by Crystal Shilling
For two thousand years Christianity has spread across the Old World and into the New World with great fierceness. Much of the ancient world is lost because of this and yet some things have survived or have been discovered. In the modern world, our culture is saturated with christian ideation. For the modern heathen, many concepts may seem of Christian origin, however, in reality are much older. Modern heathens would not be able to decipher terms or customs if it was not for studying scholarly works or learning from those who have studied intensely. When reconstructing a religion, individuals take on the task of separating that which was an ancient concept from a Christian one. Archaeologists, Anthropologists, and Scholars help us in this task as well.
New heathens also have a sense that they are thrusting off Christianity and therefore misunderstand terms such as sacred and profane, and feel that there isn’t a reason for those terms to be involved in Heathenry. They get so hung up on the word that they do not listen to the explanation as to why it is a Heathen concept compared to a Christian one. Some concepts that feel Christian, but are simply Christianized concepts that predated conversion would be sacred, profane, sin, and evil.
Sometime around the 13th century, the Old English word hālig appears. Hālig was derived from hāl which meant health, happiness and wholeness. Holiness may have derived from “wholeness” indicating a state of religiousness. Hālig was also seen as a transition from the Old English word holegn meaning holly. The same as the holly tree which was a sacred plant to Celtic and Roman worship. We also see the Proto-Germanic word khuli which also meant holly. Linguistically we see how words develop through time over different cultures.
Emile Durkheim, a French Sociologist, made the distinction in religious practice between the Sacred and the Profane by observing Indigenous Australians. I find this remarkable because observing other tribes who still maintain their religious practice and customs give us insight into the customs of the Arch-Heathen may have been. Mircea Eliade, a 20th century religious scholar adopted Durkheim’s terminology, however added the ideas of a German theologian, Rudolf Otto. Eliade ascertained that Sacred was “equivalent to a power, and in the last analysis, to reality.” He felt the experience was more than just a hallucination, but that it really existed.
Throughout the Poetic Edda, sacred is used to distinguish what the Arch-Heathen felt was special and had power. In the Sayings Of Grimnir, there is a passage that describes the gate to Valhöll as: “Death – barrier stands, the sacred gate, on the plain before the sacred doors…” the age and doors are sacred not only because they lead to Valhöll in the story, but because gates and doors represent liminal space. This liminal space can also be seen in the motif of the individual crossing over from life to the after-life In the story of Day-Spring And Menglöd, Day-Spring asks if the spirits will shelter all who make offerings to them. Much-wise replies, “Those wise ones shelter where men make offerings in the sacred altar-stead: no peril so mighty can man befall but they save him soon from need.” The altar-stead has power and is sacred because men leave their offerings to gain favor with the landvættir. The landvættir could easily destroy the individual, however, with the offerings made they assist man and keep them safe. The Volva’s prophecy in which she names Rig, may be a reference to Heimdal during Ragnarok which reads, “He was bound with all the power of the Earth, of the ice cold sea, and of sacred swine blood.” Blood was considered sacred to the Arch-Heathen. Blood was considered part of their honor and was gifted to the Gods from the tribe during blot. Boar was prepared for special feasting, usually during Yule. Profane was the day to day toil of the Arch-Heathen. The stories were told to escape the mundane world if only for a brief moment.
The word that many get hung up on is “sin.” This word has a long association with Christianity. Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions, however, the first definition is more akin to heathenry. Sin is defined as an offense against religious or moral laws, an action that is or felt to be highly reprehensible, and an often serious shortcoming. Rules and laws varied among tribes and regions. Also various religions, such as Hinduism, have used the “Sin,” which also may be Karma. “Sin” descends from Proto-Indo European word Snt-ya-. The Proto-Germanic word Sundiō which meant “Sin, transgression, trespass, and offense.” In Old English, synn, meant moral wrongdoing, injury, mischief, enmity, feud, guilt, crime, an offense against God, misdeed. The modern word for “sin” is derived from Old English. Looking at the Old English definitions encompasses many actions one could commit and it is not solely related to religion.
In The Prose Edda, Snorri tells the story of Loki being bound for commiting sinful acts. Loki’s crimes were the death of Balder and preventing him from being delivered out of Hel. Upon hearing how angry the Gods were, he fled and hid. The God’s caught Loki and dragged him into a cavern. Loki’s Children, Vali and Nari were also seized. Vali was turned into a wolf who then devoured Nari. The intestines were used to bind Loki to pointed rocks with holes in them. The intestines transformed into irons and a serpent was suspended above him so the venom would drip on his face. Siguna, his wife, catches the venom in a cup and must empty it when full. While she empties the cup, venom falls into Loki’s face. He writhes with pain so forcefully that earthquakes are produced. In the story, Evil was the word choice.
In Old English, Evil is synonymous with sin. Loki inadvertently murdered Balder, causing the Gods to be angry and therefore punish him for his crime or sinful act. The Proto-Indo European word for evil is upelo-. Proto-Germanic is ubilaz. In the English language, we have many descriptors to reflect the severity of one’s actions. Why would we need to use sin? The important thing to understand is that Evil is used several times throughout the Eddas. In order to understand the lore, an understanding of the word usage is also required. Sin isn’t referencing a biblical law that entails fire and brimstone. The context in which sin is being used, is a very evil act that will face consequences. The story of Loki’s binding teaches us that if evil/sinful acts are committed, punishment is expected.
When looking at these terms in regards to Heathenry, you must remove, or decolonize the Christian meaning to understand the meaning in a Heathen context. From there an individual can determine what is wrong or right with prospective groups and even set boundaries for individuals. Decolonizing from Christianity can be a difficult task at first but it is not impossible. Analyzing the ways of the Arch-Heathen helps us develop a praxis.
I hope this article dispels many misconceptions one may have upon the origins of some words included within a Heathen Worldview. Keep in mind that adjusting to a Heathen Worldview consists of constantly adjusting from a Christian lens. Forgoing indoctrinated Christian cultural bias and keeping an open mind will allow transitioning into a Heathen Worldview a little easier. A willingness to learn will also help to decolonize from Christianity.
The Poetic Edda
The Prose Edda
The Sacred and the Profane
We Are Our Deeds
The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe
New World Encyclopedia