Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Domestic Cults, Land Spirits, and the Worship of House-Wights

It has been my experience that the old Heathen faith doesn't really become strong and clear in the hearts and minds of people who follow its ways until they join with others. When you work with a family or a kindred, or other people of like mind and faith, you experience a more primal and essential layer of ancestral religion.

In older times, there was no way to separate the realities of tribe and kin from Troth or the Elder Faith. This is because human groups, from families to tribes, are a reflection of the natural and sacred manner that humans are supposed to live. We are not solitary beings; we all feel the urge to gather with others, to take shelter with others, to share our joys and sorrows with others. The sacrifices and religious observances of the Heathen past were done largely in groups, entire families or communities coming together to worship. The religion re-affirmed their bonds to one another, and to the Holy Kindreds who are also related to us, but who dwell unseen.

"Community" did not begin as a band of scared primitive individuals that grouped together in ancient times to help protect themselves from other humans or predators; the community is not some evolutionary accident nor behavior driven solely by analysis of benefit. Community is sacred, a reflection of the sacred order which is inscribed in the souls of human beings. The Mystery of MANNAZ or Man- meaning all Mankind- is a mystery that arises not as an individual but as many men and women, and they are bound together naturally by unbreakable bonds of affection, power, and kinship.

Each person alive depends so much on others- from our parents at the beginning of our lives, to the men and women who grow our food, prepare it, and sell it; the men and women who train to be doctors, healers, therapists, soldiers and protectors; the men and women that we marry and love and who support us emotionally, and help us to create the future generations of this world. In some way, the web of human relationships and support is a perfect model of Wyrd- each person affects so many other people, and is in turn affected by them. Without the other people in the world, we could not be here, living and thriving. From our interactions, new people arise, and others die away. Between us, love and joy and sorrow arise.

The Old Ways ask us to extend that web of relationship to new dimensions- more subtle dimensions. These "subtle dimensions" of which I speak are the unseen reaches of this world, and the other worlds. Living alongside us in this world are unseen wights, sentient beings who exist in what can be conceived of as their own continuum of life. The Land upon which we walk and depend contains boundless depths of being, and the Landvaettir or Land Wights are one example of unseen sentient beings who dwell alongside us, though few people take the time to appreciate or consider them.

People wonder at the "point" or "purpose" for belief in such beings. To this, it must be said that life and mind are not gifts that humans alone possess, nor is reality as simple as what appears to our eyes. The bulk of life that we can see is just a tiny amount of life, compared to the life that dwells in the vast reaches of reality. The web of Wyrd is a vastness that cannot be comprehended. Within it are places, spaces, "dimensions of reality" and "ways of being" that are every bit as natural as the one "slice of life" that human beings experience. And Wyrd being what it is, the entire continuum of Wyrd, the entire web- including all unseen realities- affects the rest of the web. That means that numberless unseen powers affect us every day of our lives, and we affect them in return.

The Wyrd-wise have always known this, and they have always worked to become conscious of the affects the unseen world and its inhabitants have on us, and just as importantly, they have worked to be aware of what affects we have in return.

It's not enough to think "well, I can't see or hear these beings, and they don't seem to affect me, so I won't worry about them." They do affect you, and you do affect them. The more conscious you are of this fact, the more aware you can become of the impact of these subtle realities on you and your own life. In blindness of the reality of these living beings, you can harm them, and they can harm you and yours. In awareness of them, and with respect, they can be the source of many blessings and much luck.

If we accept that the Land itself is filled with Land Wights, beings who naturally dwell and live in their own "way of being" and mostly unseen by us, We have to accept that our homes, which sit on the Land, must be affected by them. And this brings us directly to a point which was most crucial and time-honored by our Ancestors: the reality of Domestic Cults and the Worship of House-Wights and House-Spirits.

When human beings raise their homes in a place, they are not the first beings on the scene- Land Wights have usually been there for much longer. All natural phenomenon are guarded by wights, or are they homes of wights- streams, rivers, trees, hills, mountains, and the like. To take trees from a forest to build your home in ancient times was a matter of propitiating the Wights of those trees, and only taking prudently, only what you needed. Some trees were seen as sacred to such powerful wights, that they simply weren't touched. The Elder tree is a good example of this; as late as the 19th century, rural English folk wouldn't touch a living Elder, and only take her wood that had fallen. In times when the Elder had to be cut, a folk-charm was said to it, a charm that is worth repeating because of its implications:

"Old Gal, Give me of thy wood,
And I shall give you of mine,
When I grow into a tree."

The Goddess or female wight of the Elder was told, in no uncertain terms, that if it gave its wood, the cutter would actually return the favor in the future, when he or she died, was buried, and then "grew into a tree". You can take this two ways- when we die, our life-force leaves us and re-enters into the body of nature. We do increase the growth of things with our spent and donated life-force, which goes back into the land and sky and air and waters. But there's another way of taking this, a deeper and more serious one. This is a contract, a binding contract, in which the cutter probably originally expected to take from the Elder, but to be reborn as a tree-wight himself- and then to give his own tree over, to repay the skuld or the life-debt.

Though it is a little-known secret, there is a way to fulfill this contract without having to become reborn into the forest as a Tree-Wight, a technique that exempts a person without breaking the oath. To take acorns or tree-seeds and bathe them in your own blood, and then breathe into them to fill them with your life force and finally to "name" them after yourself, and plant them in the forest, allows "you" to grow into a tree, thus fulfilling the deal. After this, you may not be Wyrded to have to be bound to the forest, post-mortem.

The reason why I brought this "Elder charm" up is because it demonstrates, from deep within the folk-tradition, the undefeatable and primal idea of "reciprocal exchange". Even the peasants of England in the late centuries understood that they were in a two-way relationship with the wights of the trees. What the wights did for them, they would do back. These people were not blind to their sacred duties to the world around them. Incidentally, by planting new trees in repayment, a person would be balancing the debt or skuld of taking. Either way, these people were not willing to take more than they were prepared to give back.

When a home is raised in a place, humans have to befriend the wights or spirits of that place, or they cannot live there with luck and certainty. Wights are capable of causing accidents, nightmares, bad luck, disease, and other mayhems against beings that they don't want near them. When a house is built and inhabited, the nearest wights of that place, assuming that they accept the new human inhabitants, have little choice but to see and explore the house that was built. They peer into the realities of human life, and watch. They feel the effects of the human settlement on themselves and on their existence.

One shouldn't assume that spirits or wights "see" us just like we see each other and our surroundings- they do dwell in another "way", but it's clear that what we do, think, and say affects them on some level, and that they perceive it in their own manner. I believe that basic, powerful forces like fire "appear" to wights similar to how it appears to us; perhaps they perceive it as a bright power of some kind, but I know they "see" it, because nearly all ancient rituals of Indo-European source require sacred fires of some kind. There is a notion that fires act as "beacons" for spiritual powers.

I think that human emotions must "appear" to wights in ways, and affect their own emotional states, in much the same way the emotional states of other humans affect ours. When we damage the environment in which wights dwell, folklore clearly states that they perceive the damage, and react badly. In the Ballad of Tam Lin, Janet is able to summon Tam Lin by destroying plant life in the area he haunts- Tam Lin was forced to come to the site of the violation and appear.

At any rate, in most cases, over time, the wights "bond" with the house and the people who live there, becoming house wights. In Germanic countries, they were called Husinga or (individually) a Husing, a tomt, tompt, or tomtekarl. Some say that the spirits that live in the lands around the house were called tatermen, and were symbolized by little straw dolls or poppets made to be their magical images. The "scarecrow" idea is linked to this by some.

When people come to a place, so do their ancestral wights and powers, who also affect the native wights. If the wights have accepted this arrangement, they begin to work actively in the lives of the people who belong to that settlement or home. If the wights do not accept it, troubles begin.

Before I move into discussing the realities of domestic cults to wights, I should say a few words about human relationships to Land Wights and other spirits. In the grand scheme of things, we can easily see how the Gods themselves are on the "top" of the Tree of reality- the mightiest wights themselves dwell in their own worlds, and travel through this one often. In the web of Wyrd, the Gods are also affected by humans, and they affect us. We are all of us- Godly wight, land wight, or human- in the same great web of interactive reality.

All of the Nine Worlds have wights that inhabit them- numberless wights and intelligences and sentient beings. That means that this world, and this Land upon which we live, also has wights, as I have said. As a side-note, human beings are also considered "wights", but for the purposes of this conversation I am using the term "wight" to refer to beings unseen.

Wights may have powers or abilities that humans lack, and some ancient land wights can be very powerful or wise. But overall, land wights occupy a similar "place" in the grand scheme of things to human beings. They are not as powerful as Gods, and though they may live a long time, I do not think that they remain around forever. I know that the wight of an ancient tree will have been there as long as the tree lives, but after the death of its home, the wight moves on to a new kind of existence, perhaps attaching itself to a newly growing tree. The point is that wights have their own "cycles of life" similar to humans, though some seem to be very ancient.

Land wights and house wights are kin to humans, in many ways. They are another population of sentient beings that share our world, and we spring from the same source, the same web of life. The same Gods that preside over the human world also act as "chief powers" over the wights of any world. The Allfather who bestowed spirit and shape on the first humans also shaped the existence of land wights.

There is more than one reason why we should seek positive relationships with wights. Sure, they can make our lives miserable, and harm us if we anger them or refuse to acknowledge them, but fear is not the true basis of our relationship. When two beings of any kind interact, they affect one another. When humans drink in sacrifices with the Gods, for instance, we take something of their Godly essence into ourselves, thus increasing our spiritual power, and the Gods merge with us in a mysterious manner, and are likewise affected by us. The benefit to humans is immense- we are increased because the spiritual force of the Gods is so much greater than ours, and the Gods gain an experience of us that communicates something to them.

When a land wight or a house wight "communes" with humans in such a way, it too, is seemingly increased or benefited. It gains some insight or some gift from the communion. Whatever it is that Land Wights "receive" from interacting with humans, I know that they seek it out, come to appreciate it, and to desire it. Humans who commune with them literally allow them to experience the world in the way humans experience it, and so I suppose the wights gain new perspectives that allow them to grow in their own mysterious ways. I know that humans benefit as well, from friendship with the wights.

At heart, the entire point of communion with wights is recognition. We have a duty to recognize these beings, to affirm their existence, and tell them that we know them and accept them. We have a duty to ask them to accept us- this is a sacred reciprocal exchange between the world that is seen and the unseen world. It is a noble form of respect on the parts of humans for their unseen fellows. It is a demonstration, on the parts of humans, that they recognize that they are not alone in this world, and that this world does not belong only to them. It is the heart and soul of sacred ecology.

Earlier, I talked about how the Old Religions could not be separated from group observance, and how they lived as an inseparable part of family and clan or tribal life. It is true that Asatru or Heathenry really becomes a powerful reality in your life when you stand with others and worship. Even if it was powerful before, when you worshipped alone, it becomes a hundred times that with others. This is because human life and human spirituality is always a matter of relationship between humans, and between humans and non-humans, including spirits and Gods. This relationship is the very core of the Old Faiths.

To this I must now add that there is another "level" of experience, and that is the level of the Domestic Cult. A tribe may live in a land, and their worship brings together all the people and re-affirms their bond with the powers of that land and with each other. In just this manner, a family is like a tribe, and the family's home is like their land. The home is the sacred stead of the family, its "Odal Enclosure", the sacred, enclosed space in which the ancestral powers of the family are allowed to dwell and make new life, and experience frith or harmonious belonging. The family is a small reflection of the greater group of mankind, and the home is a reflection of the homeland.

Thus, all homes are sacred. They are sacred enclosures, just like a Hof or a Sacrifice-Stead in which worship takes place is sacred. And like the world "outside" the home has its own powers, the home's inner world has powers, powers that the dwellers in the home must befriend, recognize, and worship.

In ancient times, the sacredness of a family's living space was a universally held concept. All Indo-European societies took this very seriously, from Celtia and Germania down to Greece and Rome. The religious observances that took place daily in the home were led mostly by the male head of the family in Rome, who was called Paterfamilias and who was essentially the "Pontifex Maximus" or the High Priest of his family's religious life. Outside of the home, in the City of Rome itself, there was a Pontifex Maximus who presided over the cult-rites that were done on behalf of all the people of the city, but in the home, in that microcosm, the father of the family was priest.

This same pattern seems to have been found in all Indo European societies. In Germanic society, a chieftain or local elder was the leader of community rites, but in the home, a member of the family led everyone in religious rites. It's just as likely that women headed these rites in the home as men, considering the immense power that the Huswyf, the Husfrowe or the Housewife had over the house in Germanic society. She did, after all, hold the keys to the house, and could decide who was welcome there and who wasn't.

The Domestic Cult- the sacred rites done for the wights who dwell in each home or living space, is a necessary thing to establish if you are a Heathen and you have your own home. Like communal religion, worship and respect for the house-spirit is a basic tenet of ancient and modern Heathenry. The worship given to Land Wights and House Wights is partly the same, yet partly different from the worship given to the Gods. Bear in mind that "worship" really means "to give worth to"- you can communicate to any wight how worthy you believe it to be, and that counts as "worship". When you have a strong and steady relationship with your house spirit, you can trust that your house will be safer and more harmonious than it was before, and it will receive many blessings.

House wights, since time immemorial, have been worshipped with offerings of food and drink. They have also been worshipped around a central place in the home, usually the hearth. Whatever space or room is your "main" room, the place where you spend most of your time, or the "center" of your house, is the proper place for honoring house wights. There's no reason to wonder whether or not your house "has" a house wight- if your house was built long before you got there, it has one or more. They dwelled in the land on or near the building site, and after a point, were attracted there and set up their own homes, co-existing with the space occupied by the house.

* * *

When we look to folklore for guidance, we see many vibrant images and powerful stories of the human relationship with the spirits of their homes. The stories of the spirits called "brownies" from England, Scotland, and Northwestern Europe are clear manifestations in lore of wights that entered into relationships with humans, and worked for them in their homes and on their farms, in exchange for gifts of food and recognition. As a bit of trivia, the fact that the little brown cakes that we call "brownies" are called "brownies" in the first place is because of these spirits- the little cakes and bowls of milk left out at night to feed the house-spirit actually took on the name of the spirit- a brownie.

With linguistic variation, "brownie" becomes "bodach" in the Scottish Highlands, and "fenodoree" on the Isle of Man, and all refer to house guardian spirits. Fairy-type folklore can teach us something important about the human relationship to these beings. If offended, these beings became "boggarts", and became harmful to the human inhabitants of their places of dwelling. This is likely a reflection of the idea that wights can be harmful if offended or not appeased. Brownies specialized in doing house-work and protecting the home, and milk was typically left out for them, as well as bread or cakes- but there was an almost universal warning included. Brownies could never be offered a reward for its services or its labors on behalf of the home.

If they were offered a reward, they would usually flee or become harmful. This taboo seems odd, but the old folklore says that these beings were too free-spirited to be "bound" to humans through the acceptance of payment. It seems that they would accept praise and they would take the offerings left out, but if the humans said "Take this in exchange for what you have done for us", the spirit balked at the bond that accepting such a gift would entail.

Our own lore says it clearly: "A gift demands a gift". There is a bond created between two people who give gifts to each other. There is an expectation that follows this sacred act. The house-spirit desires communion, recognition and participation with human beings, but it doesn't desire to be bound as a servant. It is enough to leave gifts for the wight or spirit, which it will accept, and to thank the spirit through recognizing its presence and praising its good deeds for the home, but to offer it a reward for this is something that the wise should not do. The offerings of food and milk given to the house-wight are not a "reward" any more than a blot or sacrifice to the Gods or Ancestors is a reward to them for being Gods or Ancestors. It is an expression of connection with them, a ritual of recognition and communion.

As an aside, the one offered reward that drove house-spirits away more than any other was clothing. To offer a brownie or house-spirit clothing as a reward would drive it way, infallibly. It is also worth noting that brownies and other types of house-guardians and spirits hate Christian religious symbols. I don't expect my fellow Heathens to have such things in their houses, but those who do can be certain that the house-wights have long since departed.

I will close this letter with an account of my personal experiences with house-wights. My family recently moved into an extraordinary new place, and while conversing with my Fylgja the other day, she informed me that we had not fulfilled our duties to the house-wight fast enough. She affirmed that we indeed had a spirit in our house, and that my wife and child were in danger from it, because it was not yet honored by us. Accidents had happened, before, minor things, but accidents nonetheless. That very day, another accident occured, and I realized that I had to move a bit faster than I was planning.

Before my hearth, I put out one of the small cakes that my wife had baked a few days before, and a bowl of milk, and using the Algiz-galdor, I induced a condition by which I could communicate with wights. I walked around the house, calling to the house-wight, and asked it to come to the hearth so that I could honor it. I didn't have to wait long; its tangible otherworldly presence was hanging over my mantle and fireplace very quickly. I gave it the offerings, and told it who we were, my family and I, and I recognized it as existing as the first inhabitant of this place, this home that means so much to us.

I told it that we would always dedicate any occassion of house-cleaning to it; this is very important, because house-wights folklorically seem to really love it when mortals keep neat houses, and clean house. This goes back to the idea of the "Ryta" or the "Right Order" of the cosmos being reflected even in our living places. I told it that we would leave out these offerings pretty regularly, and asked that it protect us and our home. I concluded by invoking the Gods, and, through my own mind and body, mediating the blessings of the High Thunderer and the All-Father onto the spirit of the house. They too, can receive blessings.

The simple act of meaningfully placing out offerings of milk and cakes is by itself a powerful act, and enough to please wights. My wife, later that day, placed out some cookies for it. Later, those offerings were gathered and carried to the tree behind our house, where we lay out all offerings to return into the ground. This formal act of "establishment" was successful- I could tell that the house-wight was pleased, and the atmosphere of the house has been quite lighter and more pleased ever since.


Erik said...

People wonder at the "point" or "purpose" for belief in such beings.

If those people are Christian, I might ask the "point" of believing that an omnipotent God created a race of beings (angels) whose only purpose is to sing his praises - without ceasing - forever...

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful article. Full of emotion, and wisdom, and truth. I'm so glad I came across it. I believe in these spirits, whatever one may call them. Just wonderful!


Cobalt-Blue said...

How long do you leave an offering on the altar, and what do you do with it afterwards? I live in an apartment, so burying it in the yard is not an option.

Ingrid said...

Hello! That was a wonderful article, full of insight. It's really nice to know that this knowledge is not forgotten.
I wanted to inquire about the offerings. What else could be left for the wights, instead off food? And where should they be put afterwards? I still live with my parents, (this is my last year), and I don't want them to question my worship of the wights. So my goal is to be as discreet as possible, while working to a better atmosphere of my home :)

Thank you!