The Honored Dead
In his work, Culture of the Teutons, Gronbech said of death: “In the halls of death the joyful intercourse is continued, life in honor and frith with gladness, all that we have found that life, in the eminent sense, depended on, the hero takes with him through the doorway of the grave.” It is with this attitude that we must, as the arch-Heathens did, approach death and the continuing role of our deceased kin in our lives. The veneration of our honored dead, though ultimately an intimate and varied practice, is an integral aspect of the overarching Heathen worldview and faith. It is both a way to ensure that our deceased receive a certain sense of immortality – something we hope ourselves to receive one day – and a way to continue bolstering the luck of our family band.
The very concept of worshiping our ancestors is rooted firmly in equal parts frith and luck. We give worth to our honored dead by continuing to treat them as members of our family even after they are gone. Both in death and in life, Heathens endeavor to strengthen and reinforce the bonds of frith, and in so doing, secure a stream of positive luck that flows in a downward pattern from our head ancestors to ourselves and on to our children.
In the days of the arch-Heathens, it was not an uncommon belief that the dead held sway over the world of the living in ways that those who are alive do not. Grettir’s Saga holds a prime example of this relationship and its benefits; “On that ness,” said Audun, “stands a barrow, great and strong, wherein was laid Karr the Old, Thorfinn’s father; at first father and son had but one farm in the island; but since Karr died he has so haunted this place that he has swept away all farmers who owned lands here, so that now Thorfinn holds the whole island; but whatsoever man Thorfinn holds his hand over, gets no scathe.” It is this power that we are asking our ancestors to wield in our favor when we honor them with gifts.
Karr the Old, even in death – or perhaps especially in death, exerts his will over the area surrounding his barrow in such a way that his son is able to expand his holdings until eventually the entire island belongs to him. We can take from this the notion that the bonds of frith remain unbroken despite bodily death. Even if the relationship between living descendant and deceased ancestor was tempestuous, or downright hostile, it is our responsibility to offer gifts and respect to those who have passed on and now wield power over our family line. A contentious relationship in life need not translate to a contentious one in death; respect can and should be paid to the role the ancestor played in the family dynamic. A surly grandfather with hurtful things to say is still the grandfather, and worthy of being remembered in a way that honors him.
The step from life to death is a natural one that cannot be halted. The arch-Heathens knew this, and did not allow death to drastically alter their relationships. It was not an uncommon practice to seek advice from the dead, and was viewed in much the same way as we view seeking advice from an older, wiser member of our family. The arch-Heathens would sit on or near the grave mound, often bringing gifts, and in return, the spirit of their ancestor would impart guidance or advice. It was such a common practice, that, as Ellis points out in ‘Road to Hel’, archaeologists have found a number of Swedish howes or barrows that were not rounded but rather flat like a platform, which would have enabled someone to sit or stand comfortably for long periods of time.
This practice has survived into our modern culture, in a nearly subconscious way. Most, if not all, graveyards have stone benches or fountains, where people may sit comfortably near their dead relatives. People continue to leave gifts in the forms of flowers or letters. The bereaved go and speak at the graves of their dead. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that even the secular overculture practices a degree of ancestor veneration, which makes it one area of reconstruction that many new Heathens struggle with the least, in its most base form.
One of the most common ancestor gifts seen repeated throughout the sagas is silver and other precious metals. Ynglinga Saga, Flateyjarbók, and Fornmanna Sögur, among many others, all have mention of men carrying silver and gold into the howes, or of the precious metals being poured into the howes themselves when the howes in question belonged to particularly prominent members of society. On a smaller scale, gifts of silver or jewelry would not be out of place in an ancestor gift cycle.
Modernly, in addition to the traditional gifts of precious metals and jewelry, it is not an uncommon practice to make gifts of things that were loved in life. Fresh cookies baked from a family recipe, expensive and quality teas, or even passages from a favorite book can all be made as gifts, if they bear relevance to the receiving ancestor. Ideally, these gifts should be left on the mound or grave site, but the transient nature of contemporary society does not always make this possible. Where the arch-Heathens saw several generations living and dying in the same relative area, modern humans are far more mobile, and Heathens may find themselves living halfway across the world from the physical remains of their dead kin. It is recommended that you make the journey to tend their graves at least once a year, if you are capable. However, if you are not, gifts may be left on a properly tended ancestral altar.
The veneration of ancestors is a deeply personal and varied practice, rooted in the very Heathen concept of family; and it is that fondness of family, that sense of true frith and love, that lies at the heart of keeping fresh the memory of our honored dead and in so doing, keeping them alive and well within the web of family of luck. To be forgotten is to pass on into ignoble silence, to be remembered and honored is to live forever.
One thought on “The Honored Dead”
Another brilliant article!