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Heathen Prayer, a Historical Perspective

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

If one were to do a Google search on "Heathen Prayer" or "Viking Prayer", one would find a lot of prayers composed by modern Asatruar, Youtubes of prayer in TV shows like Vikings (christian prayer albeit), and Google picking up a ton of articles on Christian or Muslim prayer, having nothing to do with Heathenry. Below I will give examples of historical Heathen prayer from Old Saxon sources, Tacitus, prayer in Beowulf (or lack there of), as well as giving a prayer Ibn Fadlan recorded amongst the Rus, and a passage from the Poettic Edda, often argued to be a prayer. (And since it is debatable if that is a prayer in the Edda, you should catch my drift that prayer is RARE in the historical sources.) If you don't believe me yet, take this statistic: There are 41 mentions of prayer in the compilation of 16 sagas known as Heimskringla. 40 of the 41 mentions of prayer are Norsemen who are Christians praying to Christ or God (23 in King Olaf's Saga alone), and only one that can even be inferred as Heathen prayer in any way shape or form. Lets begin with that one passage from Heimskringla's Ynglinga Saga:

Ynglinga Saga 9: "Odin died in his bed in Sweden, and when he was near death he had himself marked with a spear point and dedicated to himself all men who died through weapons; he said that he should now fare to the Godheims and there welcome his friends. The Swedes now believed that he had gone·to the old Asagarth and would live there for ever. Then began anew the belief in Odin and prayers to him arose afresh. The Swedes often seemed to see him clearly before great battles began; to some he gave victory, but others he bid come to him; both fates seemed good to them. Odin was burned after his death and the fire was very glorious." The Poetic Edda poem Sigrdrífumál, has two stanzas (3-4) that are often interpreted as a prayer: Sigrdrífumál 3-4, in the Poetic Edda: ""Hail to the gods!  You goddesses, hail, And all the generous earth! Give to us wisdom and good speech, And healing hands, while we live. Long did I sleep, my sleep was long, And long are the griefs of life; Odin decreed that I could not break the heavy spells of sleep." -- There is debate if this is a Heathen prayer. I leave it to my readers to decide. Please note, while I do not know Old Norse dialects very well, I am fluent at reading Old Saxon, and I have done so for 20 years. In Old Saxon, the noun "Beda" for "prayer" occurs. Also, the verb "to pray" or "bedon" occurs. Please note, there are many commentaries of Psalms and homilies that comprise Old Saxon poetry, so these words are used in a Christian context. Also, please note that the Old Saxon word meaning "to ask" is "bidan", which obviously shows that the word for prayer means "to ask" as well. Our modern English phrase "I bid you" is a great example of the word meaning. Ibn Fadlan, an Islamic traveler, wrote about the Rus (Swedish vikings). In his account of the funeral of the Rus, a slave girl is about to become a sacrifice to join her master, a Rus drohtin (chieftain), in his journey to Valhalla. Many see the slave's statement before she became a sacrifice, as a prayer. (Which also is debatable.) Here it is: "I quizzed the interpreter about her actions and he said, “The first time they lifted her, she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and my mother.’ The second time she said, ‘Behold, I see all of my dead kindred, seated.’ The third time she said, ‘Behold, I see my master, seated in Paradise. Paradise is beautiful and verdant. He is accompanied by his men and his male-slaves. He summons me, so bring me to him.’" -- Again, it is debated if this passage is a prayer. I leave it to my readers to form an opinion. I lean towards no. I love to turn to Tacitus often, as his early (late first or early second century) work "Germania" is a valuable source, even though it is 700 years before we start having many Heathen poems and sources. Tacitus states in his famous passage on Germanic Divination:

“For divination and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they carve with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously carved on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required.” -- While Tacitus was not an eye witness, and wrote what Roman soldiers attested to in their eye-witness accounts, I do not think that this passage shows an error. I do believe that this is accurate testimony, that prayer to the Gods was done in this divination ritual.

In the Old English Poem Beowulf (a poem I believe is a product of DaneLaw England), I found only three instances of the word "pray" or "prayer". The translations below are from The Poetry Foundation's Beowulf translation:

1. “This boon they seek, that they, my master, may with thee have speech at will: nor spurn their prayer to give them hearing, gracious Hrothgar!" -- Does the word "prayer" here mean a supplication to Hrothgar, so it is not a prayer at all? 2. "Through the ways of life prosper, O prince! I pray for thee rich possessions." -- Sounds like again the word here is really a word meaning "I ask" and not a Heathen prayer. 3. “I pray you, though, tell your folk and home, lest hence ye fare suspect to wander your way as spies in Danish land.” -- Yet again, it appears the word "pray" is not really for Heathen prayer.

Old Saxon Prayer

Like Tacitus, we have Frankish testimony that the Saxons used prayer for divination. The Saxons had an annual Althing at a place in the center of Saxony named Marklo. Here is the Frankish testimony of it:

Lebuini Antiqua 4, THE LIFE OF ST. LEBUIN, 9th Century AD

Vita Lebuini Antiqua, edited by A. Hofmeister, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores

(x926-34), vol. xxx, 2, pp. 789-95. "When the day of the meeting came around, all the leaders were present, as were others whose duty it was to attend. Then, when they had gathered together, they first offered up prayers to their gods, as is their custom, asking them to protect their country and to guide them in making decrees both useful to themselves and pleasing to the gods. Then when a circle had been formed they began the discussions." Upon conquering the Saxons, the Franks forced four different law-codes on the Saxons. What is interesting, is how prayer occurs in the Lex Saxonum. The Lex Saxonum was the law code first forced upon the Saxons in Saxony in the year 782, as a part of forced Christianization.

Lex Saxonum #18: "That on the Lord's Day no meetings and public judicial assemblages shall be held, unless perchance in a case of great necessity or when war compels it, but all shall go to the church to hear the word of God, and shall be free for prayers or good works. Likewise, also, on the (christian) festivals they shall devote themselves to God and to the services of the church, and shall refrain from secular assemblies." Therefore, we can conclude that the Saxons were forced to do christian prayers on Sundays. But what does the Lex Saxonum say about Heathen prayer? Nothing. Zero mention of forbidding Heathen prayer, but many Heathen practices, like burning bodies of the dead are forbidden, divination at funerals are forbidden, human sacrifice (of prisoners of war) is forbidden, making vows (sumble?) are forbidden, making outdoor vows in groves near trees and springs are specifically forbidden, and leaving "offerings" outdoors near trees and springs, etc, are all forbidden in the text of the Lex Saxonum. Zero mention of Saxon prayer. In Old Saxon poetry, the noun "prayer" and verb "to pray" are in Old Saxon homilies written by monks, or in commentaries of the Psalms (a book of prayers in the Bible). In the Heliand, what was meant to convert the Saxons, prayer is a word that is extremely rare. I will cover the main passage on Prayer in the Heliand. What is interesting, in the biblical gospels, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and Christ teaches them "The Lord's Prayer." In the Old Saxon Heliand, the poet doesn't take this opportunity to teach the Saxons how to pray like Christians. The gospel story is changed. Instead of the disciples asking Jesus to pray, they ask Christ to teach them "the Runes." WHAT? REALLY? Yep, really! Apparently prayer was not as important as you would expect.

Heliand: Verse 1595a: "Teach us the Runes."

So, what does this mean then? Does this mean that Saxon Heathens did not pray? What about passages like Hakon the Good chapters 15-16 that show a Yule Blot followed by a Sumble. Once again, while the blot and sumble are outlined in that passage, no prayer is listed or mentioned as part of the ritual. Prayer, i.e. asking the Gods for something, does seem to be very rare in the surviving poetry. Maybe it was due to the Germanic concept of "Fate" (i.e. Uurd and the Shapers/ Urthr and the Nornir), i.e. the statement in Beowulf "Wyrd will do as She shall." Or maybe in historical Heathenry, people were their deeds and had to go accomplish things, and not ask the deities to just give it to them? We do see though, in the Ynglinga Saga, king Domalde was sacrificed in the hope of bringing greater future harvests and the total domination of all future wars, but oddly he was a "bad" king, i.e. not a good one, so not sure how worthy of a sacrifice that would technically be. The king was blamed for the famine itself! Ynglinga saga also relates that Domalde's descendant king Aun sacrificed nine of his own sons to Odin in exchange for longer life, until the Swedes stopped him from sacrificing his last son, Egil. I could give more specific examples, but in these passages, we do not see prayers, we see an offering given, a gift (sacrifice), to get a gift in return. Maybe this was the point of votive (object) offerings, like bog offerings of objects (and humans), sharing with the Gods and the wights the good things given in the hopes that more sharing will happen with more good uurd in the future? PS- I do have a blog on Human Sacrifice, and we have testimony that the Saxons sacrificed prisoners of war to their Gods, not their own people. Doubt Christians would lie on that claim. Please join us in the Facebook group Saxon Heathenry. Please join us on the YouTube Channel Aldsidu, and in the Facebook group "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry."

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