I’ve been living in southeastern Pennsylvania for going on three years, and while I’ve acclimated to the particulars of the region, there are some things that never cease to amaze and confuse the hell out of me, especially when it combines packing a street in Philadelphia with enough feathers, sequins, and elaborate costumes with massive backpieces as possible. No, it’s not the annual Gay Pride Parade – I’m talking about that particularly bizarre, garish, and unintentionally entertaining idiosyncratic piece of Philadelphia culture: the New Year’s Day Mummer’s Parade.
I had the distinct privilege of being invited by my friends and next-door neighbors to attend their Freyfaxi celebration this past weekend. While I didn’t directly participate in the ceremony it was a fascinating thing to watch, and my Heathen friends (known more officially as Asatruar) were very gracious of them to invite me to observe.
Anthropologically there’s not much actual ritual for Asatruar to follow when it comes to being able to use as a framework for modern practicing Heathens. The spread of Christianity erased many of the indigenous cultural practices, though snippets have emerged here and there either through re-discovered texts or generational games of telephone that have passed down snippets over the centuries. Like other neopagan religions, the Asatru movement has gleaned what they can and extrapolated from there; the result is that each Kindred (or local worship group) can and quite often does approach worship differently from another, which means that the rituals I observed this weekend may be similar to those practiced by another Kindred or may be wildly different.
The celebration itself is akin to an Asatru Thanksgiving of sorts; Freyr, the Scandinavian god celebrated in the ritual (and where Freyfaxi gets its name) was considered to be the god of fertility, fair weather for the growing of crops. Pre-Christian pagans would rely upon Freyr’s beneficence to grant them the strength to keep the peace in their villages and farms, protecting them from harm and keeping the fields healthy and the women pregnant, and Freyr was considered to be one of the most important deities to call upon to preserve the commonwealth of Scandinavian settlements. As a summer harvest festival, Freyfaxi has an Anglo-Saxon analogue in Lammastide and was also sometimes called Hlæfæst, or “Loaf Feast,” with the inference being that many communities celebrated by turning the first grain harvests of the year into bread for the celebration; with the short summers and long winters of Scandinavia, that first grain harvest would have been incredibly important for agrarian societies to the point where the local community leader would sometimes be sacrificed to bring good fortune after a long string of bad harvests.
While the majority of us may not have to gamble on a good wheat harvest to make it through the winter nowadays, the spirit of thanksgiving was alive and well this weekend at the Freyfaxi celebration I witnessed. My friends, who just recently formed their own group called the Wyrd’s Well Kindred, played host for around 25 people, and their responsibilities involved actually leading those gathered in a ceremony called a Blót, a word in Old Norse which literally means “blood” but is synonymous with also “worship” and “sacrifice” – which is demonstrative of how, in Asatru, worship often cannot take place without some form of sacrificial offering.
The blót began with my friends sanctifying the circle of gathered Asatruar by calling on Thor to protect those gathered there, much like many occultists will perform a Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram before beginning any work of their own. Following that, Wyrd’s Well began the blót in earnest, calling on those gathered to both praise and thank Freyr. With Asatruar being both highly centered around the veneration of ancestors and respect for the natural world, these two facets were also hailed alongside Freyr in thanks and appreciation before the blót continued.
In keeping with the sacrificial roots of the blót, the celebrants chose something to burn as an offering to Freyr. Some people wrote out prayers on slips of paper and handed those into the fire, while others kept with the harvest theme and sacrificed gathered wildflowers or food. One person brought a full honeycomb to burn on the fire; combined with the apple slices that another person gave to Freyr, the smoke smelled sweet and fragrant.
Honey is – and was – an important facet of Heathen life. Most of Scandinavia was much too cold for the cultivation of grapes, which meant that honey was used in lieu of grape juice to ferment into wine. Mead plays an integral role to Asatruar, and every blót features the passing of a mead-horn along the circle, and celebrants drink from the horn. Those participating in the blót are also blessed with a sprinkle of mead from the the ritual blót bowl where the mead is kept. Sometimes called a Blótbolli, in pre-Christian days the blót bowl was usually filled not with mead but with the blood of whatever animal had been sacrificed for the rite (with Blótbolli literally meaning “blood-bowl” in this context); this weekend, of course, didn’t involve anything but a bit of mead in Wyrd’s Well’s blót bowl.
After these observances the rite was ended, but not before everyone in attendance – myself included, even though I didn’t participate in the ritual – was given a gift. We were each given a flat sliver of deer antler that had been marked with Ingwaz, the fuþorc rune for Freyr, as Ingvi-Freyr (or Yngvi-Freyr) is one way faithful referred to Freyr both in pre-Christian times and today. The antler is especially relevant to Freyr’s mythology, where he relinquished his magical sword in order to court his wife and instead took up a deer antler to use as a weapon in battle, again highlighting just how integral sacrifice was to pre-Christian Scandinavian paganism and why so much weight is placed upon sacrifice in Asatru.
The rest of the day was spent in much more typical secular pursuits, with a massive barbecue on the back patio. Much like any good feast, I did my best to honor my hosts by eating and drinking to my fullest content, and later that evening I raised the mead-horn when it came to me, thanking them for their hospitality and the honor they bestowed upon me by asking me to attend.
I might not have said it then, since that mead does a wonder in erasing your memory of Modern English let alone Anglo-Saxon, but I’ll say it now: wæs þu hæl, my friends, and thank you for including me in your celebrations.