Monday, February 19, 2007

The Wyrd of Prayer: Heathen Prayers and the Community of Wyrd

This is an important post that I need to write, because it relates to a powerful experience I’ve had, and to a needful topic that most Heathens don’t consider often- prayer. I think that prayer is vital to every Heathen’s life. I wrote a lot about daily devotions in my last book, Helsongs, devotions from the Northern Tradition, but what I regret not doing is just writing about straight “prayer”- so I may use this post as a “springing off point” to write a major essay on it, and make it available everywhere. But first, the here and now.

Prayers to the Gods in Ancient Times

Yes, ancient Heathens prayed to the Gods. Yes, they prayed to their Gods, even to the mightiest of the Gods, such as the Thunderer or the Allfather. They prayed to their ancestors, to powerful local Land spirits, and to wights of their households. Heathens prayed. I have to state this clearly, because there are a few very foolish modern Heathens who, owing to their own hang-ups regarding prayer, hang-ups that are totally and completely influenced by their own lack of understanding regarding "prayer" and their own bad experiences with modern religions like Christianity, actually try to convince others that "Heathens never prayed to the Gods."

These poor souls will never be able to re-write history, though they certainly try. They project their own lack of understanding of what "prayer" is onto modern Heathenry, and whatever damage they do to the understanding of other people is nothing compared to the damage they are doing to themselves. Prayer is an important part of modern Heathenry, just as it was an important part of ancient Heathenry.

"Prayer", as I will discuss later, is not "grovelling" before the Gods. It isn't an invitation to become narcissistic and think that the Gods are waiting on you hand and foot. "Prayer" simply refers to the act of asking something of someone, or of entreating another for something. It is a form of communication, and a simple one at that. "Prayer" as a word derives from the PIE base *prek, meaning "to ask, request, entreat."

That's it; I know that takes a lot of the excitement and mysticism out of the word, but "prayer" originally only referred to the act of asking or requesting something. In a broader sense, it is simply two way-communication. To as your friends if they want to come by your house one night for a party is a form of "prayer"; to speak an invocation to the Allfather is a prayer; to ask the Allfather to receive a Blot is a form of prayer; to ask Nerthus to make your garden or fields grow strong is prayer. Any act of conscious communication between two wights, in any world, in which one asks a question or makes any sort of request or entreaty, is prayer. Simply asking the Ancestors to notice your deeds, or asking for their strength is a full and strong prayer.

The Gods gave us the power to communicate in many ways; the intend for us to do so, both with one another and with them. They desire conscious communication with us. They are our kin. In this sense, prayer is not just possible and desired by the Gods; it is an imperative. We ask our own human families for help we need it; we ask them questions about things when we are curious or when we think they can shed some light on some issue for us; it should be no different with the Gods.

We have many historical examples of specific prayers that go beyond the standard request that the Gods give humans good harvests or victory in war. One Runestone-inscribed Prayer from Norway states:

Hail to you and good thoughts. May Thórr receive you, may Óðinn own you.

A Runestone prayer inscription from Öland, Sweden states:

May Thórr protect you with that hammer which came from out of the sea and may the lightning hold all evil away from you.

Despite what some modern naysayers try to claim, it's interesting (and incontrovertible) that the two highest Gods of these people are being called to specifically protect an individual. A Rune-row was carved with a prayer specifically for the safety of a person, and that prayer, that message of petition, was sent directly to the Thunderer and the Allfather.

Ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveller in the Northlands over a thousand years ago, recorded some very fascinating instances of prayer between Heathen people and their Gods. In his Risala he writes:

"When the ships come to this mooring place, everybody goes ashore with bread, meat, onions, milk and intoxicating drink and betakes himself to a long upright piece of wood that has a face like a man's and is surrounded by little figures, behind which are long stakes in the ground. The Rus prostrates himself before the big carving and says, "O my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me such and such a number of girls and such and such a number of sables", and he proceeds to enumerate all his other wares. Then he says, "I have brought you these gifts," and lays down what he has brought with him, and continues, "I wish that you would send me a merchant with many dinars and dirhems, who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything I say." Then he goes away.

If he has difficulty selling his wares and his stay is prolonged, he will return with a gift a second or third time. If he has still further difficulty, he will bring a gift to all the little idols and ask their intercession, saying, "These are the wives of our Lord and his daughters and sons." And he addresses each idol in turn, asking intercession and praying humbly. Often the selling goes more easily and after selling out he says, "My Lord has satisfied my desires; I must repay him," and he takes a certain number of sheep or cattle and slaughters them, gives part of the meat as alms, brings the rest and deposits it before the great idol and the little idols around it, and suspends the heads of the cattle or sheep on the stakes. In the night, dogs come and eat all, but the one who has made the offering says, "Truly, my Lord is content with me and has consumed the present I brought him."

I could continue on this tour of prayer in the ancient world, but it isn't necessary. The reality of Faining, or personal, private devotions, are an important and common part of ancient Heathenry, just as they are modern Heathenry.

I must make a footnote to this, however- it is important that we recall that ancient Heathens had far more "prayers" and "devotions" done for their local wights and powers and spirits of their homes than the Great Gods themselves- it is true that the Great Gods are involved with the Wyrd of the world on a very high level, and it would be partially absurd to think that the Allfather sits on pins and needles waiting for prayers to come to him, so that he can answer them. He spends his time wandering the worlds and preparing for the Doom of the Powers, and one imagines that this consumes much of his "time", if indeed you wish to consider the activities of Allfather from such a crude perspective as linear "time".

But one must never forget that Allfather's two ravens circle the world daily and nightly, seeing everything that occurs- including the prayers of his human kind- and relays these things back to him, without fail or distortion. Even if he does not respond always in the concrete ways most people would like, he certainly is aware of all prayers, blots, and fainings made by human beings. Those he chooses to respond to in a very direct way can be considered fortunate, indeed... most of the time.

At any rate, it is an unchangeable fact from history that the holy Temple at Upsala, Sweden, housed the images of three of the Highest Gods- Odin, Thor, and Frey, and that prayers were put to Odin for warfare, to Thor for good crops, and Frey for marriage blessings. Could the ancient Heathens have felt that the Great Lord Frey himself, the God of the World, was interested in human couples getting together? You bet they did, and yes, the Lord himself did care and does care for human bonds of frith and relationship. He was prayed to for just those things.

Prayer and Modern Heathenry

It goes without saying that prayers to spirits and Gods is as old as humankind. But today, few Heathens really have a very prayerful practice- they have many formal rites, such as blots, sumbels, and the like, and they love to praise the Gods and toast a lot, and while these are forms of prayer (as I pointed out, prayer is, in the most simple and broad sense, communication with the Gods or spirits, in the form of questions or requests) I don’t think that the activity of “personal” faining or praying to the Gods is something that modern Heathens deal with enough.

And there’s every reason why we should. It has become an important part of my own practice, and I think it has countless benefits, not the least of which is a powerful sense of peace. And we can all use that.

A Sorcerer’s Task

I write as a sorcerer- and people wonder at that word. I don’t claim to be a super-hero; I claim to be one who is skilled in the most radical form of sensitivity possible- trance. I claim to be one who is able, on some level, to achieve altered states of awareness and sensitivity with some predictable control, following my desire to do so. Why? Why gain these states? Because they grant peace; they help me to clarify things for myself and for others; they help me to find insight into issues and mysteries, and they help me to open myself to the massive community of life, of which I am a part- a community that extends from what is seen to the vast reaches of the Nine Worlds, of what is unseen.

I feel in “place”, open to all possibilities, “situated” in a sacred dimension, when I am entranced, and for a while after the trance ends. On good days, I feel the same just walking around. The more I get “into” trance work, the more I do it, and the better I get at it, the more these feelings of “being situated” and peace persist. My path is a path of spiritual ecology and situation, as much as a religious path. As my friend Oengus says, they are one and the same.

A sorcerer seeks wisdom, and wisdom is my goal, though I am not so inexperienced as to think that this goal can be “won” like a game is won after some effort. My goal is day to day, and it has no finish line. A sorcerer seeks to right what has gone wrong- when disharmony exists due to lack of wisdom, due to the lack of feeling “in place” or “situated” that so many modern people feel, the sorcerer must try to mediate balance back to the situation.

But all of that aside, a “sorcerer”- a person who is a Wyrd-worker or Wyrd Wise cannot do this without a profound and powerful spiritual backing, and a devotion to moral principles. We must be in kinship with the Ancestors and the Gods, and we must be good human beings- we have to excel at the tasks and skills taught to us by the Gods- the tasks and arts of culture, law, art, religion, fairness in judgment, justice, poetry, frith or communal order, mutual protection of our kin, and we must be unafraid to express love for our kin and our people- and today, for me, this includes a community of man that stretches across the globe, as well as non-human forms of life. It also includes spiritual beings. I may put my ancestors first, but I know that the web of life and Wyrd connects me to all people and all wights, or sentient beings.

The Bond That Cannot Be Broken

We are all sprung from the same Web of Wyrd, and that makes Urd our common "mother", as it were. The Allfather shaped all of us from the two trees, and the world we share in common was shaped by his hands. We have a natural, mystical, and sacred connection to one another, and further, a divinely-mandated special duty to our kin and our close groups of loved ones.

The basis of this bond is Wyrd, is the ultimate sacred inter-related power that binds all things. All living things celebrate, unconsciously or consciously, their connection to other things, and the simple joy of being. We humans have a special way of expressing it; we all have felt the swelling love in us for those closest to us. We have to be unafraid to express that strongly.

This is no invitation to some “hippy” religion- this is an invitation to become a useful, harmonious member of the community of Wyrd, of the extended sacred community of Nature itself. You can’t be useful unless you are willing to work for others, and once, our tribes demanded that we work for the tribe. Now, the tribes are gone, and we find ourselves in a different world indeed. Now, “tribe”, when that word is used, can mean many things. It can be as inclusive or exclusive as we want it to. Some will choose exclusivity; my duty to Wyrd- and the love I feel- leads to a greater sense of inclusiveness. You won’t work for others, for their well-being, unless you feel love for them, feel the natural connection you have for them.

Allfather is no stranger to self-sacrifice, on behalf of others; had he not gone to death itself, hanging on the tree, we never would have received knowledge of the Runes, the sacred mysteries. He helped us in the deepest, most profound way imaginable, by bringing us the Truth- but we are all called to share in that sacrifice in our own ways, that the mysteries he set in motion will come to be as they should. When you self-sacrifice like Allfather, put aside your “self” in the name of something greater, then you really do see a greater vision- when you love someone, for instance, self-sacrifice is always called for, and if love is true then it is happily given.

You can’t be a harmonious member of the community of life unless you are at peace with yourself, and unafraid to be what you are. The path of harmony for me is in worshiping the Gods and helping others with my writing and by being the best friend I can be to others- and the best husband I can be to a wife, and the best father I hope that I will be to my daughter. These are duties of mine. They give a life purpose and meaning, but more than that, they make me feel “in place”. I feel the harmony of being in place, of having both my feet on the path Wyrd has woven for me and knowing that fact with certainty.

This love and harmony is not draped in pink cloth with a tin-foil hat. It’s not cheap, new-agey, or lacking in seriousness. It isn’t an invitation to become a wimp, to let people walk all over you, or sacrifice strength of purpose or moral standards. This love is an essential part of a timeless reality that we share, and this harmony is the same harmony felt in the Foretime by our ancestors. These are the sources of strength that made them great. To die in defense of hearth and home, village and kin, clan and tribe- what else but Wyrd’s love could drive a person to doom in battle? To love your land, all of your land, and your people, to feel at home amid nature’s many shapes, that is harmony. That is the feeling of stability we all seek, but few find.

Prayer and the Spirits

I started writing this to speak of Prayer, so now I shall do so. I just stood up from a nightly session of contemplation and prayer to my beloved Fylgja-Dis, the spirit that has accompanied me since my birth. When I was 23, this spirit appeared to me as an Owl, my Dyr-Fylgja, Folga, or Fetch-beast. Later, I finally saw the spirit take the form of a woman- my Dis- a black haired woman that the owl changed into. This double-faced spiritual presence has been my constant companion, and through the Mystery that connects ALL humans to their spiritual companion or double, I have maintained two-way communion with her all these years.

Normally, she appears as an Owl, in dreams, visions, and in my prayerful images. But when I pray, nowadays, I seek out the anthropomorphic form of my Fylgja, my Fetch, For she is the very Norn of my life, the Wyrd-maiden that weaves my particular thread of Fate, and she is my protector. All Sorcerers, in my opinion, must keep this relationship between themselves and their Fetch primary in their personal spiritual lives. Without her, there is no safety, no teaching, no guidance, and no vitality. She is dear to me.

She and I stand together, human man, a fetch-beast, and a fetch-woman; man, beast, and mysterious Fate-weaving divine figure; a trinity of great power for anyone who can become conscious of it, and allow that power to flow freely. That is the essence of the Algiz Rune, the mystery of the connection between not only the mortal being and his spiritual counterparts, but the connection between all worlds, and between all humans and the Gods. It’s also the connection between all beings and other beings and worlds- the very “Rainbow Bridge” of lore.

By chanting the sacred galdr or chant of Algiz, and using the power of the mantically inspired imagination to make the Rune-shape seethe in my chest, and exalt my consciousness, I am able to call upon my Fetch with a further galdr or chant, a prayer. When I feel them, I know I am ready.

Prayer is communication. Why pray? There are several answers. Wyrd is the first. But people usually want others, so I give them- because it makes us feel assured, happy, at peace, “in place” to reach out and communicate with others. Why stop with just the humans we can see? We can reach out to so much more, and the power of the very real connection between the seen and the unseen allows us to reach out to the Gods, our Ancestors, and many other wights.

So we pray, because communication is a Mystery itself, one of the sacred mysteries, embodied by the Ansuz Rune. We are aware, deeply, of all the Mysteries. We want to embody them, because our consciousness allows for us to, thanks to the gift of spirit given to us by Allfather. So we pray, we communicate, because it is our right, privilege, and task. It has great benefit for us.

Praying to Wyrd?

Here is where the Sorcerer becomes more esoteric. Any God or wight or group of wights can be prayed to, this is true. But my first prayers are always for Urd, the great Fate herself. Why on earth would someone pray to such a power as Wyrd? Most people consider Wyrd to be impersonal, and I must say, it is. On one level, Wyrd expresses itself as the cosmic chain of inter-related cause and effect that causes the expression of everything, every person, being, place, force, event, you name it. The Gods have sprung from it. We have. Trees have, oceans, spirits, the list is endless. Wyrd is sacred power, interacting, creating. Things dissolve, get destroyed, too- the Webs of Wyrd are grinding themselves together, grinding down to the end of this expressed cosmic order, a growing chaos and “Friction” embodied by the “Naudhiz” Rune.

Who could pray to such a thing? Well, I suppose in my own madness, I have “seen” something else- why would Wyrd (or Urd) be embodied as a “giantess” as she was in Voluspa- a primordial divine being- and set as a weaver of the Web of Wyrd, and as the Dis of Death itself? Her name is cognate to “Wyrd”. Urd weaves the web of Urd. I don’t intend to get into a long debate about this- because the reality is that the Three Wyrd sisters or Norns aren’t just weavers of the Web of Wyrd, they are expressions of it as well. Everything that “becomes” is Wyrd.

This led me, some time back, to the conclusion that Urd is far more immense and mighty than we could imagine. Wyrd doesn’t just impersonally sit back and act as a causal agent; it also appears as a personal being, that we can also call “Wyrd” or Urd. It is to Her that I pray, first of all. Naturally my next prayers are for my Fetch, for my Ancestors, and for the Allfather who is the perpetual master of all Sorcery, the shaper of the world and protector and teacher of sorcerous people.

One can say that Wyrd “appears” as all things, including the Gods, though this does not mean that Wyrd is some “essential” God that all the Gods are a manifestation of- something like that is absurdly ridiculous. The Gods are the Gods, as much individuals as we humans are. But we are all sprung from a common sacred web of Power- Wyrd, and this fact can never be forgotten; it is this common relationship and origin in Wyrd that makes us able to communicate with the Gods at all, and for them to affect us.

Urd is a Goddess to whom I have a special relationship, one that has taken years to develop into full consciousness. She is the Dis of the Dead, the Goddess who rules over death and the dead- I agree with Viktor Rydberg fully on this point. Many may not, but I welcome them to their conclusions- my own spiritual insights have left me with no doubt. The good thing about modern Heathenry is that we have plenty of room for differences, and we can celebrate them. Wyrd (clearly) has room for us all.

It seems that our fellow Heathens in the Odinic Rite agree with me; I discovered a fabulous short essay in which I can join them in agreeing that Wyrd or Urd is very much a Goddess- and a being that can be prayed to. At this page:

They say:

We live in an infinite and eternal cosmos that contains everything that exists, both matter and spirit, a cosmos that is "intelligence", "awareness" and "will" that brings about all change. This Great Being, of which we are a part, we see as Wyrd, the weaver of Fate. Physical science which once saw the universe as a great but mindless machine, is now coming to realise that the infinite flow and surge of energy that is the basis for the cosmos in every respect is more like a great thought than a machine. The thinker of this thought, the Cosmic Mind, we visualise as Wyrd.

In the mythology of our Nordic ancestors of the past two millenia she plays a shadowy part. By the time the few references we have to her were written down (references saved from the wholesale destruction of our heritage) most of the lore and wisdom of the ancient Aryans had already dwindled into simple folk-tale and legend. She is seen in these tales as the Mother of the Norns, the goddesses of Time: Urd (Wyrd's namesake), past; Verdandi, present; and Skuld, future, who spin the destinies of men and women."

Please, go to the site and read the whole article; it is of great quality.

As strange as it may sound, we Heathens can pray thankful prayers to Wyrd or Urd for all the many fortunate things we have in our lives- I am thankful everyday for my wife, child, cats, dog, my health, my task as a writer, my friends, my house, my land, my insights, and my freedom from fear and want. I tell Urd. I tell my Fetch. I thank them. I ask for their continued protection and help and luck-force. And here’s how I do it.

Centering, Singing Galdrar, and Praying

I start by getting into a quiet, relaxed and private place- and sometimes, life demands that we make this “sacred space” in our own heads, amid the noise of the world- something that is easy to do, if we try with the proper amount of firmness, but not over-firmness.

Then, I attune myself to the Algiz Mystery, the Rune of our connection to all things, most especially our Fetch-companions. I see myself standing in a forest before a Hof, a Heathen temple, and above the door, I see a shield with the Algiz rune on it. Some can see an Elk’s horn on it, or a Swan in flight- all are the same as the Algiz-Rune shape.

I really “see” it and say its name, the one word- ALGIZ (ALL-GEEZ with a hard G). When I feel the power of the vision in my head and the “sound” of the word inside, I “bring it across” into this “outer” world by saying the word aloud, then singing it’s Galdr- Alllllgiiiiizzzzzzzz. This long, droning, drawn out chant is powerful, it resonates in your head and at the same time, channels the power of this mystery.

I visualize the Algiz form in my chest. I see it glowing golden, and filling my body as I chant. I stop when I feel relaxed and “full” of that power.

From this point, I am ready- I sing or chant a song to my Fetch-maiden and my Fetch beast, the Owl- I ask them to come, and I go quiet inside my mind, letting my mind explore the sensations and images arriving and arising, without ever being “led away” by them. I examine my life, the experiences I had that day, in terms of the Web of Wyrd. I puzzle over the connections I see, and I let the feeling of power build up.

Then, it’s time for deep prayer- I go quiet inside, and simply let the word ALGIZ be my focus. When my thoughts wander, I gently bring myself back to that word and that concept, that mystery. Eventually, in such a deep and profound silence, and under the power of the galdrar I have done, a trance naturally begins.

We are all connected at all times to all things and places and beings- but the Algiz-galdr can make us more aware of that, and more able to communicate. We can consciously, intentionally pray. I pray to Urd knowing that not only can she hear me, but she is weaving all of this, as it happens. She is the prayer and that which is prayed to; it is all sacred and powerful.

My fetch-maiden, she is the same way. My owl, ever-wise, night-flying bird, the same. Sorcerous companions in power, all is well in the “inner Hof” of prayer, and in the power of the Algiz mystery.

I believe that Urd is a personal expression of the entire web of Wyrd, and in some way, a supreme power among powers, and I pray to her often. I turn my prayers to the Allfather, to the Vanadis, to the sacred powers who have sprung from Wyrd like all other things have, and who had so much to do with shaping our world, protecting it from destructive powers, and teaching us humans how to be “human” in the best sense of the word.

All of this method of prayer takes place in the sacred depths of silence, an inner silence controlled by the “gentle return” to the single word- Algiz- mystery of connection. Don’t hurt yourself doing this, or get frustrated- a journey through profound center and silence is what we are talking about here, with the “center word” being any word you may wish to choose. Obviously, as a sorcerer, I chose a Runic word of power, but any word that represents your connection to the community of holy wights can be chosen, or a word that helps you to be calm and feel at peace.

After a long while of silence and focus, you can begin to “lift your mind’s eye” up to the forms of the Gods as you know them, which will hopefully be as our Ancestral lore depicted them, or using the symbols we know were associated with them- praying to the Allfather (or any God) need no image, but should you want one, and you wish to pray to Him, a Raven is a perfectly fine image to have, and a good alternative to a bearded, one-eyed man.

Those we pray to can clarify matters for us, and our Fetch-companions or Fylgjas can “speak” in their own way- they can cause visions to arise in our minds, memories to arise, thoughts to arise, and the like; but one must be cautious here; one should NEVER “set out” to “see” something. You have to learn to let be, to let things occur as they will, when you are experiencing the inner silence. When you find your mind wandering, or when you find yourself getting confused, off-center, bogged down by feelings and memories or “mind noise”, you just “go back” to the Algiz, back to the word that you focused on.

You should often “return” to that word, and let yourself be silent again, over and over. Even when you are having a great “spiritual experience” or getting wrapped up in the “peace” of it all, you should make the conscious effort to return, always return to the simplicity of the center-word and re-set yourself. The inner silence and focus is the most important part of praying in this manner. It is more important than any “grand vision” you may gain from a God or a wight. Only in a well-cultivated inner silence can we have real communion with the unseen, and this is one of the most important things I have learned. Only in a well-cultivated inner silence can we deeply drink from the Well of Urd.

I talked about how the Gods can “look” to you- and indeed, there are many traditional “images”- but how your Fetch companion and Fetch beast will appear is totally unique to you. Silence, trance, and inner journeying can reveal that to you, if it is Fate that it happen. But a real effort must be made to discover those sorcerous secrets about yourself, and I suggest you find someone who has experience with their own to guide you in that sort of undertaking and quest.

Final Thoughts

The real over-arching point of prayer is to celebrate connection, and express our deepest fears, concerns, thanks, and problems with the powers that are connected to us by Wyrd itself- including Wyrd itself. Nothing could be more human, and it is another outgrowth of our uniquely human pursuit of religion and the sacred, which is an outgrowth of the divine spirit in us, put there by Allfather in elder days.

I cannot state how much I think prayer helps us to deepen our relationship with the Gods, with each other, with the greater community of life, and with our spiritual guards and guides. The power of it is known to all who pray regularly and deeply. I hope that more modern Heathens will reconsider personal prayer, see it as a contemplative exercise and as a powerfully human response to our lives, and stop considering it (as many do) a “christian” exercise in feeble piety. It is quite more than that, and universal to all people, today and historically.

Prayer’s greatest blessing for me is the way it helps me to deepen my understanding of Wyrd and how it clarifies my sense of “place”. Just as I was finishing typing this, a little prayer was answered, directly answered, by the turning of Wyrd itself- Heathen blessings, for certain!