Ancestor Worship in Historical Heathenry
Updated: May 19, 2022
Several university scholars and professors claim that Ancestor worship is an invention of modern Heathenry. I am fanatical about research, and on a rare occassion, I find that non-Heathen university professors and PhDs make mistakes because they do not have a Heathen mindset, but either a Christian or secular one. Recently, one academic, Jósúa Hróðgeir Rood, argued against Ancestor veneration in Historical Heathenry. The question at hand: "Is academia right, that ancestor veneration is an invention of modern Heathenry?" PS- Dr. Jackson Crawford recently said in one of his YouTubes that the fact that he is not a Heathen (and is a christian) should not matter. He loves the culture and has studied really hard and spent thousands of dollars, and his expertise should mean something. I do agree. But let me use Old Saxon scholars as a good example here. The three biggest Old Saxon scholars do not have a Heathen understanding of the Heathen Old Saxon poetry. All three have given commentary on the ritual given in Old Saxon poetry, but none understand that using fire to walk around a site is common in Scandinavian literature for the creation of Sacred Space or claiming land. These scholars argue that during a catholic mass, incense (fire) is walked around the altar, so walking around the altar with fire is an intro to Catholicism, totally missing that this is how Heathens claimed land or sacred space. Non-Heathen scholars read things academically, or linguistically, etc. But for a reconstructionist of Old Saxon Heathenry, this is proof to me that the Saxons were similar to their Scandinavian cousins, also using blood and fire to create sacred space. These scholars are not interested in reconstructing historical Heathen ritual, therefore, since it is not a concern, they miss little things, like this. With this in mind though, we should think critically about scholars conclusions, are they correct, or incorrect? Can we PROVE their arguments are correct or unfounded based on evidence? Let us look at both arguments, the side FOR the veneration of Ancestors, and the side AGAINST, and lets look at the pros and cons of each. Argument FOR Ancestor Veneration in Historical Heathenry: The Gods are our Ancestors, and Germanic Peoples descend from the Gods and Goddesses Arch-Heathen thought believed all "men" (men and women) were of divine birth
We have genealogies in several historical documents. The Ynglinga Saga makes the claim that the royal house of Sweden descends from Odin through Yngvi-Freyr. We also have strong evidence that the Saxons felt that they descended from Sahsnoth (Old Saxon) or Seaxneat (Old English), a son of Uuoden (or Woden, or Odin). We have genealogies in England tracing descent to Woden and Beldag. We even have the Roman writers, who wrote about the Germanic Tribes when they first came in contact with them: (Tacitus, Germania chapter 2, circa 95 AD). Tacitus states specifically: “In traditional songs which form their only record of the past, the Germanic tribes celebrate an earth-born God called Tuisto. His son Mannus is supposed to be the fountain-head of their race and himself to have begotten three sons who gave their names to three groups of tribes: the Ingaevones, nearest the sea, the Herminones, in the interior; and the Istaevones, who comprise all the rest." Tacitus continues stating that Mannus had "more numerous descendants besides the three" stating that these are where other tribes come from, implying that non-Germanic tribes, who did not know the Aesir, were still descended from Mannus, but not through Irmin/Jormun/Odin.
Tuisto, gives birth to Mannus (German word for "man(kind)"), who gives birth to three sons: Irmin, Ing, and Istvae. The sequence in which one God has a son, who has three famous sons, has a resemblance to the Norse creation story of how Búri has a son Borr who has three sons: Odin, Vili and Vé.
These lineages imply ALL PEOPLE are of divine birth, as all Germans (and all mankind) are descended from Mannus, but only the Germanic Tribes descend from Irmin, Ing, and Istae. The proof is also in the language. In Old Saxon, the word for “human” is “guman.” The “g” in the word “gumon” is pronounced more like a “y” or “hy” in sound. Many “g” letters in Old Saxon are pronounced like a “y”. The word “human” is related to the name “Mannus.” Mannus is obviously also related to the Germanic word for “man” (mann).
I am repeating this again for emphasis, and wording it differently: The Ynglinga Saga portrays Odin as a Human who later became a God. Many say that is Snorri being a Christian and anti-Heathen in making Odin a "man." But is he? The Ynglings felt they were descended from Odin, who is portrayed as a human King (clan leader) in Ynglinga Saga. The Heathen word "god" (Old Saxon) comes into our modern English, but I don't think it meant some all-powerful monotheistic all-knowing God to the Germanic tribes. In Norse Heathenry, all the Gods die at Ragnarok. The Old Saxon Heliand implies that the Saxon Gods all die at Mutspelli (the Saxon "Ragnarok.") Gods in Germanic folklore do die, and are not all powerful, and are subject to the weavings of Uurd and her Shapers (In Old Norse: Urthr and the Nornir). Gods lose hands in our lore (they are not all powerful) and Odin pulled an eye out that did not grow back, and Snorri’s Baldr story has a God dying. Odin is not all knowing, he relies on two ravens to tell him what is going on... and this is clearly not due to him having only one eye… Sumble: Sumble is a rite (or a banquet) that toasts the Ancestors, and one's Ancestry: Sumbl in Heimskringla óláfs saga tryggvasonar Chapter 35: King Sveinn held a magnificent sumbl and called to him all of the ruling class that were in his kingdom. He was going to commemorate his father Haraldr. Then there had also died shortly before this Strút-Haraldr on Skáney and Véseti in Borgundarhólmr, father of Búi digri and Sigurðr. The king then sent word to the Jómsvikings that Jarl Sigvaldi and Búi and their brothers should come there and commemorate their fathers at sumbl that the king was holding. The Jómsvikings went to the sumbl with all the most valiant of their men… And after that Jarl Sigvaldi drank his father’s toast ... (PS-In Fagrskinna the main ritual at the memorial sumbl is called bragafull ‘toast of a great man’. The custom is also described in Ynglinga saga ch. 36 (there called bragarfull). Ynglinga Saga chapter 22 mentions a Funeral Sumble: “King Agne had at the time the gold ornament which had belonged to Visbur. He now married Skjalv, and she begged him to make burial sumble in honour of her father. He invited a great many guests, and made a great feast. He had become very celebrated by his expedition, and there was a great drinking match.” Ynglinga Saga chapter 40 mentions an Heirship-Sumble: “Now when Ingjald took the dominions and the kingdom of his father, there were, as before said, many district-kings. King Ingjald ordered a great feast to be prepared in Upsal, and intended at that sumbl to enter on his heritage after King Onund his father. He had a large hall made ready for the occasion, one not less sumptuous, than that of Upsal; and this hall was called the Seven Kings Hall, and in it were seven high seats for kings…Then he should stand up, take the Brage-beaker, make solemn vows to be afterwards fulfilled, and thereupon empty the beaker. Then he should ascend the high seat which his father had occupied; and thus he came to the full heritage after his father. Now it was done so on this occasion. When the full Brage-beaker came in, King Ingjald stood up, grasped a large bull's horn, and made a solemn vow to enlarge his dominions by one half, towards all the four corners of the world, or die; and thereupon pointed with the horn to the four quarters."
Funderal Mounds: Upsala. "Upsala" means "Upper Hall." Yes, "sala" in Old Norse, or "seli" in Old Saxon, mean "hall." Our modern words "salon" and "saloon" come from the word "sala." Have you ever visited Upsala and looked at the burial mounds there? The fact that funeral rites were done at Upsala, implies Ancestors veneration. (PS- I have a blog article on Funeral rites, for this, click the menu-bar above "Blogs & Beliefs" and scroll down to the article called "The Saxon & Norse Historical Funeral Rites") Also, see this passage below from the Old Saxon Heliand, one of dozens upon dozens in Germanic literature showing Heathen thought on their Ancestors "leaving this world:
While several university scholars claim that Ancestor veneration is an invention of modern Heathenry, some authors do claim the opposite, but do not (in fairness) quote historical sources like the Sagas to prove their points: One of my favorite quotes on Heathen blot is the following: “The meaning of the sacrificial feast (blod), as the Poetic Edda 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). We have other historical quotes, like Nithard who wrote in the mid 9th century in his "Histories"(circa 850 AD): "...he also sent into Saxony to the immense number of frilingi and lassi, promising them, if they should side with him, that he would let them have the same law in the future which their ancestors had observed when they were still worshiping idols. Since they desired this law above all, they adopted a new name, “Stellinga,” rallied to a large host, almost drove their lords from the kingdom, and each lived as their ancestors had done according to the law of his choice." While this quote doesn't prove Ancestor veneration, it proves that the Heathens felt their Heathenry was Ancestral in nature. (And I can give a few dozen more of these quotes.) The Argument that Ancestor veneration is an invention of modern Heathenry I often quote the Lex Saxonum and the Saxon Capitularies. These were law codes forced upon the Saxons to force them out of Heathenry and into Christianity. These law codes forbid the worship of Saxon Gods in Sacred Groves, and enforce baptism for all, and fasting during Lent, with capital punishment for those who abstain (amoung many many other laws and lists of offenses.) There are zero commands in these law codes forbidding the veneration of Ancestors. Charlemagne, when conquering the Frisians wrote Frisian capitularies as well. These Frisian law codes do not mention Ancestor veneration either as an outlawed activity. The argument here is simple, we have no evidence in the forced conversion processes, that this was an activity of the Heathens. There are no examples in the Eddas or Sagas about venerating the Ancestors. And toasting one's ancestors, or reciting their Ancestry in Sumbl, is not worshiping your Ancestors, but toasting them. Of course here, the determining factor is whether Sumbl was seen just as a banquet or as a Heathen ritual. I have heard some plausible arguments that funeral sumbles are not actually worshipping your Ancestors, but is a way of honoring them or respecting them. Other Arguments The "barrier" that separates human ancestors, elves, and land spirits (Old Norse landvættir) in Old Norse literature is not a simple one. We cannot say that there are no differences between these three, but it would also be blatantly wrong to state that these are three totally separate groups. Land spirits and elves occupied the same role as the ancestors in the religious customs of the pre-Christian Heathens in Northern Europe. They were propitiated in much the same way and held influence over many of the same aspects of the lives of humans. The dwelling-places of these types of beings overlapped: elves were traditionally associated with the burial mounds and chambers of the human dead, and would commonly receive sacrifices at these places. In the Saga of Olaf the Holy, Olaf and a servant ride past the burial mound of the king’s ancestor and namesake, who is now called by the name of Ólaf Geirstaðaálfr – literally “Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad,” a title that clearly implies the currently elfin state of the king’s forefather. The same passage also insinuates that King Olaf is the reincarnation of the deceased Olaf, presumably through the hamingja. Part of the elder Olaf seems to have become an elf, while another part has been passed on to Olaf the younger. There is great debate, is "Alfablot" a blot to the Elves, or the Ancestors? (I have a blog article on this as well...) As always, people want to know my opinion. I do believe that the Heathens looked at the Gods as their Ancestors. I do see a difference in veneration with blot offerings, and sumbles. In other words, I cannot see an example in any Germanic source of a blot to the Ancestors, only the Gods and Goddesses were blotted to. Unless one "redding the hill to the elves" in Kormak's Saga is a reference to the Elves being Ancestors, we have no direct evidence. The words used in the Sagas for Sumbles "to commemorate/honor my father" etc are not the typical words for Heathen worship. But if you see Sumbl as a ritual, then the Ancestors ARE being venerated, toasted along with the Gods. Therefore, I do lean towards Ancestor veneration, but I do acknowledge that this subject is not as cut and dry as one would think. I certainly honor my Ancestors, toast and boast of them at Sumbl, and thinking about it as a type, I have yet to "blot" them. I do leave offerings at their graves, as was done at Upsala and other places. Is this just semantics though, of Honoring your Ancestors vs. "Worshipping" them? I would love to hear your thoughts! Please join us in the Facebook group "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry"