Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Feast of Ultimate Generosity: Re-Thinking the Blot in Modern Heathenry

This short discussion on the blot, or the central form of religious sacrifice in modern Heathen belief and practice, represents a turning point or a "gravity shift" in how I personally have come to view and experience the blot. This turning point is a major one; as I will describe, it is a game changer in many ways, but chiefly in the way it has brought me from a "younger" perspective on blot to a manifestly older one. How we think of blot- what our motivations are, what metaphysics we believe are being acted out, how we conceptualize the Gods and their response to the blot- say a lot about us as modern Heathens, and it says a lot about how we conceptualize the Gods, as well.

I will begin by making the radical-seeming, and probably controversial statement that I believe the "blot", as it is done by nearly all Heathens (with the possible exception of some Theodish folk) has some deep and troubling metaphysical problems. In a predictably symmetrical way, those problems reflect into issues regarding how many modern Heathens look at the world, the Gods, and one another. 

There is no point in wondering if it was originally an issue with how the blot came to be thought of and performed, which then transferred itself into the minds of people who participated in blots, or if the original issue was with the deeper assumptions of modern Heathen people, who reflected those things into the form of the blot. Instead, this issue describes a recursive circle where "blame" cannot be placed, and no single "source" of the trouble can be found in any quick fashion. And yet, from my perspective, there is a trouble.

Heathenry is proudly traditional, in many ways- like all organic and Ancestral religions, "tradition" is one part continuation of thinking and behavior patterns of the Ancestors themselves, even adjusted to the modern day, and one part freedom from rigidity and rote. The Ancestors changed over time; we have changed, and we continue to change. That's the nature of organic religion. It is believed that, so long as we maintain certain central aesthetics and activities, and maintain certain basic "ways of seeing the world", and our trademark insistence on personal liberty and hospitality, that we continue, on some level, what the Ancestors were channeling and experiencing.

And there is a lot of truth to that, I think. But the issue I have with Blots as I understood them, and performed them for years, is that the metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the Gods, which are displayed in the standard "Blot" ritual, may not reflect the depth of the Ancestral experience of the Gods, going back to the deepest of Ancestral places.

One very particular "way of thinking" about the Gods was prominent in every blot I took part in, either as blot-officiator, or participant; and that was the idea, so commonly held in many branches of the Heathen tree, that the Gods would feel the need to send us a "counter gift" to repay the Heathen faithful for their gift of the blot. Naturally, we hoped at various occasions for various "return gifts" from the Gods- even going so far as to state what we hoped for.

On the surface, this seems not so troubling. After all, as Odin says in Havamal, "A gift ever asks for a gift". The keyword that I always used to explain this was "reciprocity". We would give, and so the Gods would give. They are honorable beings, after all; by definition, they are the source of the honor code that the Ancestors involved themselves with. The Gods are the divine exemplars of many of the human codes of behavior, like hospitality, and so forth. The Gods, we reasoned, would never fail to return a gift for a gift. Like two human families exchanging gifts to seal a friendship/alliance with one another, we felt we could and should do the same with the Godly families.

* * *
But after long months and years of reflection, I finally discovered a passage from Paul Shepard's book "Coming Home to the Pleistocene" that encapsulated what had begun to trouble me about our Blot institution. He writes:

"The idea of sacrifice was given definition and vigor by pastoralists. In making sacrifice, a sacred grassy area, the seat of a god, was strewn with meat offerings, gifts being accompanied by songs, in which a priest announced what the gift-giver wanted, In India and Iran usually "cattle and sons." Such negotiation could only have occured with a god who was conceived as more or less like men- full of themselves and their power, trade-minded, with the attitude of bargainers in a recalcitrant world, utterly different in spirit from the gifting world of the people of the bear, elk, and salmon. A liturgy of sacrifice, generally seen as the posture of a humble supplicant, revealed a despirtualized natural world reduced to materials to be bargained. As it was practiced by the Indo-Iranian descendents of the Indo-Europeans, sacrifice was perceived as "a presentation that establishes a relation of reciprocity, calling forth a counter-gift in return." Meat that had been shared according to obligation and custom among Hunter/Gatherers became a kind of gift in the pastoral cultures in which there was constant maneuvering to obtain the favor of powerful lords."
(P. 115)

And in this clear and powerful passage, Shepard reveals what I feel is a flaw in a lot of modern Heathen thinking, even my own once: we characterize the Gods as trade-minded beings like ourselves, and try to lure them into returning things to us in exchange for what we give them. It is certain, beyond a doubt, that both myself, and all the Heathens I ever knew were not *simply* trying to bargain- we also approached the seats of the Gods with real reverence and respect for them in our hearts. But a paradox is presented here, a paradox that I think splits the power of Blot in half.

That paradox is the reverencing of a great Being or Beings for all their might, generosity, and hospitality- which none of us ever doubted- and then imagining that we had to bargain with them for things we wanted, over what amounts to some pieces of meat, bowls of honey, or a horn of ale. Why should we ever have doubted that such amazing powers- Ancient Beings who helped to shape the world itself through their adventures, breathed life into mankind, and worked so heroically to preserve the worlds from chaotic forces- should withhold their blessings from us, or need gifts before they themselves gave gifts in return? Is this really Godly behavior or thinking? Or is it human?

Without realizing it, I, and many others, were continuing a particularly pastoral way of looking at the nature of the world and the Gods, which was based not on any truth about the Gods, but on the economic systems of ancient Pastoralism, and the realities of their lives then, in which bargaining was so prominent. The gifts of the Gods- ale, mead, meat, food, fresh water from springs, song, fertility, red, strong blood, fragrant herbs, our very human beings- these are not "materials" to be tossed around and bargained with as though they were a primitive form of currency; they are things to be thankful for, and shared in thanks, for no other reason than we feel grateful. And we should feel grateful. 

Pastoralists in ancient times turned the sacredness of animals themselves- the divine others who share our world- into money and objects of possession. As Shepard points out in his book, this led to some very grim outcomes, including messianic religions, and ultimately to Christianity itself. To unthinkingly continue trying to bargain with the sacred and wyrd-woven parts of the world, in the halls of the Gods, continues an ominous and perhaps insulting practice to the deepest Sacred Powers- but that may just be the Seidhmadr in me coming out now.

* * *
In a sense, I think Shepard, without meaning to, wrote a full manual of "Vanic" spirituality with his superb work "Coming Home to the Pleistocene"- for in it, he points out what the Heathen worshipers of the Vanir already know: that the earlier peoples, before pastoralism and agriculture (and therefore before the Indo-Europeans as history met them) believed that the Sacred Powers were utterly generous, and that they gave the gifts of life, food, game, fertility, wisdom, and pleasure in great abundance, without the need for bloody sacrifice or bargaining.

When we deal with the Gods and sacrifice-institutions of the Indo-Europeans, we are dealing with "Aesiric" (as some put it) spirituality, the largely sky-based spirituality of the pastoral and horse-riding peoples. In that spirituality, sacrifice is prominent and always (as he showed) about bartering for favor and benefit, even while also including an element of respect for the very powerful divine guest or guests of honor at the blot-feasts.

I see a need for a shift in essential thinking about blot. Blots were not simple gatherings were some people gathered around and killed an animal; they were actually full feasts- yes, animals often died in them, and were cooked, shared, and everyone took part. They were held in honor of Gods or Goddesses- but the honor wasn't focused on one action or set of actions; by simply traveling to attend a blot, people showed their respect for the Gods. By sitting at the feasting place, drinking, eating, talking, hearing the sacred songs or poems, all of that was in honor of the Mighty Gods.

* * *
I believe very strongly that "asking the Gods" for this or that, and trying to bribe them with very nice gifts implies that they are too human-like. To an extent, the Gods are presented in some sources as having some human-like qualities, but in others, and when one examines the history, archaeology and anthropology that extends long before the historical periods we know so well, we see that knowledge of the Gods stems from some very ancient and even non-human experiences of the Natural world, and from stranger places still. It is one thing to 'experience' Thor in depictions of the red-bearded strong man with his hammer and goats, but something else to experience Him when one hears the thunder roar and feels the rain fall. I can say with assurance that one of these "ways of experiencing" came before the other.

And when we consider that, we have to realize that some Edda-born tales of the Gods don't suffice to encapsulate the Gods as a whole, nor reveal the deep mystery of their Beings. In a way, I think we were minimizing the Gods with our metaphysical thinking about them before now- and even if we saw a larger picture for the Gods, saw and felt them deeper than the poetic and human-like depictions of them (which still reveal something of their nature), we still unconsciously continued to treat them like just another human (albeit a vastly more powerful and respected human) with our blot metaphysics.

I work every day to experience the Unseen reality, to broaden and sharpen my senses to the hidden currents of Wyrd, and to hear the voices of Ancestors. This is a slow process, a very subtle process. What my heart begins to tell me, and has been straining to tell me for years, is that our real task with blots is to do nothing more than show our deep gratitude to the Gods and the Sacred Powers for their ceaseless gift-giving to mankind.

They give all, and do all: Earth herself pours forth food endlessly, and waters; Thor protects mankind endlessly from countless unknown threats; Odin taught man culture, Runes, and inspires poetry and art and strategy, and even rides alongside the dead who fly the winds with him yearly. Frey and Freya and their great and generous family of Vanic divinities give life force and food and peace and good weather in abundance, and pour frith on human homesteads and communities, and on the communities of other beasts- all without being asked. This is part of who they are. Even the air that surrounds us everywhere, and sustains our life through breathing- does not Odin indwell the air and wind? Is this breath not a gift from him, too?

The Gods aren't going to suddenly withhold their generous natures because some humans didn't do a sacrifice correctly, nor do I imagine they care if humans do sacrifices at all. For centuries, the vast majority of mankind have ignored them at the religious level, and even cast them aside like trash, upon converting to Christianity- and yet, I see them, feel them, experience them every day being generous and powerful and filling the world with good things, as though nothing really ever changed. They are Gods, after all; I doubt they get too tied up over temporary, shifting human politics. And we all know that, despite some new-agers reporting otherwise, they are not dependent on human worship. They are not dependent on our blots.

But we do blots, and should do them, to say thank you, to give back because the Gods have given so much- a gift does, after all, call for a gift; but that's where I think it should end. When we do Blot for the Gods, the Blot is surely a gift, an honoring, but to think of it also as bargaining is a touch lame to imagine. Odin doesn't give "Sig" or Victory to communities because they pleased him at Sigrblot; he gives victory to good and noble people because he is the Sig-Father, and this is in his nature. It just so happens that "Good and noble people" should never fail to show their gratitude with blots. But it does not do to imagine that we "got something" out of the Gods because we bribed them somehow, or forced them to be reciprocal with us because we gave a gift to them.

Did we find victory? Thank Odin! Did we make ourselves the sorts of people that a being like Odin would be proud to give victory to, with our long-held demonstrations of generosity, our ceaseless demonstrations that we are thankful and generous and thereby noble ourselves? Certainly. Did we do it just so the Gods would favor us? I hope not; generosity is its own reward, its own righteous beauty, fully in line with deep pylons of the Sacred in this fateful world. So we'll keep doing blots of thanksgiving (for indeed, I see no need for any other kind) and trust the Gods to be the Gods that the Ancestors loved and held in awe and trusted.

The best way to assure that you will "get what you want or need" from the Gods is to manifest to them, in your everyday deeds and actions, and in your blots, a great heart of gratitude and reverence, and then to rest assured in knowing that they will continue to be the generous beings we know they are, and continue to bless us- for indeed, who among us can say that we have received nothing from the Gods?

If you can sing or play music or write poetry, or if you can build or carve in wood, or bake bread, or if you command language with great skill, or if you can design things, create amazing strategies in tests or games, weave clothing, walk for miles on strong legs, or if you have the gift of creativity... or if you have healthy, happy children, great friends, or enough food to eat for the foreseeable future, or a solid roof over your head, you are already mightily blessed. The greatest of "askings" has already been granted you. And it was given freely, probably without you asking at all.

* * *
Some ask me "But what if I have a sick child, and I want to blot Thor to drive away the spirit of the sickness that is bedeviling him? Can I not ask, over the blot feast and gifts, that Thor help with this?" I say "certainly- ask away, toast away, beg away, cry away, in public or in private. But I myself would never imagine that Thor was going to help your sick child simply because you brought rich gifts. I imagine he will help- have full confidence and trust that he will help, if he can- because he's Thor, a friend to man, and protector and supporter of noble people- and anyone who thinks to feast a God like Thor for help is already a noble person, in my book."

I admit that some will be bothered by this, because it violates one of the central "hidden rules" of a lot of modern Heathenry- the Aesiric bias. This entire essay is, admittedly, "Vanic" in tone and in feeling, and even in origin, for it represents a shift in my metaphysical thinking from a "bargain and strategy" approach to blot, to an "overwhelming gratitude for generosity" approach, which sounds more at home in the pleasant fields of Vanaheim (and in pre-pastoral, pre-Indo European Europe) than in the more socially-stratified and competitive annals of Indo-European culture.

But my fear is that we have been promulgating, even without meaning to, a de-spiritualized view of Nature itself, which is everywhere generous, always giving gifts to man, including the gift of his own Natural being. The Gods are part of the tapestry of Nature, Wyrd's weave, and it pulses and pounds with life and abundance. To feel so separate from that, to the point that we start bargaining with Gods that we come to think of as "Big Chieftains" or "Big Powerful Rich Guys" who will, like a human chief, give a gift back to us if we give one to them, represents a harmful evolution in human spiritual thinking, one that could only be possible when certain human cultures became distant from the "People of Bear, Elk, and Salmon", as Shepard put it- that is, away from the original human cultures that lived every day in the sheer generosity of Nature and the Gods, and didn't have social systems that were reduced to cut-throat bargaining or ritualized, complex gift-giving institutions that assured alliances and favors.

* * *
From now on, when I blot, it will always be a gift giving to the Gods, not a scheme of obligation or strategy on my part all dressed up in Ancestral respect and piety, but a gift from a heart that desires to be as generous to them as they have been to me and mine. I will rest assured that the Gods and Sacred Powers will continue to be as kindly to me later as they have been before, and as they were to my Ancestors who knew them from every age. Why add anything else to this clean, organic, and demonstrably ancient metaphysic, to muddle the waters? Trust for the Gods becomes the keynote of a healthy relationship with them.

It is good for a community to feel that they have re-affirmed kinship bonds with the Gods through blots and feasts, but even that represents a minor sense of paranoia- nothing can break our kinship bonds with the Gods and Sacred Powers, ever. The nature of that Fateful and vital bond is not something based on economics or "paying upkeep" or anything of the kind.

But as noble and good people, being generous (and feasting for the Gods) should be done anyway, else we cannot really claim to be good and noble. It's not because we're trying to "get something" that we feast, but because we are something already that we feast.


Jeffrey Cerneson said...

This, right here has been the reason why I have not identified with heathenry. In the course of my personal spiritual seeking, I had the rare and great fortune to spend some long time with a pair of Wicasa Wakan (First people's holy men). While I knew that my walk was not going to align completely with the red road, I also knew that I could learn a great deal from these wise men.
One of the lessons that I have carried with me, has been this exact mindset. While they may not refer to the various spirit beings that they relate to and with as Gods, the lesson is still relevant. Right relationship is at the heart of their way. What you refer to here is exactly that.
For me, this extends to all beings. If I have a relationship with a friend, I trust that I need not bargain with them to secure their goodwill. How then could I rely on such manipulations in my relations with the Gods? I trust them far more than any man or woman to be true to themselves. I need not worry that they shall be less than themselves and so in troth to such a way of being, how can I be less in my gratitude or my generosity in return. Aye there is reciprocity, but it is mine to make, not the Gods. I meet their generosity with as great as I can manage and trust that I shall learn to be greater still in my generosity. To me, this is spiritual adulthood. Looking for something in exchange for your worship is a spiritual childhood. Children look at the world in this way, until they grow into themselves. So too, must we, in our relations with the Gods.
Warmest Blessings,

Alfarrin said...

Superb, Jeff! Superb indeed!

"Aye there is reciprocity, but it is mine to make, not the Gods."

This is a point I wanted to make in the article, but did not. You said it perfectly.

Dave H said...

Fine article, Alfarrin. Really got me thinking.
Be well,
Dave H

Christopher Crittenden said...

This concern you were having is the same one I'd been having when I first discovered the blot/sacrifice in the ADF as well. I mouthed the party line about it not really being a bribe, do ut des and all that, even though in the back of my mind there was still the niggling feeling that it still was, at least partly.

I began looking at it differently when I read WWoTHH. After that, I'd say my understanding was more "Vanic" as well, in that my purposes for doing a blot/housle was to create relationships and focus my awareness/perception on the connections that have always been there but that I had not been consciously aware of. There is also the "identification" with them, recognizing the sameness and taking part consciously in that awareness and stream of power.]

The gratitude aspect always seemed more natural, because I was and am a fan of the idea that "there is no part of us that is not of the Gods" and by "us" I took it to mean all of us, not just humans. In that light, there is nothing we can give them that isn't already not only theirs, but also an intimate part of them from the beginning.

Great essay!

April G. said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Though I'm not really educated as it were in Heathenry, it is a path that I someday would love to learn more about, as I follow a more Celtic Druidic path. Your thoughts and insights were very inspiring - something to think and meditate on while developing and examining my own path.

I agree that man has seemed to given the Gods human-like qualities and attributes. It almost seems a disservice (for lack of a better term). I tend to try and find the different Goddesses for example, in the earth, the trees, the rivers. It feels more pure, original and primitive, which I am very much drawn to.

"It is one thing to 'experience' Thor in depictions of the red-bearded strong man with his hammer and goats, but something else to experience Him when one hears the thunder roar and feels the rain fall. I can say with assurance that one of these 'ways of experiencing' came before the other...Even the air that surrounds us everywhere, and sustains our life through breathing- does not Odin indwell the air and wind? Is this breath not a gift from him, too?" I absolutely love and get it. It is so simple, so pure and in my personal opinion, how spirituality should be. It should be stress free (or as stress free as possible) and be a part of our lives, something we do on a daily basis and be as natural to us as breathing.

AD said...

Awesome article.

I recently came to the understanding that the balance of all the worlds is dependent on Frith, or maybe it is better said in that all souls are made of Frith. So it is not so much our duty, but really more in our best interest to maintain good relations with all worlds through the virtues that make up the Troth of our Ancestors. Maintaining good Frith with the wider community of Life isn't done for any 'return', but really for it's own sake. And that is the work of the Blot. The Frith of a Blot is it's own reward. The Gods are exemplary of that, I feel, they are manifestations of their own work, like each of us. To produce great things that naturally contribute to the balance of Life should be as natural to us as it was to our venerable Heathen Ancestors (though it became less natural to them the more they moved away from their Old Ways, as you mention here), and to our Spiritual Ancestors, the Gods themselves. As Heathens, Every act of living should be a thanks to the balance of life the Gods have bestowed upon us, Every act should be a kind of Blot and celebration of that gift. Not because we 'must', but because it gives us joy, because it is fun and life affirming. That act of thanks is it's own gift, but I still believe the Blot or celebration of life is vital for maintaining balance, because to see a reason to Blot in any situation is to see divinity in all things, and thus be thankful. It is self reciprocating, and so also a kind of circle. All indigenous ways of being are common in this, that the sacred is not separated from the profane.

But, like I said, I do think Bloting is necessary to maintain our share of the balance keeping here in Middle Earth. But not in the sense that Bloting is a request for the blessings of the Gods, but in that it strengthens their gifts through celebrating those blessings. The more we Blot and the more we celebrate, the more we open ourselves to these gifts and the more we create space for the blessings to move through and be passed on through our actions for the benefit of the greater balance of the cosmos.

Anyhow, just wanted to say thanks for these thoughts. They have been with me too, recently.

In Frith!