Knowst How to Blot|
The How and Why of Heathen Sacrifice
Knowest how to pray
Knowest how to blót
(Hávamál verse 144, line 3)
Many, perhaps most religions involve some form of sacrifice. Indeed, sacrifice or blót, as it is more properly called in our faith, is central to the practice of heathendom. But while some form of sacrifice can be found in many religions, the reasons for performing sacrifices and how they are performed tend to vary.
Unfortunately the elder heathen left behind no handbooks on the subject. Modern heathen cannot simply go to the library and check out How to Conduct a Proper Blót, written by some ancient heathen scholar. Fortunately, the elder heathen and their immediate descendants left behind a few sources which describe blót in some detail, some of which offer hints as to why blóts were offered to the gods. It is through examining these sources that one can learn not only how to perform blóts, but the reasons they are performed as well.
The Meaning of Blót
Both as a verb and as a noun the word blót occurred in various Germanic languages. Gothic blotan, Old English blótan, and Old High German blozan all meant "to sacrifice," while Old Norse blóta meant "to worship" as well. As a noun blót occurred in both Old English and Old Norse. In Old English it simply meant "sacrifice," although Old Norse blót also meant "worship' and "idol" as well. The words may have also occurred in Gothic. In his translation of the New Testament, Ulfilas rendered the Greek words latreia, "service to the gods; divine worship," and sebasma, "an object of awe or worship" with the word blutinassus. This could well point to a Gothic cognate of blót.
The word blót appears to be related to Old English blétsian, modern English bless. In turn blétsian derives from the same root as modern English blood (a word found in most of the ancient Germanic languages). Blétsian may have originally meant "to mark as to hallow with blood." Perhaps the word blót originally meant "blood sacrifice" or "hallowing with blood, blessing."
This would appear to be borne out by the elder sources. In Hákonar Saga goða (from Heimskringla), Snorri described how the blood of sacrificed animals was sprinkled about the temple and on the gathered folk. The flesh of the slaughtered animal was then cooked and served to everyone present. Later in Heimskringla Snorri described how the folk compelled King Hákon, nominally Christian, to eat horse liver at a sacrificial feast.
Discussing these passages, Turville-Petre notes, "The meaning of the sacrificial feast, as Snorri 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."1
Indeed, it is safe to assume that by blessing the temple and the gathered folk with sacrificial blood, the priests were quite simply spreading the mægen of the gods (Turville-Petre's "mystical powers") to both the sanctuary and those gathered within it. Edgar Polomé once theorised that the purpose of the procession of Nerthus' wain (as described in Tacitus' Germania) was to spread the goddess' power (in heathen terms, mægen) about the countryside.2 Blessing with sacrificial blood would then appear to share the same purpose as the procession of Nerthus' wain—to endow the community with divine mægen in order to ensure its continued success.
Blessing with sacrificial blood was not the only means by which divine mægen was spread during a blót, as eating the flesh of a sacrificial animal would probably have the same effect. In fact, the sacrificial feast may have had additional significance. In noting the association of FreyR (OE Fréa) with the boar, Turville-Petre expresses the suspicion that the boar was the one of the forms FreyR took. He notes that the word vaningi "son of the Vanir" was applied to both FreyR and the boar in poetry and that a byname of FreyR's sister, Freyja, was SýR "sow." According to Turville-Petre, "This implies that when the flesh of the boar was consumed at the sacrificial banquet, those who partook of it felt they were consuming the god himself and absorbing his power."3 This could be used as further evidence that the elder heathen saw the blót as a form of communion with the gods.
That the Germanic peoples may have regarded blót as a form of communion may also be shown by the Gothic word hunsl and its Old English cognate húsel. In his Gothic translation of the New Testament Ulfilas rendered the Greek words thusia "sacrifice" and latreia "divine worship" with the word hunsl. Old English húsel also meant "sacrifice" and was used as such in a translation of Matthew chapter 12, verse 7, but it was also used for "Eucharist" or "Christian Communion." Húsel survived into modern English as housel, a term used until relatively recently for "Eucharist." Oddly enough, while both Gothic hunsl and Old English húsel occur in decidedly non-Christian contexts, Old Norse húsl only occurs during the Roman Catholic era as a term for "Eucharist." It never appears in a heathen context. It is tempting to conclude that either Old Norse húsl was borrowed from Old English húsel (Anglo-Saxon missionaries were active in Scandinavia, after all) or that húsl never achieved importance among Old Norse speakers as a term for "sacrifice." Regardless, the use of Gothic hunsl and Old English húsel as terms for "sacrifice" and of the latter for "Eucharist" may imply that the elder heathen did indeed view blóts as a way of communing with the gods.
The elder sources reveal another purpose for blóts beyond communion. In Víga-Glúms Saga Þorkell the Tall wanted revenge upon Glúm for driving him from his home, so he took an ox to FreyR's temple. He presented the animal to the god with the words, "FreyR, you who have long supported me and accepted many gifts and repaid them well, now I give you this ox so that Glúm may leave the land of Þverá..." In his account of the Rus, Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlan described how Rus traders would approach idols of the gods with gifts of silk, ale, meat, bread, and leeks in hope that the gods would help them get better prices for their goods.
In both of these cases it must be noted that individuals made sacrifices to the gods in the hope that the gods would grant their wishes in return. To the modern, non-heathen mind this might seem like nothing more than bribery, but Þorkell's words from Víga-Glúms Saga reveal that this was hardly the case. Þorkell stated that FreyR had "accepted many gifts from him" and "repaid them well." This reflects an ancient custom long held by the Germanic tribes that when one was given a gift, he was obliged to give a gift in return.4 By giving the gods sacrifices, then, the ancient Germanic tribesman obliged the gods to give them gifts in return. As the Hávamál states, "Every gift looks for a gain."
That the elder heathen saw blót as an exchange of earthly goods for divine blessings may also be seen in the Old English word gield, modern English yield. Gield meant "service, money, payment, tax, tribute, sacrifice." The verb gieldan, modern English yield, meant "to pay for, reward, requite," as well as "to worship, to sacrifice to." From these uses of gield and gieldan it may be surmised that the elder heathen viewed blót as a "down payment" to the gods for further blessings.
The elder heathen may have also seen blót in terms of wyrd, in which the past influences the present. At the centre of ancient Germanic cosmography stands the World Tree and the Well of Wyrd. Actions from the worlds within the Tree drop like dew into the Well, where they form the seething layers of the past. In turn these actions create an energy source (not unlike water) which surges through the roots of the Tree to influence the present of the worlds contained within it.5 AsBauschatz writes in The Well and the Tree, "The tree fills the well, the well nourishes the tree."6
Bauschatz viewed sacrifices made in bodies of water, such as the drowning of slaves to Nerthus described in Tacitus' Germania, as representative of process. He observes that these actions "join the desired fertility celebrated in the ritual just performed with all favourable acts of fertility in the past...The ritual gets its power from the holy water of the well, to which all elements of ritual and the events finally return."7We might wish to go one step further than Bauschatz and suggest that all sacrifices, whether made into bodies of water or whether made with fertility or some other goal in mind, draw their power from the Well of Wyrd That is, a blót is a means by which the folk seek to link results desired in the present (whether fertility, victory, or something else) with such favourable conditions as have occurred in the past. Indeed, it must be noted that when Þorkell sacrificed the ox to FreyR in Víga-Glúms Saga, he spoke of his relationship with FreyR and the gifts that they had exchanged in the past before addressing his concerns for revenge in the present. Quite simply then, blóts are a way by which communities and individuals can improve their wyrds by invoking the past.
For the elder heathen blóts were a means of communion with the gods and receiving divine mægen in doing so. Blóts were also a way in which the folk could ensure gifts from the gods by giving gifts to the gods. Finally, blóts were a means by which communities could improve their wyrds by joining their hopes and desires for the present with such favourable results as had happened in the past.
What Was Sacrificed
In order to conduct a blót. the folk first needed something which they could give to the gods. As a result the Germanic tribes offered a variety of gifts to the Æsir and Vanir. And often the form of the blót was dictated by what was being sacrificed.
By far the most common sacrifices made to the gods were animals. The elder sources, from Roman reports of the Germanic peoples to the Icelandic sagas, often refer to the sacrifice of livestock. Evidence for the sacrifice of livestock is not only to be found in written sources, but through archaeology as well. At Yeavering in Northumberland, where an Anglo-Saxon heathen temple may have stood, a huge pile of ox bones were found.8
The sacrifice of a given animal in blót appears to have been determined by the god to whom the blót was being made. Swine were particularly sacred to FreyR and Freyja (OE Fréo). HeiðreksSaga describes a boar blót to FreyR at length. References to the sacrifice of boars can be found sprinkled throughout the elder sources, although the god to whom the swine was sacrificed is not always mentioned. A prose note to Helgakviða Hjörvarþssonar makes reference to the sacrificial boar.
Cattle also appear to have been holy to FreyR. Besides Víga-Glúms Saga, Gísla Saga also described the sacrifice of an ox to FreyR. The Brandkrossa ÞattR describes the sacrifice of a bull to FreyR. As FreyR is said to own ÁlfheimR, home of the elves, we should not be surprised when in Kormáks Saga a volva tells an injured man to sacrifice a bull to the elves for healing.
Horses were closely associated with both Wóden (ON Óðinn) and FreyR. Perhaps for that reason it seems that often horse blóts were not to a specific god, but to all the gods. Hákonar Saga goða describes a horse sacrifice held at Hlaðir. Flateyjarbók describes how Olaf Tryggvasson arrived in Thrandheim to destroy a temple where horses were kept. There he found the folk in the middle of preparing a horse "for FreyR to eat."
Of course, the elder heathen sacrificed more than just livestock to the gods. As mentioned earlier, Ibn Fadlan told how Rus traders would bring gifts of silk, ale, meat, beer, and leeks to the gods. The Life of St. Columbanus mentions a large vessel of beer which the Alamanni meant to sacrifice to Wóden. It is conceivable that a portion of the ale drank at the sacrificial feasts mentioned in Icelandic sources and the ale drank at symbel was sacrificed to the gods.
Human sacrifice was extremely rare among the Germanic peoples, although it did sometimes occur. Unlike animal sacrifices, the victim was not eaten afterwards (the ancient Germanic peoples found cannibalism as revolting as we do today). Human sacrifice appears to have taken place only under very special circumstances.
War time was one of those circumstances when human sacrifice took place. Jordanes told how the Goths sacrificed prisoners of war to "Mars." According to the Roman Annals, when the Hermenduri and the Chatti went to war with each other, the former promised to sacrifice men, horses, and weapons to "Mercury" and the latter promised to sacrifice the same to "Mars." Procopius told how the Germanic tribes would sacrifice the first prisoner of war to "Ares."
A particularly gruesome form of war time sacrifice performed by the Scandinavians was the "blood eagle (ON blóðörn)," in which the ribs were separated from the back and the lungs removed. According to the ÞáttR af Ragnars sonum, Ragnar Loðbrók's sons avenged his death by carving the blood eagle upon his killer, King Ella of Northumbria. Orneyinga Saga describes how Torf-Einar, Jarl of Orkney, sacrificed Hálfdan Highleg to Óðinn by the cutting the blood eagle into him. Not only does the blood eagle appear to have been a wartime sacrifice, but it also appears to have reserved for one's worst enemies. In most cases it is performed by sons avenging their fathers' deaths.
Criminals also appear to have been sacrificed in a sacral version of the death penalty. In Kristni Saga when the Althing debated conversion to Christianity, the Christian faction complained heathen sacrificed the worst men, hurling them over cliffs and rocks. Both Eyrbyggja Saga and Landnámabók state that criminals were sentenced to be sacrificed. Under Frisian law anyone who stole a holy object from a temple was to have his ears slit, that he was to be castrated, and that he was to be staked out on the beach as a sacrifice to the gods.
Human sacrifices were also sometimes made when disasters struck. Gautreks Saga details how, during a famine, the people of Gautland would voluntarily throw themselves off a cliff, believing that they would go straight to Valhöll. Ynglinga Saga tells of a famine in Sweden during the reign of Dómaldi. The first year oxen were sacrificed, but the crops still failed. The second year the Swedes resorted to human sacrifice, with no improvement in the harvest. The third year the Swedes decided that King Dómaldi's luck had failed him and sacrificed him to the gods.
A disaster other than famine resulted in what may be the most famous sacrifice of a king. Both Saxo Grammaticus and Gautreks Saga told how Starkað was forced to sacrifice King Víkar. The king, Starkað, and their crew had found themselves stranded off an island's coast. They cast lots to see how they might get a good wind and divined that one of them must be sacrificed to Óðinn. When they drew lots to see who should be sacrificed, it was King Víkar who was chosen. Not particularly wanting to sacrifice their king, the crew decided to hold a mock sacrifice. They made a noose of calf gut and hung it on the drooping, slender twig of a fir tree. The noose was then put around King Víkar's neck and Starkað poked him with a reed, saying "Now I give thee to Óðinn." The reed then became a spear, the calf's gut became a strong rope, and the slender twig a sturdy branch. King Víkar was raised aloft and hanged to death.
Although the sacrifice of kings was hardly a common occurrence, Dómaldi and Víkar were not the only kings to be sacrificed to the gods. Among the Germanic peoples the king embodied the luck of the tribe. If the king had plenty of luck, there would be plenty of crops at harvest. If the king's luck failed, the crops would fail as well. When a king's luck failed, the folk deposed him by sacrificing him to the gods. 9 When King Olaf Tretelglia of Sweden did not perform the proper blóts expected of a king, the crops failed. The Swedes then made King Olaf a sacrifice to Óðinn by burning him in his house.
As stated earlier, human sacrifice occurred rarely among the Germanic peoples and only under special circumstances. Much more typical were the blóts of animals and other goods at the various festivals, through which the folk communed with the gods.
How Blóts Were Performed
All rituals follow some order. The blóts performed by the elder heathen were no different. We are fortunate that some of the elder sources actually describe blóts, sometimes in some detail. Perhaps the best source for the ritual's structure is the blót of animals that took place at Hlaðir as described in Hákonar Saga goða, from Snorri's Heimskringla.
According to Snorri, when a blót was to be held the folk would all come to the temple. They would bring with them everything they needed throughout the festival, including ale and livestock. The livestock, both cattle horses, were slaughtered and the blood collected into vessels. The blood was then sprinkled over the altars and the temple walls and upon the gathered folk. The flesh of the slaughtered animals was boiled in kettles and served to everyone present. Goblets were filled with ale and the ale was blessed by the host in charge of the blót. Toasts were then made to Óðinn, for victory and power to the king, and NjörðR and FreyR for frith and a good harvest. The host then drank the bragarfull, following which the folk drank toasts in memory of those who had died.
Looking at Snorri's account we can break the blót down into its various stages. Supplementing it with information from other sources we can then develop a fairly good picture of what was involved in blóting livestock.
I. Slaughter: As stated earlier, livestock were by far the most common gifts to given to the gods. Many, if not most, ancient blóts probably involved the slaughter of animals. Unfortunately, the elder sources do not document the procedure for the slaughter of livestock for blót in any great detail.
Regardless, through careful examination of the elder sources we can glean some details of the ritual involved in the sacrificial slaughter of animals. Some of that ritual apparently took place before the animal was even slain. Heiðreks Saga describes how the sacrificial boar or sonargöltR (the "leading boar") was led before the king at Yuletide. So holy was the boar regarded that the folk would place their hands upon him to swear oaths. Prose attached to the Eddic lay Helgasviða Hjörvarþssonar also tells how on Yule Eve the sacrificial boar was led into the hall and men swore oaths upon him while drinking the bragarfull. It is impossible to know whether the custom of swearing oaths upon the sacrificial boar was confined to Yuletide or performed at other holy tides as well. It is also impossible to know whether the folk swore oaths upon other sacrificial animals or the custom was confined to boars. At any rate both Heiðreks Saga and Helgasviða Hjörvarþssonar demonstrate that some ritual took place even before the animal was slaughtered for blót.
Both of these sources also demonstrate that sacrificial animals were treated with a great deal of reverence, something confirmed to a degree by other sources. Hrafnkels Saga told how Hrafnkell Freysgoði kept a stallion dedicated to FreyR and that Hrafnkell had sworn no one would ride the horse against his will, under penalty of death. When Hrafnkell's shepherd rode the horse, he felt obliged to kill the shepherd. According to Flateyjarbók the temple at Thrandheim kept a herd of horse specifically dedicated to the god. When Olaf Tryggvason desecrated the temple there, he rode the stallion of the herd. Although not stated outright, it seems clear that Olaf did this as an insult to FreyR. These instances make it clear that animals dedicated to the gods, which would include sacrificial animals, were given special treatment (i.e. sacred horses were not ridden, etc.) and regarded with a high degree of reverence. It is safe to assume that any intentional cruelty to these animals would have been considered blasphemy.
According to the elder sources, the ancient Germanic peoples used a variety of methods to slay sacrificial animals. In his description of the great temple at Uppsala, Adam of Bremen described how at a festival held every nine years, nine of every male animal was hanged to the gods. Ibn Rustah, an Arab who wrote about the Norsemen in 10th century Russia, told how they hanged victims on a pole as sacrifices to the gods. Hanging was perhaps closely associated with Wóden. Hávamál verses 138 to 139 tell how Óðinn hanged from the World Tree, wounded by a spear, as a sacrifice to himself, winning the runes as a result. As discussed earlier, both Saxo and Gautreks Saga describe how King Víkar was hanged as a sacrifice to Óðinn.
Sacrificial victims were also drowned. In Germania Tacitus related how slaves who served the goddess Nerthus were drowned in a lake as sacrifices to her. A marginal note attached to Adam of Bremen's description of the temple at Uppsala mentions a well where sacrifices were performed. According to Orosius, the Cimbri drowned horses in a river as sacrifices to the gods following a victory over the Romans. Drowning could have been a method of sacrifice particularly associated with the Vanir10 Indeed, in Ynglinga Saga, YngvifreyR's son Fjölnir drowned in a mead vat.
Of course, to the modern mind the most obvious means of slaying an animal may be slashing his throat or beheading him. Unfortunately the elder sources make few references to sacrifices being slain in such way. In his description of a Norse chieftain's funeral, Ibn Fadlan described how a hen was beheaded and then tossed into the funeral ship. The precise significance of this act is beyond the scope of this article, but part of the reason the hen was beheaded may have been as a blót either to the gods or the dead chieftain. Although rarely mentioned in the elder sources, the very simplicity of slashing an animal's throat or beheading it makes it at least possible that some blót animals were slain in such a way.
From all appearances some ritualistic formula accompanied the slaying of a blót animal. In Víga-Glúms Saga, when Þorkell sacrificed an ox to FreyR, he offered a prayer which included the words, "I give you this ox..." In both Gautreks Saga and Saxo's account, Starkað sacrificed King Víkar with the words, "Now I give you to Óðinn." It seems likely that a ritual formula was uttered upon slaying a sacrificial victim, almost always some variant on the words, "I give (whatever the particular victim may be) to (whomever the particular god to whom the blót was being made)." Oftentimes this formula was probably accompanied by a prayer stating some request, as in the case of Þorkell in Víga-Glúms Saga. Þorkell not only told FreyR that he was giving the ox to the god, but he also asked FreyR to drive Glúm from Þverá in return.
II. Blessing: As stated earlier, the word blót may be related to the Old English word blétsian, New English bless, which may have originally meant "to mark as to hallow with blood." According to Snorri such hallowing with blood or blessing took place once the animals had been slaughtered.
Snorri explained in Hákonar Saga goða that the blood from the sacrificial animals was called hlaut and that it was drained into vessels called hlautbollar. The sacrificial blood or hlaut was then sprinkled over the altars, the temple walls, and the gathered folk with hlautteinar. What Snorri described was obviously the "hallowing with blood" for which the Old English word blétsian was originally applied.
The term hlaut, which Snorri stated that the blood was called, appears to be related to the Old Norse word hlútR (a variant spelling of which was hlautR) or "lot (as in "divining by lot")." According to Cleasby and Vigfusson's Icelandic-English Dictionary, hlaut may be an abbreviated form of the hypothetical word hlautblóðR—that is, sacrificial blood that was used to mark lots used in divination. Indeed, the word hlauttein was not only applied to the branches used to bless the temple and the folk, but to rune lots (apparently blessed by sacrificial blood) as well. Other terms for rune lots, hlautvíðR and blótspán, also reflect the practice of blessing lots with sacrificial blood. The purpose of marking lots with sacrificial blood was probably the same as sprinkling the blood upon the temple and the folk—to bless them and endow them with the divine mægen.
References to the "hallowing with blood" or blessing appear in sources other than Hákonar Saga goða. Eyrbygja Saga describes how the sacrificial blood (called hlaut here as well) should be sprinkled from the hlautbolli. In Hyndluljóð Freyja boasted how her follower Óttar reddened an altar with blood so that it turned to glass. In Kormáks Saga a wise woman advised a wounded man who wished to be healed to sacrifice a bull to the elves and to redden the elf mound with its blood. From these various sources it would appear that the hallowing with blood or blessing was central to blót.
III. Boiling the Meat: While the blood of the sacrificial animal was used to bless the temple and he gathered folk, according to Snorri in Hákonar Saga goða the animal's flesh was boiled as meat for everyone present. In the temple the fire occupied the middle of the floor and over it hung the kettles in which the meat was boiled. Making a feast of the sacrificial animal's flesh was apparently a very old custom among the Germanic peoples. A Gothic word for "sacrifice," sauþs, is cognate to Old Norse sjóða and Old English séoþan (NE seethe), both meaning "to cook, to boil." Gothic sauþs is then literally "that which is cooked" or the "the sacrificial meat." Of course, the term could not have developed the meaning of "sacrifice" unless the sacrificial animals were butchered, cooked, and then served to the gathered folk at blót.
IV. Hallowing the Ale: In Hákonar Saga goða Snorri states that the blót ale was borne over the fire and then the sign of the hammer was made over it. It is difficult to ascertain the significance of the ale being borne over the fire. On the one hand it seems possible that passing the ale over the fire was a means of consecrating it. In some ways this would resemble the rite of need fire. The need fire could only be lit by a fire bow or a fire drill, it could not be lit by flint and steel. Once lit livestock were driven through the fire, in the hope that it would drive away pests and disease. The power of fire to stave off disease and drive away evil spirits was also reflected in the custom of nobility often sleeping with candles in their rooms. Passing the ale over the fire could then be a means of sanctifying the ale, of driving any evil influences away from it. On the other hand, bearing the ale over the fire could have simply been a means of getting it from one side of the hall to another. After all, if the fire is located in the middle of the hall, the ale vat on one side of the hall, and the host in charge of the blót on the other side, then it would have to be passed over the fire at some point.
We are on much firmer ground with regards to making the sign of the hammer over the ale. The practice of hallowing something by making the sign of the hammer over it appears to have been a very ancient custom in Scandinavia. In Sigdrífumál Sigdrífa advised SigurðR to make the sign of the hammer over his cup. Later in Hákonar Saga goða. when the Christian King Hákon made the sign of the cross over his cup during blót, many of the gathered heathen objected. One of the King's friends defended him by saying that he had made the sign of the hammer over it before he drank. References to hallowing with the sign of the hammer are found in Egils Saga, Olafs Saga helga, Flateyjarbók, and many other sources. Considering the number of sources in which it appears and the possible antiquity of some of those sources (like most of the heroic lays of the Poetic Edda, Sigdrífumál may be one of the oldest poems in Old Norse literature), there is little reason to believe that making the sign of the hammer was borrowed from Christian custom of making the sign of the cross.
The significance of making the hammer sign is easy to understand. The hammer is the weapon of Þúnor (ON ÞórR). As the primary defender of gods and men from the forces of evil, Þúnor appears to have been intimately linked to the act of consecration. Several memorial stones throughout Scandinavia, dating form the 10th and 11th centuries, bear the words Þur viki..., "May ÞórR hallow...' Sometimes a picture of the hammer is also carved in the stone.11 By making the sign of the hammer over the ale, then, it would be hallowed in the name of ÞórR.
It seems apparent that some of the ale was poured out as a sacrifice to the gods. We know from both Ibn Fadlan's account and The Life of St. Columbanus that ale and beer were given as gifts to the gods by the ancient Germanic peoples. That some of the blót ale used to make the toasts in blót was shared with the gods may be borne out by a statement in Fagrskinna, in which it is said that in olden times the folk poured out the full as they now did the minni. This indicates that the full and minni (both terms for toasts which will be explained below) may have been poured out as a libation to the gods.
VI. The Full: According to Snorri, once the ale had been hallowed there followed a series of "toasts" or full. The first was made to Óðinn (OE Wóden) for victory and might for the king. The second was made to NjörðR and FreyR (OE Fréa) for frith and a good harvest. After this the bragarfull was drank. Finally the folk drank toasts to dead kinsmen; according to Snorri such toasts were called minni.
These toasts such as Snorri described as taking place at Hlaðir are well attested in other sources. Fagrskinna confirms that toasts were made to ÞórR and other gods. They also played a role in funerals, as in Heimskringla Sveinn Tjúguskegg drank a minni to his father. That same chapter the Jómsborg Vikings are said to drink toasts to Jesus and the archangel Michael. Of course, such toasts played a central role in the ritual of symbel.12
In Hákonar Saga goða Snorri does not say whether the full were drank before or after the feast of the sacrificial meat. In Germania section 22 Tacitus specified that the Germanic peoples ate a meal before engaging in the drinking bouts he described in some detail. If this custom of eating before long drinking bouts survived into the Dark Ages, then it might be safe to assume the full were drank after the feast was served. If this was the case, then the drinking of the full might constitute a ritual all its own, that of symbel.
The Old Norse word full simply meant a "drinking vessel" and came to be used for the toasts made at blót and symbel. It is cognate to the Old English word ful, also meaning "drinking vessel (as in medoful, "mead cup")." The word bragarfull (also spelled bragafull) is a compound of bragR, meaning "the best, the foremost," and full "drinking vessel, toast" It appears to mean "the cup of the foremost" or "the leader's cup." Regardless, the bragarfull was a toast drank to the dead king or another deceased noble. It appears most frequently in the elder sources in descriptions of funerals, although it also appeared in other contexts as well (such as the blót described in Hákonar Saga goða). In Ynglinga Saga Snorri described how upon the death of a king or jarl, his heir would have to sit on the step in front of the high seat until he drank the bragarfull. Once he had done so he could take his place in the high seat as the new king or jarl.
The word minni which Snorri used of toasts in memory of the dead had as its primary senses "memory," "memorials," and "memory of past times." It is not the only word used of the memorial toast, as there is also minnishorn, minnisöl, and minnisveig; however, Turville-Petre theorises that the use of minni for "toast of memory" must have been influenced by High German minna, which was used for little more than "toast."13 In many cases minni appears to have been used as a synonym for full and was sometimes applied to the full drank to the gods. It is possible that full was the older of the two terms and that minni gradually took the place of full. This may be confirmed by Fagrskinna, in which it is said that "in the old days, people poured out the full as they now did the minni, and they assigned the full to their mightiest kinsmen, or else to ÞórR and other gods."14 Either minni came to mean "toast" under the influence of High German minna or it was originally applied to the memorial cup and later came to mean any full.
An animal blót appears to have taken place in various stages. First, there may have been some ritual before the slaughter of the animal such as leading the sacrificial boar before the king. Second, there was the slaughter of the animal itself. Third, there was the blessing, in which the animal's blood was sprinkled about the temple and upon the folk. Fourth, the blót ale was hallowed and may have been given as a libation to the gods. Finally, there were the full, made either at the beginning of the blót feast or in a symbel held afterwards.
Alongside symbel, blót is among the most important rituals in which a heathen can participate. It is a means by which heathen can commune with the gods. It is a means by which we can give gifts to the gods and thereby receive gifts from the gods in return. And it is a means by which heathen can improve their wyrds by invoking such favourable conditions as had occurred in the past
bragarfull: also spelled bragafull. The toast to the dead king or chieftain.
full: An Old Norse word used for a drinking vessel or a toast. The plural is also full.
mægen: An Old English word meaning the spiritual or metaphysical energy permeating the worlds and possessed by all things, similar to the Polynesian concept of mana. Also called luck.
minni: An Old Norse word used for the toasts to dead ancestors. Also used of any full.
symbel (ON sumbl): The ritual drinking feast at which the participants try to place themselves into the flow of Wyrd through the binding of words and deeds (Bauschatz, pp. 109-110).
Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
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Turville-Petre, E. O. G. Myth and Religion of the North. New York: Holt, Rineheart, and Winston, 1964.
Wódening, Eric. `An Anglo-Saxon Symbel." Theod. Watertown, NY, Waelburges 1995.
Wódening, Eric. Gods of the World: the Vanir in Ancient Heathenry. Watertown, NY: Theod, 1996.
Wódening, Eric. We Are Our Deeds. Watertown, NY: Theod, 1998.
1 Turville-Petre. Myth and Religion of the North, p. 251 (hereafter Turville-Petre).
2 Wódening. Gods of the World, pp. 38-39.
3 Turville-Petre. p. 255
4 Wódening. We Are Our Deeds, p. 67.
5 Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree, pp. 1-24 (hereafter Bauschatz).
6 Bauschatz, p. 64.
8 Ellis-Davidson, Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. p. 22.
9 Wódening,. Gods of the World. pp. 21-28.
10 Wódening, Gods of the World, p. 36.
11 Turville-Petre. pp. 81-85.
12 See Wódening, Eric. "An Anglo-Saxon Symbel." pp. 11-20. Theod, Waelburges 1995.
13 Turville-Petre. p. 257.
© 2001 Eric Wodening. All rights reserved