Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Linda Raedisch, author of Night of the Witches.
Religion, for me, is a spectator sport. I often find myself gazing longingly from the sidelines, but the truth is that anything more intense than lighting incense or putting up a Christmas tree gives me the willies. If you want to send me into a panic, ask me to say grace. Iâ€™d rather hang back and take notes.
Iâ€™ve always been fascinated by household altars because, like most erstwhile Protestants, I didnâ€™t have one growing up. At the moment, the altar that fascinates me the most is the one inside my South Indian neighborsâ€™ apartmentâ€”for the simple reason that I have never seen it. Last summer, I was encouraged to offer my Mexican sunflowers to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, on that altarâ€”it was his birthdayâ€”but I was not invited to accompany the flowers.
Of course, Hindus donâ€™t have a monopoly on the household altar. Ancient Europeans ministered to the spirits of their ancestors in the heilige Hinterecke, to use the anthropological term. This â€śholy back cornerâ€ť still exists today, but itâ€™s now occupied by the television set.
So I was happy to find the chapter entitled, â€śThe Weofod,â€ť in Alaric Albertssonâ€™s book, Travels through Middle Earth: the Path of a Saxon Pagan (Llewellyn, 2009). The weofod is the Saxon Paganâ€™s altar, and as I read, I began to suspect I might have created something â€śaltarishâ€ť in my own home.
My suspicions had actually begun back in the summer after my youngest daughter and I returned from a trip to Germany. Whenever we visit our relatives, we spend a lot of time on the beach collecting shells, feathers, and stones. Stones from Baltic beaches fall into roughly two categories: 1) Rounded pebbles in dull blue, white, or gray that often resemble eggs or sanded-down bear fetishes, or 2) Smoky, glassy, irregular chunks of flint. Itâ€™s lucky to find one from category 2 with a naturally worn hole through it. On this visit, I had found one with a hole worn nearly all the way through. I kept it because the tiny depression is perfect for holding a stick of incense.
After unpacking, I placed our new clutch of egg-and-bear-shaped stones from Category 1 next to a small framed photo I had taken of the Bronze Age grave mound at Birkenmoor on a previous visit. I had also scraped and bagged a bit of moss from one of the boulders atop the un-excavated mound. (Iâ€™ve since lost the moss, which just goes to show that Iâ€™m not cut out for random acts of ancestor worship.) The photo rests atop a small IKEA curio cabinet mounted on my kitchen wall. I had hung the cabinet there to house my favorite pottery pieces, but over time, other objects have taken up residence behind the glass doors.
A few stones and a photograph do not necessarily a weofod make, so what does? According to Travels, you ought to have an offering bowl. There are three bowls in my IKEA cabinet. One is the regular repository of â€śnature:â€ť the sticks, feathers, and acorn caps my five-year-old picks up on walks. But are they, strictly speaking, offerings? And to whom? Another bowl contains snippets of cedar. I burn a pinch of it now and then because it smells nice and Iâ€™m convinced the smoke keeps the cockroaches away. Hardly an act of devotion. The third and smallest bowl is the favorite â€śfeedingâ€ť dish of my daughterâ€™s stuffed kitten. â€śSnowpawsâ€ť does not reside in the cabinet; that honor belongs to a bone china Siamese cat and kitten that I let out now and then to be played with before returning them to the safety of the top shelf.
Another ought-to-have for the Saxon Pagan altar, according to Albertsson, is the recelsfaet for burning incense. That would be my chunk of flint, now stored on the bottom shelf of the cabinet.
The weofod ought also to have a drinking horn, and I had none. But wait! It can also be a cup. On the middle shelf of my cabinet is a blue stoneware cup I bought straight from the potter in a small town on the Schlei Fjord. I have never treated it like other cups. It has no handle, so you canâ€™t walk around with it. In fact, I only allow myself to drink from it when Iâ€™m writing. I guess itâ€™s sort of holy to me.
Albertsson makes clear, however, that you donâ€™t have a weofod without a weoh, a symbol of the deity with whom you want to commune. I have no raven for Wodan, no hammer or crystal for Thunor. Though I own a drop spindle (Frige), I have never kept it in the cabinet in question. All of this was fine with me: Wodan is too dark, Thunor too brash, Frige too proper. Then I came to the entry on Freo, or â€śFreya,â€ť as I have always known her. â€śThis goddess is fond of cats.â€ť I had known this, but the words on page 46 of Travels leaped out at me. Granted, my little Siamese cat and kitten are a far cry from the wild Norwegian forest cats my Pagan ancestors had probably imagined pulling Freyaâ€™s cart, but a cat is a cat. Had I inadvertently consecrated my IKEA cabinet to the Norse goddess of love?
Single women are the province of Freya, and I am emphatically single. She is also associated with witchcraft, and I do write about witches. In fact, I had some nice things to say about her in my book, including the Icelander Snorri Sturlasonâ€™s claim that, after all the other gods had departed the earth, Freya stayed on to keep up the sacrifices to her brother Frey.
Iâ€™d like to think she might still be around and that maybe, just maybe, sheâ€™s made a part time home in my kitchen. Iâ€™m no closer to card-carrying Saxon Paganhood than I was before I discovered my accidental altar. But my advice to anyone who fears she might not have a spiritual bone in her body is this: take a good look around. You might be surprised.
Our thanks to Linda Raedisch for her guest post! For more from Linda, read her article “A Meeting with Gerald Gardner”