The first of the rites of passage are the birth-rites, which bring the newborn's soul (with all its many aspects) out of the Otherworlds and the darkness of death into the brightness of the Middle-Garth. They can be seen as the mightiest of the rites of life, for they set the ørlög (ur-layer or ur-law) for all the rest: name, soul, and wyrd come together.
Many religions today have strong positions on various ways of dealing with the problems of unwanted pregnancies. The most extreme is probably that of the Catholic church, which even condemns the conscious waste of sperm. More moderate religions may accept birth-control; some allow abortion and some condemn it.
The position of Teutonic tradition in these matters is quite clear. According to our forebears, a child had no soul until its name was given - nine days after birth - and if it was clearly weak or defective, or if available resources could not support it, it could be set out to die. This may seem heartless and inhuman to some today, but it stemmed from two things: short resources and the belief that soul came with name and acceptance into the clan. The former is especially important in considering different forms of family planning. It is irresponsible to have children that you and/or your kin are not able to feed, clothe, educate, and take good care of. This almost certainly means the use of birth control, inside or outside of marriage; it may also mean abortion or giving a child up for adoption, as your conscience dictates. It is likewise irresponsible to knowingly have a child who will not be capable of a decent human life. Physical defects, or even near-total incapability, no longer mean that one must be a burden on society - those who doubt that have only to consider Stephen Hawkins, among others! - but many forms of mental incapability can also be diagnosed during pregnancy. In short, there is nothing in the Germanic tradition which would offer the slightest condemnation of either birth control or abortion; and our practice of setting out infants who seemed unlikely to live also suggests strongly that it is appropriate to ensure pre-natally that one's children will not suffer from major mental incapacity. As always, however, the choice comes down to the individual family and, more specifically, to the woman who must bear the child. An Ásatrú individual might choose to consider abortion unacceptable for herself on personal grounds - but not on grounds of religion.
Childbirth was the greatest danger faced by women in the early age, and, quite understandably, its mysteries formed a large part of women's religious and magical practice. Sigrdrífumál 9 offers advice for birthing: "You shall know birth-runes, if you would give help in birthing, and loosen a child from the woman. You shall rist them on palm, and on the hand's span, and bid the idises aid." Folk-practices include the belief that there should be no knots in the birthing-hall - for that would tighten the woman's womb.
When the birthing-pains start, the obvious thing to do is to make a blessing to Frija and the idises. The woman should take a horn of whole milk in one hand, an apple or a pear in the other, and call out,
Frija, kind queen! Fair idises all,
come to help your quick kin.
Another branch your Bairn-Stock sprouts -
bring it forth bright to day,
blessed, bring babe to birth.
Mighty ghost-frowes, my Mothers,
be with me, as in the elder times,
all bale from birthing bed ward off -
bring child bright to day,
blessed, bring babe to birth.
Best of norns at need show forth
fair apples and kindly eyes,
that bairn and mother be ever whole -
bring my babe bright to day,
blessed, bring babe to birth.
She should then sign a blessing (sun-wheel or spiral) over the horn (with a spindle, if she owns one) and drink from it before pouring the milk into the blessing-bowl. She should set the apple into the milk, then dip the spindle or a blessing-twig into it and sprinkle a few drops on her forehead and a few drops on her belly. The blessing-bowl should then be either set on the hearth or the milk poured on the earth outside, preferably at the roots of a tree. If there is a tree on your own land that the family has chosen as its Bairn-Stock, she should hold tight to its trunk for a few of the pains, calling silently on Frija and the idises. The apple should be dried and its seeds planted when and if you have lands that you mean to stay on.
In older days, when the woman's water broke, she would start to weave or braid a red three-stranded string with which the child's umbilical cord could be tied off. Since most hospitals will not use a hand-woven string for this purpose, those modern Norwegians who still keep up the practice tie it about the child's wrist as well. During the braiding, she should chant or sing softly something like: "Idises all shall aid me now; Mothers mighty all help. Norns, weave weal for my bairn; wend all woe away."
In Norway, the midwife was called the light-mother or the near-mother. She had to bring a candle near to the face of the child as soon as it was born. This probably stemmed from both the wish to be sure that the child was well-shaped, and also the symbolic bringing of it into the light. Candles appear in the birthing-context in Nornagests þáttr (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, Flateyjarbók), when Nornagestr tells of how he has come to live so long.
Then there fared around the land völvas, who were called spae-women and fore-saw the lives of men. For that folk invited them and readied banquets for them and gave them gifts...My father did so, and they came to him...so as to fore-see my ørlög. I lay there in the cradle where they should speak about me. There two candle-lights burned over me. They spoke of me then, and said that I should become a greatly wealthy man, and greater than my forebears or sons of chieftains there in lands, and said all that should become of me'...
(The youngest Norn then takes offense because she is not asked to prophesy and the folk there are disrespectful, jostling her from her seat. She calls out sharply to the other two, telling them to leave off their good foretellings, and says:)
'I shape for him that he shall live no longer than it takes for that candle to be burned up'. After that the elder völva took the candle and put it out and told my mother to keep it and not kindle it until the last day of my life'".
After the child's birth, the "light-mother" sometimes took and nursed it or fed it on cow's milk; she was also, in some places in Scandinavia, responsible for keeping a candle burning in its room from birth till baptism, presumably to keep the alfs or trolls from getting it. This may well have stemmed from heathen times, as the child was equally in a border-state in the nine days between birth and naming - in the same class as the sundry wights, and thus able to be touched by them. "Light-mother" was a long-term relationship, similar to that of "godparent" in later times.
Another Norwegian term for midwife was "jordmoder", "earth-mother"; "straw-mother" was also a common term, since birth traditionally took place, not on a bed, but in a special straw-bed prepared for the occasion.
In modern times, midwives are seldom used, but there may still be a place for the "light-mother" in birthing today. Obstetricians are used to a surprising range of bizarre things done by families which are about to give birth, and a sympathetic one will put up with almost anything which does not compromise hygiene or endanger the health of the mother or child. They may or may not let you light a candle in the birthing-room, but it is worth asking.
If the child is born with a caul, this must be carefully kept and dried, as it is an emanation of the fetch in the Middle-Garth, and to lose or destroy it means to lose or destroy much of the child's soul-might. The placenta is traditionally kept and either buried at the roots of a growing tree or put in the earth with a new tree planted above it. Both caul and placenta belong to you and cannot be denied you if you ask for them.
The greatest moment of the birth-rites, however, is not the actual birth, but the naming, which takes nine days after birth. At this time, assuming the child has not been deemed defective and set out to die - or given up for adoption - a feast is held at which all the kin and friends gather together with gifts and good wishes for the new member of the clan.
The center of this rite is the moment at which the father takes the child from the mother's arms, sprinkling it with water and giving it a name. Although such "baptism" is most often considered a christian custom, the use of water as a purification is much more ancient. The Greeks, Romans, Aryans, Finno-Ugrics, and Teutons associated it with some form of initiation as well. Ceremonial use of water can be both simple and complex. As children are born of the water of the mother, a parallel of washing away the old and beginning fresh becomes evident.
The four elements of classical times, among those who believe that they have a life of their own or are even animistic (such as, for instance, the Germanic peoples) have often been venerated in their own right. Sacred wells, springs, and lakes with reputed healing powers have outlasted all attempts to christianize them if not to co-opt them. Superstitious Romans believed that water could purge them of all sins. Many Indians today believe that immersion in the Ganges will wash away all the past sins of a lifetime. If water can wash away dirt and contamination on a physical level, then it follows that it is possible that water can purify one on an emotional, spiritual, moral, and even psychic level as well. Such was the current of thought (so to speak) of the ancients. It is still prevalent among some Pagan peoples today.
Our Teutonic ancestors had a custom of "baptism" observed by Roman writers as early as 200 B.C.E. Among the Norse, it was called "ausa vatni" (sprinkling with water), and signified acceptance into the family. Until the ausa vatni had been performed, a child had no legal rites or standing within the community, and was not even considered a human being. Even in christian times, the wergeld for killing an unbaptized child was half that paid for the death of a baptized one.
On the ninth day after birth the baby was brought to the father (or closest male relative) for the public performance of the ritual, and at that time it was also given a name. The Norwegians, Lapps, and Finns performed the ceremony on a Thorsday. It was often accompanied with a feast given by all the blood relatives. The name chosen was usually that of an ancestor or a parent. The name of an ancestor (usually a deceased grand-parent on the mother's side) was conferred so that the qualities of that person could live again in the child (see "Soul, Death, and Rebirth"). Giving the parent's name granted one immortality in one's own lifetime (alliteration of names, as for instance Gjúki - Gunther - Guðrún, or repetition of a name-element, as in Sigmundr - Signý - Sigurðr, was also a means by which the clan-soul could be shared and reborn - KHG).
When a child was born, it was first laid upon the ground to reverence the earth as the source of all life. The Scandinavian term for midwife, jordemoder, means earth-mother... She then lifted the child up and presented it to the father, who had the power of life or death over it. This power was nullified, however, if the child had partaken of milk or honey, or if it had been washed. If any of these things had been done, a child was considered to have equal rights in the family into which it was born. If the father were unavailable, the mother had the right to acknowledge or expose the infant. Another important custom was the planting of a tree on the day of birth. This tree became the child's tree of life and they mirrored each other's growth. This custom has a lot more going for it than passing out cigars.
As water is elemental in nature, an ausa vatni is a Vanic rite. The new member of the community was thrice sprinkled with water by the father: once, in the name of Thor; again in the name of Freyr; and lastly in the name of Njord. By sprinkling the babe with water it was believed that the beneficial forces of water could be brought to bear their various powers for good and healing to the newly-born. This attunement of the child with the element of water was also thought to protect it from the harmful elements of water as well.
Among the Finns and Lapps, baptismal names were bestowed by the "wash-mother" (laugo-edne). The following ceremony was then performed: "Warm water was poured into a trough, and two birch-twigs - one in its natural condition, the other bent into a ring - were laid in it. At the same time, the child was thus addressed: 'Thou shalt be as fertile, sound, and strong as the birch from which this twig was taken'. Then a copper (or silver) talisman was cast into the water, with the words: 'I cast the nabma-skiello (talisman) into the water, to wash thee; be as melodious and fair as this brass (or silver).' Then came the formula: 'I baptize thee with a new name, N.N. Thou shalt thrive better from this water, of which we make thee a partaker, than from the water wherewith the priest baptized thee. I call thee up by baptism, deceased N.N. Thou shalt now rise again to life and health, and receive new limbs. Thou, child, shalt have the same happiness and joy which the deceased enjoyed in this world'. As she uttered this words, the baptizer poured water three times on the head of the child, and then washed its whole body. Finally she said, 'Now art thou baptized adde-nabma (underworld name), with the name of the deceased, and I will see that with this name thou wilt enjoy good health' (Jessen, E.J., Afhandling om de norske Finners og Lappers hedenske Religion, pp 33-42).
Specific legal rights were conferred by the ausa vatni as well. Both the Eddas and Heimskringla have reference to the custom. In "Hávamál" 158, the master magician states, "That thirteenth (song) ken I: if I shall cast water onto a young thane, he shall not fall, though he comes among the host, nor the hero sink before swords". In Heimskringla, we are told that at the birth of Haraldr gráfeld, "Eiríkr and Gunnhildr had a son whom Haraldr inn hárfagri sprinkled with water, and to whom he gave the name, ordaining that he should be king after his father Eiríkr". Haraldr inn hárfagri, we will remember, was the father of Eiríkr Blood-Axe; though he had given his kingdom up to his son before his death, he was clearly still seen as the head of the clan when it came to family matters. These legal, social, and spiritual rights could also be conferred, when necessary, by a man who was not related to the woman or child: when Hjördís bears Sigmundr the Völsung's posthumous child Sigurðr, it is Hjálprekr, the father of her rescuer, who sprinkles the child with water and, marking the keenness of his eyes, states that no one will ever be his like. By naming and claiming a child as his own, according to our legalistic ancestors, a father granted protection, provision, and the right of inheritance and succession to the father's estate.
The sprinkling of water together with the naming is also important as part of the rite which sets the child's ørlög. The water, which should be drawn from a holy well or running burne, embodies the might of the holiest water of the Well of Wyrd: the drops sprinkled on the child also fall back into the Well to set its roots firmly in that-which-is - the source of the bairn's name and soul - and to lay down what shall become for it.
Once the naming has been done, each of the folk there should come forth with a gift for the child which embodies some quality that they themselves have in great store and would wish to share with the newborn. These are usually not things the child can use right away, but things that will be needed in later life. A common gift is a nice edition of the folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm; other collections of folktales (such as the books translated/edited by Jacqueline Simpson) or folk songs are also fitting, as are copies of the Eddas. A particularly nice present for a child is the beautifully illustrated d'Aulaire version of our holy tales, Norse Gods and Giants. Weapons are also appropriate, though of course the parents will have to keep them until the child reaches the age of man- or woman-making. A cup or horn may embody both wod and the source of life and strength. Helgi Hunding-Bane's father Sigmundr gave him a sword and a leek at birth - the former an obvious gift for a warrior, the latter showing forth the swift and shining growth of the hero, and perhaps also the manly power of life to match the slaying-might of the sword. Jewelry of appropriate sorts (in the shape of holy animals or made with stones of particular power, for instance) can also be given. A young maiden may receive a spindle or a cauldron; as a boy-child is given a leek, a girl-child can be given a length of linen. Runic inscriptions can be made upon many of these things to strengthen their working. The child should be allowed to touch each gift (very carefully, in the case of items with sharp edges or things that can easily be popped into the mouth).
The name-giving basically involves the father taking the child from the mother's arms, lifting it up, saying that he takes it into his clan and speaking the name that he wishes to give it (together with a brief speech on the earlier bearer whose soul he wishes to live again, and, if he feels so inspired, a statement on its ørlög) as he sprinkles it with the hallowed water. The sprinkling should be done with a leek or sprig of oak or ash for a boy; for a girl, it should be a twig of birch, rowan, linden, elder, or elm. The light-mother, perhaps together with two other women, can come bearing candles and speak for the Norns (though hopefully not as eventfully as at Norna-Gestr's wyrd-setting!). If there is an actual spae-speaker or völva in the group or within the general area, this person might also be invited and asked to fore-see for the child.
Obviously much of this rite is very individualistic, but a sample ritual framework could be as follows:
I. The Father does the Hammer-Rite. The Norns (or Norn; can be done by a single woman) are within the circle, but completely shrouded in dark cloaks. The Mother sits on the hearth, if there is one, or in whatever spot has been chosen as the heart of the home. The Child is in her lap. The Guests sit ringed around her in a half-circle. On the harrow or a small table beside the hearth is a blessing-bowl full of water that has been drawn from a holy well or running spring, preferably at dawn but before sunrise (for the child's sake, this water should be warm, and should also perhaps have been boiled a little while before the rite). Beside it are two twigs from appropriate trees, one in its natural state, one bent into a circle, and a taufr [talisman] of silver or polished brass (such a taufr can either be a piece of jewelry or a flat piece of metal with runes graven on it - berkano, dagaz, ansuz, perthro, laguz, and othala are especially fitting, though your high [hugr - see "Soul"] may also guide you to others). There is also a horn and drink to fill it, and a plate with three pieces of bread. The Father has a gift for each of the Norns. There is a basin of earth on the floor. You will need either a cradle to put the Child in for some parts of the rite, or a trusted kinsib to hold it when both the Mother and Father are acting.
II. The Mother says,
Idises, alfs all awesome wights,
ye gods and goddesses all,
Well-come are you, wise ones to hall,
who blessings would give to babe.
She turns to the Father, saying,
Nine months in womb has whiled this bairn,
Nine days in light has lived this bairn,
Now the Nine Worlds ween our choice to know,
Shall s/he be clan-sib or cast out for trolls?
The Father bends down to look closely at the Child. The Norns also move closer, as if to hear him better. Trusting that the Child is indeed to be raised rather than set out or sent away for adoption, he lifts it in his arms and holds it high, saying,
Now hear me, all ye hallowed ones,
both high and low of Heimdallr's sib!
I hold this bairn to be my own,
a Bairnstock-branch sprung bright from me.
III. The Mother fixes the Child with a steady and loving gaze, laying the two twigs into the water and holding there as she says,
Be sound and strong as stock of tree
from which fair twigs sprang forth!
Fruitful and joyous in frith and good cheer,
so long as your days dawn,
so long as life shall last.
She casts the taufr into the water, saying,
I lay this sign in laguz-depths,
it sinks, to shine from roots.
as ringing and bright when rinsed with this stream,
be thou, stemmed from our stock,
be thou, beloved bairn!
IV. The Father takes the twigs from the water and sprinkles the Child, speaking the name, the deeds of the forebear or hero/ine after whom it is being named, and so forth. As the first drops hit the Child, the Norns should light their candles.Their hands can now be seen, but not their faces.
When the Child has been thoroughly sprinkled or even washed with the water, what is left should be poured over its feet into the basin of earth.
V. The Guests now come to give their gifts, each one saying briefly what it is and what gift of soul, body, or mind s/he gives to the Child with that sign.
VII. The Norns now come closer. The Mother swiftly fills the horn, bringing it and the plate of bread to them. She says,
Well-come are you, women of might,
Holy guests, have food and drink,
I hail you in our hall!
Very slowly, showing as little of their faces as possible, the Norns eat and share the horn between them (a single Norn or völva may content herself with a ceremonial sip before handing it back to the Mother). They then come forward to ring the Child around and speak their spae-sayings. The eldest should have talked with the family about the source of the name, so that she can speak a fore-saying based on the deeds and life of the one who bore it earlier. The middle Norn should make reference to the gifts the Child has gotten and how they will show forth in its life, while the youngest should spae-speak as well as she can.
If, of course, the Norns have any inspiration or visions, they should not feel themselves bound by these guidelines!
VIII. At the end of the spae-saying, the Norns set their candles on the mantlepiece or table. The Father comes forward with their gifts as the Mother refills the horn, saying,
Hallowed frowes, have our thanks aye,
good ones, I give you gifts.
The Norns take their gifts, nodding in thanks, and withdraw to stand behind the row of guests again. The Father takes the horn from the Mother and raises it, saying,
Idises, alfs, all awesome wights,
gods and goddesses all,
I hail you here with horn of frith,
let none be left out,
let all bring blessings here!
He drinks, then passes the horn about to each of the Guests, who may speak a blessing as they sip from it. The Norns also share in this horn. The last to drink from it is the Mother. Mother and Father then set their hands on the horn together and pour it into the blessing-bowl. The Mother sprinkles the eight ways, above, and below; the Father sprinkles the Child, then picks it up again and says,
Now (Name of child) is named, with frith and friendship of all the mighty ones. Let all join in the feast!
The Norns leave, taking off their cloaks out of sight of everyone else before they come back. The feast begins.