það minni kölluð.
“It was an old custom, that when there was to be sacrifice all the bondes should come to the spot where the temple stood and bring with them all that they required while the festival of the sacrifice lasted. To this festival all the men brought ale with them; and all kinds of cattle, as well as horses, were slaughtered, and all the blood that came from them was called "hlaut", and the vessels in which it was collected were called hlaut-vessels. Hlaut-staves were made, like sprinkling brushes, with which the whole of the altars and the temple walls, both outside and inside, were sprinkled over, and also the people were sprinkled with the blood; but the flesh was boiled into savoury meat for those present. The fire was in the middle of the floor of the temple, and over it hung the kettles, and the full goblets were handed across the fire; and he who made the feast, and was a chief, blessed the full goblets, and all the meat of the sacrifice. And first Odin's goblet was emptied for victory and power to his king; thereafter, Niord's and Frey's goblets for peace and a good season. Then it was the custom of many to empty the brage-goblet; and then the guests emptied a goblet to the memory of departed friends, called the remembrance goblet.”
This account can be further fleshed out with other accounts of blots from Hákonar Saga goða.
En bændur töldu að því er hann sat eigi í hásæti sínu þá er mestur var mannfagnaður. Sagði jarl að hann skyldi eigi þá svo gera. Var og svo að konungur sat í hásæti sínu. En er hið fyrsta full var skenkt þá mælti Sigurður jarl fyrir og signaði Óðni og drakk af horninu til konungs. Konungur tók við og gerði krossmark yfir. Þá mælti Kár af Grýtingi: "Hví fer konungurinn nú svo? Vill hann enn eigi blóta?" Sigurður jarl svarar: "Konungur gerir svo sem þeir allir er trúa á mátt sinn og megin og signa full sitt Þór. Hann gerði hamarsmark yfir áður hann drakk."
“The king accordingly sat upon his high-seat. Now when the first full goblet was filled, Earl Sigurd spoke some words over it, blessed it in Odin's name, and drank to the king out of the horn; and the king then took it, and made the sign of the cross over it. Then said Kar of Gryting, "What does the king mean by doing so? Will he not sacrifice?" Earl Sigurd replies, "The king is doing what all of you do, who trust to your power and strength. He is blessing the full goblet in the name of Thor, by making the sign of his hammer over it before he drinks it."”
En er Hákon konungur og Sigurður jarl komu inn á Mærini með her sinn þá voru þar bændur komnir allfjölmennt. Hinn fyrsta dag að veislunni veittu bændur honum atgöngu og báðu hann blóta en hétu honum afarkostum ella. Sigurður jarl bar þá mál í millum þeirra. Kemur þá svo að Hákon konungur át nokkura bita af hrosslifur. Drakk hann þá öll minni krossalaust, þau er bændur skenktu honum. En er veislu þeirri var lokið fór konungur og jarl þegar út á Hlaðir.
“Now, when King Hakon and Earl Sigurd came to More with their court, the bondes assembled in great numbers; and immediately, on the first day of the feast, the bondes insisted hard with the king that he should offer sacrifice, and threatened him with violence if he refused. Earl Sigurd tried to make peace between them, and brought it so far that the king took some bits of horse-liver, and emptied all the goblets the bondes filled for him without the sign of the cross; but as soon as the feast was over, the king and the earl returned to Hlader.”
From these accounts it is fairly clear that blot consisted of blessing of the horns or goblets, blessing the folk with the blood of the sacrifice, fulls or prayers to the Gods and Goddesses, and finally a feast. Whether Snorri presented the events of blot in the order they were performed, we cannot know for certain, but at least we do have the events that took place during a blot. Some parts of blot were left out by Snorri; obviously the sacrifice had to be slain, and rituals must have attended the slaying as well. None the less, a rough outline of events taking place at blot can be somewhat reconstructed.
1) Pre-Feast: Prior to the feast, the sacrificial animal would have had to been slaughtered and butchered. In Helgakvida Horrvoardssonar, a boar is lead out to swear oaths on, but it is not clear whether this boar was later slaughtered for blot. In Heiðreks Saga , a boar or sonargöltR (the "leading boar,” the same term used in Helgakvida Horrvoardssonar of the boar) was brought before the king at Yule that was intended for blot, and apparently later slaughtered. Garlanding and swearing of oaths on the animal may have taken place as a regular part of the blot ritual or pre-ritual then. While we are not told by Snorri what events took place at the slaying of the animal, and shortly thereafter, he does tell us that the blood of the animal was drained into the blot bowl. Hlautteinar or “lot sticks” were also made then, and these later used to sprinkle the folk. The Hlautteinar we are told were like brushes.
The slaughter its self was likely to have been fairly humane. Some scholars feel the ancients saw the animal as a representative of a God or Goddess. Temples did keep sacred animals, and this is mentioned several places in the lore. Flateyjarbók, described a temple where horses were kept, while Hrafnkels Saga told how Hrafnkell Freysgoði kept a stallion dedicated to FreyR. These animals may have been seen as containing the mægen of the God or Goddess they were dedicated to. In Snorri’s account though, the folk are portrayed as bringing the animals for blot. After the slaughter, the feast its self would have been prepared. Snorri tells us that the meat was boiled and this is confirmed by words for sacrifice such as Gothic sauþs, cognate to Old Norse sjóða and Old English séoþan “to seethe, boil.”
2) Sprinkling or Blessing the Temple and Folk: The temple walls, altar, and folk were then sprinkled or blessed by the priests. This act is also mentioned in Eyrbygja Saga in the description of Thorolf Mostrarskeggy’s hof. Vilhelm Grönbech in Culture of the Teutons felt that the blood of the sacrifice transferred some of the power of the Gods and Goddesses to the folk.
The blood of the victim was a means of communicating the power of holiness. It was poured over the stone or heap of stones – stallr or hörg – in the sacred place. The chieftain’s ring which reposed in the sanctuary was reddened on solemn occasions, and we learn in one place about two Icelandic claimants to the rank of priestly chieftain (goði), that they procured themselves the holy power by reddening their hands in the blood of a ram (Grönbech. The Culture of the Teutons, Vol.2, p.211)
Recalling what Turville-Petre had to say on this matter in the quote above about the blood symbolically joining the folk with the Gods and Goddesses, along with Grönbech’s passage, it seems fairly certain that the purpose of the blessing was to covey upon the folk some of the power of the Gods and Goddesses. This power may have been thought to take the form of good health (i.e. holiness), prosperity, and frith; or perhaps just sheer luck (in the form of hamingja, an Old Norse term referring to luck and/or spiritual strength).
3) Hallowing the Horns or Goblets and Meat: The horns or goblets of mead and meat were then passed over the fire. It is not clear in Snorri’s account whether this had ritual importance or not. In the Landnámabók, both Thorolf and Jorundr used fire in their land takings for temple sites, while other land takings not involving temples seem to omit this step. It is possible then that the passing of horns or goblets over the fires may have had a ritual connotation of some kind, the most likely being to hallow them.
The chieftain then blessed the horns and we are told in one of the later accounts in Hákonar Saga goða that “Earl Sigurd spoke some words over it, blessed it in Odin's name.” It is also at this point that King Hakon signed the cross, and Sigurd covered for him by saying he was making the hammer sign. We do not know what words Jarl Sigurd spoke over the horn. The lore is very sparing with such things and so we can only guess that perhaps it was something similar to the Þórr uiki formula found on some runestones. The phrase literally means "Thor make sacred."
This may be somewhat confirmed by the way Jarl Sigurd covered for the king by saying he was making the hammer sign. Whether or not the hammer sign is authentic Heathen practice or not has been hotly debated in Heathen circles. Many feel it was merely Sigurd’s way of covering for Hakon, and the Heathen jarls’ unfamiliarity with what Hakon was doing confirms this. Others feel that the jarls perhaps knew what the hammer sign was, but realized Hakon was making the sign of the cross.
It is interesting to note that the verb signaði is used to indicate Jarl Sigurd hallowed the horn or goblet. While the verb usually is taken to mean “bless” in Old Norse, it is ultimately related to English sain and sign, both meaning “to sign.” Sigurd may therefore have made some sign symbolic of Odin in his blessing of the goblets. Unfortunately, we have no other examples in the lore to go by, and so, the modern Heathen is left to his or her own discretion as to using the hammer sign in blot.
The closest example of the hallowing of a horn in the lore is in Egil’s Saga. Egil scratched runes on a horn he suspected of containing poison, blooded them, and then spoke a verse. How similar this act of rune magic was to the blessing of horns in blot, we cannot say. What is clear though is that the mead, ale, or other drink was somehow blessed at this point in blot either by fire, with words, or with signs, or some combination thereof. The purpose of blessing or hallowing is no doubt to fill the mead or ale with the power of the Gods and Goddesses, and perhaps drive off any thing that might potentially cause illness.
4) The Fulls: The word full simply meant a drink or a drinking vessel in both Old Norse and Old English, but in the sense of blot it is connected to the words said with that drink. The fulls as seen in this account by Snorri are to Odin for victory, Njord, and Frey for peace and plenty. There is no reason to think these were simple toasts, and indeed probably were not toasts at all, but prayers. We know from other accounts of sacrifices such as Thorkell’s in Víga-Glúms Saga that these may have been petitions or prayers.
That is, victory was not toasted in Odin’s name, nor did the chieftain make a boast to achieve victory in Odin’s name, but, that they asked or petitioned Odin for victory. Prayers such as those that survived in the Æcer-bót were not simple affairs, but could go on for twenty to thirty lines and were written in alliterative verse. The purpose of the fulls are no doubt several, and dependent on what type of blot is being performed. None the less, they can probably be broken down into words of praise for the Gods or Goddesses, and petitions for help from the Gods or Goddesses. All variations a prayer or full could have taken would be of these two. Both Old Norse and Old English words for prayer are related to modern English bid. Old English biddan meant “to pray, entreat, ask,” while Old Norse biðja carried similar connotations.
5) Bragafull: The bragafull has usually been taken by scholars to mean the “leader’s cup” and appears variously in the lore as a toast to a dead leader, or as a boast by a leader to do some deed. In the Ynglinga Saga, of the Heimskringla, Ingjald boasted at his father’s funeral feast to double the size of his kingdom. The bragafull served perhaps much the same purpose as the God fulls, in that perhaps the Gods and Goddesses were expected to help the leader fulfill whatever vow they made.
6)Minni: The minni was the remembrance cup, a toast to the memory of departed friends and family. Its purpose is clear when one recalls passages from the Havamal and Beowulf about a person’s good name after death:
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
thyself eke soon wilt die;
but fair fame will fade never:
I ween, for him who wins it.
(Hollander translation, verse 76)
Grieve not, wise warrior. It is better
to avenge one's friend than mourn too much.
Each of us must one day reach the end
Of worldly life, let him who can win
glory before he dies: that lives on
after him, when he lifeless lies.
(Beowulf lines 1384-1391)
The minni was a way of keeping alive the glory of friends that had passed on. In addition, it perhaps was a way of worshipping one’s ancestors, and seeking favour from them much as they did the Gods and Goddesses.
7) Feast: At this point the feast probably started. Going by accounts in the sagas, these feasts may have been elaborate affairs lasting for quite a while. The meat for sacrifice for blot was according to Snorri boiled in a broth. This is apparent from the accounts in the Heimskringla. Whether this was the only way of preparing the meat for sacrifice is not known, but it seems the preferred way for the Jarls of Norway under King Hakon.
From this we can reconstruct a rough outline of the blót ritual for modern usage:
1) The Blót - In ancient times, an animal would have been slaughtered. Today we just go to the supermarket. Still, there must have been rituals associated with slaying the animal. We are told in one saga, the boar was garlanded and lead to the king to have oaths sworn upon it. This shows the sacredness that took place before the slaughter, and probably during the food preparation. Therefore if preparing food for a feast, every item should probably be passed over a flame and have the hammer signed over it. A few words can be said like "Thunor weoh" which in reconstructed Old English means "Thor make this sacred." The food served for the feast should be garlanded and decorated as if for a lavish dinner party. Everything should point to the sacredness of the meal. If merely doing a libation with cheese or bread, much of this can be dispersed with. But nothing beats a feast together in creating community unity.
2) The Sith (optional) - The ancient Heathens seem to have enjoyed processions, complete with garlands or wreathes for the particular time of year. Garlands were hung on trees, and the hall decorated with fresh boughs and flowers. Therefore, the food when the food is brought out it should be done with much revelry and with as much decor as possible. The feast table should be decorated to fit the season, as well should the settings. All participants not serving the food, should be already seated. Plates should be set for the ancestors and the Gods as well. Once the food is set upon the table, the servers should take their places, and the weofodthegn can proceed with the ritual.
3) The Wéonde - Wéonde is an Anglo-Saxon reconstruction based on the Old Norse word vigja "to make sacred, to separate from the ordinary and mundane and make a part of the gods' realm." This corresponds to Edred Thorsson's "Hallowing" in the Blessing outline in A Book Of Troth. Its purpose is to make the site of the feast sacred and to ward it against unwanted intruders of the spiritual kind. It is here that the Hammer Rite of the Ring of Troth would be performed, or the Wéonde Song of the Miercinga Ríce. In the Elder Era, this may have been unneedful as they had their own permanent holy sites that had been used for thousands of years. The purpose of the wéonde is to call on Gods like Þunor and ask them to separate the area from the ordinary, and the mundane. A formula in Old Norse used to accomplish this was Þórr uiki "Þunor make this sacred!" In Old English, this would be "Þunor wéoh!"
4) The Hallowing - The weofodthegn or the group leader then hallows the food and drink by passing it over a flame, usually a candle or fire in a fire pot or fire pit. Appropriate words like "Hallow this food and make it whole should be said."
5) The Blessing - As seen above, the blood of slain animals was sprinkled on the walls and altar in ancient times. Today, we instead of blood can use mead that has been specially blessed for this purpose, blessing the folk as well. The mead is poured into the blót bowl, and then carried by one of the weofodthegn’s assistants. The weofodthegn dips the twig into the mead and sprinkles each person there saying some words like "May the Gods bless you."
6) The Fulls - The bedes are then said to the Gods. It is perhaps best to dedicate the prayers to the Gods of the holy tide on hand, or if no holy tide is being celebrated to the Gods of those gathered. The bedes need not be elaborate, and it is best if they are no more than three in number. Too many prayers can make folks get impatient and restless and spoil the ritual atmosphere.
7) The Bragafull - Here the leader of the group can boast of the group’s past accomplishments and future plans. Again, this need not be elaborate. It can be in poetic form or prose. In many respects it should resemble the boasts of symbel.
8) The Minni - The dead of all present are drunk to, preferably one at a time, although if too many are present a collective toast might be made. Ideally, one round should go around the table with each person being allowed to toast their dead ancestors. In large groups this may not be possible however, so a collective boast could be done by the weofodthegn.
9) The Housel - The food and drink are consumed. Usually for blots this may just be a morsel of bread and a drink of mead. Often only mead is used. With a housel, this would be the time the feast is consumed.
10) The Yielding - Some of the leftover food plus those plates laid aside for the Gods and ancestors can then be taken outside and given to them. By no means should it be thrown away or put in the garbage compactor.
11) The Leaving - The rite is formally adjourned, with folks retiring to general merriment, or a symbel could be arranged to follow. Experience has taught it is often best to allow a period of relaxation after eating, and then conduct a symbel an hour or so after the meal is finished. Of course if a simple blót is done with no feast, then there is little reason to wait, and a symbel can be started immediately following the blót.
Nearly all modern blot outlines have been drawn either directly or indirectly from the Heimskringla accounts. However, there are differences. As ancient Heathens probably nearly always used space that had been thought sacred for centuries, or spaces they had made permanently sacred, such a step as is commonly called Hallowing, or the misnomer Warding, was not a part of ancient blot. When ancient Heathens needed to create sacred space, they did so for permanent usages such as the taking of future temple sites such as in the Landnamabok.
Therefore modern blot outlines have added the step of Hallowing with the intention of creating temporary sacred space. Another major difference between ancient and modern blot is animals are no longer used, except in rare circumstances. Mead has therefore taken the place of meat as the preferred gift to the Gods and Goddesses. It is now used for the blessing, fulls, feast, and gift parts of blot. The modern blot outline has remained in principle the same however, and therefore study of how ancient blots were performed is of help to the modern Heathen.
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