Ways of Worship
Veiztu hvé rísta skal, veiztu hvé ráða skal?
Veiztu, hvé fá skal, veiztu hvé freista skal?
Veiztu, hvé biðja skal, veiztu, hvé blóta skal?
Veiztu, hvé senda skal, veiztu, hvé sóa skal?
Among the best-known stanzas from the Hávamál is the one quoted above, which summarizes the skills required for runecraft and religion. The first two verses, in which the High One refers to inscribing, reading, colouring, and interpreting the runes, are often quoted. The second pair of lines are less familiar, but the verbs used contain the essence of Germanic religious practice. The first one, biðja, bears a family relationship to the English "bid" and is usually translated as "ask". According to Grimm (Teutonic Mythology), the term has the implication of supplication. The second, blóta, refers to the sacrifice in which the blood was used to bless the people and the meat eaten after it had been dedicated to the gods. The third, senda, can be translated as "send", with the implication that it involves getting the message to the gods, while the forth, sóa, means to make an offering that is in some sense "squandered", perhaps one which is destroyed or left to the elements rather than being shared. Together they summarize the principal ways in which the people of the North worshipped their gods.
The word "worship" comes from the Old English "weorðscipe", meaning to honour or give worth to something. Worshipping the gods can involve honouring them with prayer and praise, and pleasing them with worthy offerings. To worship the Northern gods today, we must go beyond the meanings other religions have given those words to their origins, and reinterpret them in a way that will be in harmony with ancient practice as well as meeting modern needs. If we wish to enjoy the presence and the friendship of the gods, we must know how to give them what they want from us and how to ask them for what we need.
Prayer refers to the words and acts involved in communicating with the gods. The available information seems to suggest that the ancient Germanic peoples addressed their gods in a variety of ways. Surviving examples include the prayer of Sigdrifa, skaldic prayers to Þórr, prayers incorporated in Anglo-Saxon spells, and the Rus merchant's prayer as reported by Ibn Fadlan (quoted in Tryckare, p. 138).
Perhaps the most beautiful are the words with which the newly awakened valkyrie Sigdrifa (Brunhild) greets Sigurd.
Hail to thee Day, hail, ye Day's sons;
Hail Night and daughter of Night,
with blithe eyes look on both of us,
and grant to those sitting here victory!
Hail Æsir, hail Ásynjur!
Hail Earth that givest to all!
Goodly spells and speech bespeak we from you,
and healing hands in this life!
The prayer consists of salutations and requests. Hailing the powers identifies them, attracts their attention, and honours them. In this prayer, Sigdrifa calls upon powers of Nature - Day, Night, Earth - and the gods and goddesses as a group. Her requests are for favour and success in general, and in particular for skill in magic and communication.
Prayers to Þórr by such skalds as Vetrliði Sumarliðason and Þórbjörn dísarskáld are preserved mostly in fragments quoted by Snorri in the Skáldskaparmál for the sake of the information they contain. A typical example (tr. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion, p. 85) goes -
You smashed the limbs of Leikn,
you bashed Þrivaldi;
you knocked down Starkaðr;
you trod Gjalp dead under foot.
John Lindow compares these lines to others from Indo-European tradition, in which prayer "...included exactly the two components of praise of the deity, not infrequently in the second person, followed by a request to the deity" ("Addressing Thor", p. 132). He further speculates that the remainder of the prayer (not quoted by Snorri), "...called on Þórr to slay the missionaries Þangbrandr and Guðleifr and implicitly assigned them to the category of giants in the mythological system..." (p. 133).
A modern example is -
Redbeard, firebeard, bringer of lightning,
Lifegiving stormlord are you, lover of feasting,
Father of freedom, fighter most doughty,
Donar, defender, dearly we need thee,
Hear us, hero, hasten to help us,
Gifts thy great goats gallop to bring.
A formula for such a prayer could be stated as:
Hail (best-known name), (descriptive epithet),
Child of (parent), lover of (spouse),
You who dwell in (name of hall),
You who (summarize several relevant deeds)
With your (characteristic tool or weapon)
Come swiftly to aid me
As I (summarize problem being addressed).
A similar structure is found in some of the spells included in G. Storms' Anglo-Saxon Magic. Deities can be invoked through chanted incremental repetitions of their names, references to attributes and epithets, and sympathetically, by reference to relevant episodes from their mythology. This latter might be called the "epic formula", in which the summary of the deity's success in a similar situation is followed by an affirmation that things will happen as they did then. Perhaps the most famous pagan example is the Old High German Second Merseberg Charm (see "Balder" for translation). Here is an example of a christian Icelandic spell, repaganized in parentheses -
May bleeding be stanched for those who bleed;
blood flowed down from God's cross.
(blood flowed down from the worldtree).
The Almighty (Alfather) endures fear,
from wounds tried sorely.
Stand in glory, even as in gore, that the Son of God (High One) may hear of it. The spirit and bleeding veins - s/he finds bliss who is realeased from this.
May bleeding be stanched -
bleed neither without nor within.
With these words St. John the Apostle
stanched the blood on the lips of our Lord
(Odin stanched the blood when he was gashed by the spear).
A stone called Surtur stands in the temple. There lie nine vipers. They shall neither wake nor sleep before this blood is stanched. Let this blood be stanched in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost (In the name of Odin), etc. (Kvideland & Sehmsdorf, Folk Belief, 28.6)
The formula for this kind of prayer/spell might be expressed thusly -
Summary of myth, as for instance the binding of the wolf Fenrir by the gods
Statement of the action taken in terms which can apply to both the problem in the myth and the current difficulty, as for instance the forces of conflict and destruction, in form of an affirmation e.g. "The fetter is fast, and Fenrir bound!"
There is also evidence for prayer in the form of a simple request. When the Rus merchant brought his offerings to the god-posts he said -
Oh my lord, I have come a long way with so many slave-girls and so many sable furs (and then he mentions all the goods he has with him). Now I come to you with these offerings...I want you to send me a merchant who has lots of dinars and dirhems and will buy on my terms without being difficult.
The traditional position for prayer has been the subject of some discussion in the neo-Norse community. Most Ásatrúar favour an upright stance with arms lifted in salutation (the "Elhaz" stöðr), feeling that this position is most in keeping with characteristic Viking independence. Although this is a view with which I (Diana Paxson) find myself in sympathy, most of the evidence seems to suggest that at least at times the actual practice was otherwise.
In his chapter on Worship (vol. I: III) Grimm analyzes the etymologies of several relevant terms, beginning with their earliest known Gothic forms. Among them are inveita, which seems to be an act of adoration involving some kind of inclination of the body, although it is not clear whether this meant bowing the head or bending the knee. He cites a number of references in support of this idea, including one in the Saga of St. Olaf in which men fell til iarðar fyrir likneski (fell to earth before the likeness) of Þórr (Fornm. sög. 2, 108). The Langobards were said to have bowed their knees before a goat's head. The Rus traders observed by ibn Fadlan on the lower Dnieper prostrated themselves to the god posts they had set up by the riverside. A variation of this may have been the uncovering of the head to show honour (in contrast with the Roman and Jewish practice of covering the head when engaged in religious activity), preserved in the modern rule of etiquette which requires men to remove their hats in church (it should be noted that in the mediæval Church, as among the ancient Goths, only the chief priests worshipped with heads covered [Grimm, I:32].
Even the Old Norwegian Rune Poem is suggestive - SÓL er landa ljóme; lúti ek helgum dóme (Sun is the light of the lands; I bow to the holy doom). The verb here, "lúta" means "to lout down", to bow, as when Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Faerie and "louted down upon one knee". One form of prayer may have involved standing with upraised arms in the form of the Elhaz rune, but apparently at times the Germanic peoples also bowed down in adoration, especially, it would appear, in honouring the sun.
A line in the Sólarljóð (41) which states "henni ek laut hinzta sinni, alda-heimi í" - "I louted to her (the Sun) for the last time in life's world", meaning that it was the last day of the speaker's life, is even more indicative. "Bowing to the holy doom", therefore, is not necessarily an expression either of Norse fatalism or christian influence, but could be a reference to a daily ritual of alignment with the forces that govern the fate of all beings as represented by the daily journey of the sun (a rite for which is given in this book under "Small Rites" - KHG).
Bowing to the east to hail the rising sun is mentioned in the Landnámabók I:9. The references from Norse literature cited above refer to the practice of saluting the rising sun, and several Anglo-Saxon charms direct the user to face sunward, or move deosil. Grimm, on the other hand, cites numberous references in favour of facing North for worship, a view supported by the mediæval christian prejudice against that direction.
Vápnom oc váðom skolo vinir gleðiaz,
þat er á siálfom sýnst;
viðrgefendr oc endrgefendr erost lengst vinir,
ef þat bíðr at verða vel.
Vin sínom scal maðr vinr vera,
oc gialda giöf við giöf..."
- Hávamál 41-2
"Betra er óbeðit, enn sé ofblótið,
ey sér til gildis giöf;
betra er ósent, enn sé ofsóit."
- Hávamál 145
Prayer and praise, whether uttered standing or bowed down, were only part of Heathen worship. The giving of gifts has always been one of the strongest bonds between humans and the god/esses. In his Germania, Tacitus wrote of the mass sacrifices made by the Germanic tribes in thanks for battle-victories, a description held up by archaeological discoveries such as the Hjortspring and Illerup finds; much later, the Old Norse term for someone who was close to the god/esses was "blótmaðr mikill", "a great sacrifice-person", and the sacrifices at Old Uppsala were known even in christian lands. Many of the most valuable and enlightening treasures of the Germanic archaeological records, such as the Gundestrup cauldron, the Trondelev sun-wagon, and the lur-horns of the Bronze Age, were preserved by being sunk into peat bogs as sacrificial gifts for the god/esses...as were the slain corpses of Tollund Man and many others. The harvest-sacrifices - the last apple on the tree for Freyja, the last sheaf in the field for Wodan - lived on in the ways of the folk long after the tales of the god/esses had been forgotten. So what does this mean for those who seek to turn back to the ways of our forebears? Are we, in fact bound, to slay animals as gifts to our god/esses in the old ways?
The first point that must be thought on is the fact that our earlier kinfolk did make gifts to the god/esses in this way, and thought of it as one of the chief parts of troth. Whatever we do, we cannot condemn the sacrifice of living beings out of hand as "immoral" without harming our understanding of our elder troth. Our forebears did these things for good reason, in answer to the needs of their world; they were neither fools nor bloodthirsty wasters of life.
At the same time, we cannot deny that the world has changed in the last thousand years. By and large, it is the understanding of the Troth that our task is not to create an historical reconstruction of the religion precisely as it was practised in Iceland in 999 C.E. - or England at the time of the Saxon invasion - or Germania in the time of Hermann the Cheruscan. Rather, we seek to bring the elder troth forward - to shape it as it should have grown through these past thousand years of sleep. To understand how this may be done while keeping our ways true to those of our earlier kin, we must consider the context of each of their deeds and the need which gave birth to them; and thus with the question of sacrifice.
Animals were by no means the only offerings. The archaeological record shows that the sacrifice of fine goods was practised in Scandinavia from the Stone Age through the Viking Age. Necklaces of amber too large for humans to wear; golden vessels; fine bronzework; ships and weapons; long braids of hair: whatever was dearest to our forebears, they shared it with the god/esses, sinking their treasures into hallowed waters. Grains, fruits, and flowers might be sacrificed (especially the first fruits of the harvest), alcoholic drink was poured out in libation, hair cut from the forelock. Even a vow could be considered an offering. This manner of gift-giving should raise no fears in even the faintest of hearts: as the god/esses share their might and good with us, so we give back tokens of our own riches and victories. Folk customs, too, have kept this great root of troth alive. With a few exceptions, such as the Yule-tide boar still celebrated in Scandinavian marzipan images and in the English "Boar's Head Carol", the old blood-sacrifices were suppressed under christianity. However, the less offensive offerings of leafy branches, garlands of flowers, and sheaves of grain continued to be made, and the drinking of memory ale, the minni-öl, or sumbel, survives to this day in the custom of drinking toasts at banquets. Even when offerings to the old gods were forbidden, folk continued to put out alcohol, milk, or broth for the house-spirits. One sees a survival of this custom in the milk and cookies that are set out for Santa Claus.
As well as sinking gifts to the god/esses, our forebears also hung them on trees or burned them. One practice which has become more common among true folk today is the burning of small model Viking ships at Ostara or Midsummer; these ships often bear messages for the god/esses written in runes on small strips of paper. The custom of decorating the Yule tree is likely to hark back to the elder days when sacrifices were hung up in this way. All of these can easily be done now, though if a gift is to be burned, of course, you have to make sure that the fire is suitable for burning it safely.
Less comfortable to most folk of today is our forebears' practice of sacrificing living things. The most common form of this was the killing of cattle at Winternights - the ordinary slaughtering season. The blood was sprinkled on the harrow and over the folk; but the meat was eaten. While the rite of sacrifice fulfilled two spiritual goals - the strengthening of the bonds between god/esses and humans and the hallowing of the beast which had given its life to feed the folk - the reason for the killing was practical. The available fodder could only feed so many beasts; the cattle were often so weak at winter's end that they had to be carried out to the pastures. Surplus animals had no chance of survival, and would have eaten the food that the others needed to stay alive; therefore, they had to be killed for meat in the fall. The Yule boar, likewise, replaced the stores of food which were eaten at the Yule feast. Sacrifices were also made at celebratory feasts, to mark great occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or king-makings, to gain the favour of the gods for planned undertakings, or to placate them in times of disaster. Most of these cases involved large gatherings where the folk had to be fed and, therefore, animals slain to feed them.
More rarely, an animal would be given to a god or goddess for a specific purpose, as in Víga-Glúms saga where Þórkell, asking Freyr for revenge on Víga-Glúmr, "went...to Freyr's hof and led an old ox there...and the ox was so moved (by Þórkell's prayer to Freyr) that he bellowed and fell down dead, and it seemed to Þórkell that it had gone well, and he was now higher of hugr, for it seemed to him that his prayer had been received". It is not clear that Þórkell had meant to slay the ox: it might have been given as a temple beast, similar to the many other cattle treated with particular reverence in Norse literature and to the horse Freyfaxi, whom Hrafnkell Freysgoði shared equally with Freyr, "vin sínum" (his friend), and concerning whom he "swore this oath, that he should be the bane of any man, who should ride him against his will". The inviolability of creatures dwelling in holy places is also mentioned in connection with Fosite's holy island (see below) and the mountain Helgafell (Eyrbyggja saga, ch.IV). Grønbech mentions that "the blot-beast (the living, but hallowed creature - KHG) is man's way of raising himself up beyond his limitations. To blote is to increase qualities to the extraordinary, nay to the divine"; and from this spring the many stories in the later sagas about men who trusted in sacred cows and such: the hallowed animal was filled with the might of the gods (II, pp. 201-5). This form of gift-giving may be the easiest in modern times (I can easily see a host of Ása-cats dedicated to Freyja and treated with fitting reverence and love, for example).
When an animal was sacrificed, its head, heart, and hide would be hung up as an offering, its blood poured over the hørg and sprinkled on the people and the shrine, and its meat boiled and eaten in the communal feast. Blood-bowls and sprinklers were part of the furniture of a hof. Only healthy, perfect animals must be offered, garlanded with flowers and aromatic herbs. The boar was especially sacred to the Vanir; horses seem to have been the most valued sacrifice, and it is possible that their meat was eaten only on sacred occasions. White or black bulls, rams, and he-goats were also preferred, especially those which had never been used for labour. It is my (Diana Paxson's) speculation that the hare was sacred to Eostara and eaten only at her festival. Participation in such feasts was both the privilege and condition of membership in the tribe or the community.
In these times, few of us live on farms or have to kill our own meat, and thus the general emphasis on animal sacrifice can be understood to have shrunk accordingly. The spiritual needs, however, remain: the giving of the holy gift and the honouring of the animals who die to feed us throughout the year. Those who do not raise or slaughter food animals can answer this need by the making of bread-loaves in the shape of cattle, horses, or swine, and "slaughtering" them during the rites. However, it should never be forgotten that the bread beast represents real lives, which all who eat meat are ultimately responsible for ending; and its slaughter represents the dedication of those lives and the strength the eaters gain from them to the god/esses.
As the Troth grows, it may in the course of time prove to be financially practical for those hofs or garths which put on large feasts in rural area to learn how to butcher their own meat (being careful, of course, to fulfill whatever requirements of training and licensing are set out by local law); and should this come to pass, the hallowing of those beasts' lives will be both needful and good.
The question of human sacrifice is a much thornier one. Killing without government sanction is unquestionably illegal; in addition to which, the least whiff of a religion's possible willingness to commit human sacrifice is more likely than anything to cause an hysterical public reaction against it. At the same time, we cannot deny the deeds of our ancestors because some aspects of their troth are not generally acceptable today. We must, then, look at why and when they practised human sacrifice, and whether any of these circumstances could ever apply today.
Human sacrifice among the Germanic peoples was relatively rare, and usually took place in clearly defined situations, which fall into four categories: war, law, holy kingship, and death-rites.
The best-documented, and apparently most common of these, was sacrifice connected with battle. This kind of sacrifice was further divided into (1) the hallowing of the slain to Óðinn before the battle, and (2) the sacrifice of prisoners in thanks for victory, as described in Tacitus. The first of these presents no problem: there is no reason why a soldier today should not, as King Harald did, "promise all the souls he ejected from their bodies...to Óðinn." Such a hallowing, carried out before the battle, should turn the warrior's awareness to the awesome and terrible nature of the killing s/he expects to carry out, and call forth Wodan's aid in it. The sacrifice of prisoners, like the Winternights slaughter, was probably originally practical, not bloodthirsty: men taken in battle were too dangerous to keep as slaves and could not be turned loose; therefore, our forebears dedicated their foes to Wodan before the fight, knowing that they would have to kill them all in any case. Again, what we see here is a hallowing of a necessary slaying, rather than slaying for a holy reason.
The death penalty, and thus sacrifice for reasons of law, were relatively rare, though the former was by no means unknown among the Germanic folks. The paying of weregild or various degrees of outlawry were the normal punishments for lawbreaking. In cases of murder, the dead person's kin might take revenge, and sometimes revenge-killing was carried out as a sacrifice, as revenge was considered a holy act (vg. Stephen Flowers' "Sigurðr: Rebirth and Initiation") - though it should be noted that most of the examples here come from legendary hero-tales. Alcuin's Vita Willibrordi describes how Willibrord broke the holiness of Fosite's island by baptizing people in the hallowed spring and slaying animals who were protected by the god's frith; the punishment for this was determined by lots, and one of Willibrord's followers duly killed. However, Ström (Sacral Origins of the Germanic Death-Penalty), citing this and other cases where the violation of holy places or objects was punished by death, is careful to note that the death penalty for sacrilege, so far as our materials show, neither bore a sacral character, nor constituted a sacrifice to the wrathful divinity. Kristni saga says that "heiðingar blóta hinum verstum mönnum", Heathens sacrifice the worst men, and parallel references in Landnámabók and Eyrbyggja saga speak of criminals being given to Þórr by breaking on a rock. Ström rejects the historical accuracy of these descriptions, but accepts the existence of a general understanding that, when community sacrifices were required, the first victims chosen were criminals, or in the absence of criminals, slaves. Such community sacrifices, however, were wholly a function of the existence of a social system in which legal authority and sacral authority were most often vested in the same person, and very often thought of as one and the same. No religious groups today, of course, have any power over juridical process; thus for the Troth to hold such sacrifices of its own volition is impossible. However, two possibilities exist for sacralizing of the death penalty. In cases where true folk believe that justice is being done by the execution of a criminal, it would be fitting to hold a blót to Tiw, Skaði, and Váli at the time of the condemned wo/man's death. Also, if a true wo/man should be condemned to death, that person might choose to ask for a Troth Elder as chaplain and to be ritually hallowed as a gift to the god/esses before execution.
The third type of Germanic human sacrifice, the killing of the holy king, is of course dependent on the institution of the holy kingship. This institution had various forms, the best documented of which are the Froði-kingship (a king tied to his land, a defender in war rather than an aggressor, best known for peace, fruitfulness, and good administration) and the Wodan-kingship, an extension of the role of drighten (leader of the warband), where the god's blessings are firstly shown in battle-victory and secondarily in fruitfulness for the conquered lands. Both forms of kingship often end with the king himself as a human sacrifice, either given to the god by his folk, as with Domaldi of Ynglinga saga, or taken directly by the god, like Saxo's Harald War-Tooth and Víkarr of Gautreks saga. It is highly doubtful, however, that we will ever again live in a world where a single man is seen as personally responsible for bringing fruitfulness to the land and success to the folk who follow him; and thus it is highly doubtful that we will ever again see a holy king sacrificed.
The fourth kind of Germanic human sacrifice, that associated with burial rites, was often voluntary. A wife or concubine might choose to be slain at the death of her man. This appears in several of the heroic legends - Brynhildr killing herself when Sigurðr is dead, Signy returning to the house where her husband Siggeir is burning - but is also attested by ibn Fadlan's famous description of a ship-burial among the Rus on the Volga. There are no records of a wife or concubine being slain against her will at her husband's death, nor of any social stigma attaching to a woman who outlived her husband; in fact, widows had the most advantageous legal and financial position of any women. This free choice does not seem to have applied to slaves; there are a number of records of thralls being killed to accompany their masters to the graves, and this is supported by archaeological evidence, such as Viking Age double graves from Denmark in which one of the bodies had hands and feet bound and head hewn off. It is also thought that one of the two women in the Oseberg ship burial was the maidservant of the other, killed to accompany her mistress (though opinions vary as to which was which). Obviously, since the institution of slavery is long gone, the latter type of burial-sacrifice will never be practised again; the former, having been, as far as we can tell, a matter of personal choice, falls rather into the category of suicide than of sacrifice.
Worshipping the Gods Today
Naturally enough, what little evidence we have for ancient religious practice tends to focus on public and community rather than individual worhip. Today, we are in need of models for both group workings and individual spirituality. Indeed, considering how many of those who follow the Northern Way are forced by circumstance to practice as solitaries, a discussion of solo spiritual work is both useful and necessary. Even those who participate regularly in group worship will find their experience enriched and their skills improved by regular work alone.
Especially at first, it is useful to create a physical focus for worship in the form of images, altars, and shrines. Setting up an altar is easy enough, indeed it seems to be an instinctive response, and people are sometimes surprised to realize that this is what they have done. For the ancients, the pillars of the high seat and the hearth were sacred within the home. Outdoors, they built altars of heaped stones, established sacred groves, or built "halls" for the gods. Today, a rock can be placed beside the hearth or stove to make a home for the house-spirit, and a cairn or a single stone placed in the garden for offerings.
However, the best aid in developing contact with the gods is a personal altar. This need not be elaborate - a clear spot in the bedroom secure from interference by small children or animals is a good place to begin (warning: as you work with more deities, altars may proliferate, until your bedroom begins to look like a hof). If the altar is dedicated to a single deity, cover it with a cloth of the colour that seems most appropriate (for instance, dark blue for Odin, red for Týr, or an earth tone for one of the Vanir). Otherwise, a piece of white or natural coloured linen will do very well (warning: you will spill drink, candlewax, and other things on it in the course of time, so choose something that can easily be washed - KHG). Images of the gods can be photocopied from books or magazines, or you can make a miniature god-post by carving a face on a stick and setting it in a pot of sand. For the more artistic, reproductions of ancient figurines can be modeled from Sculpey or clay. These images can be changed as you work with different deities. A votive candle in a glass container is the safest way to illuminate your image. You may also set up a small bowl or plate and cup (shot glasses or saki cups are convenient) for offerings. Burning herbs is traditional for purification, though not as an offering, but incense can be very helpful in creating the right mood.
Such an altar honours the gods, but it is more than decoration. Each day set aside a time when you will have privacy. Light the candle, perhaps pour a little mead into the offering bowl. Sit comfortably and contemplate the altar. You may spend this time simply in thinking about the deity, considering the meaning of his or her myths and their relevance to your life. Or you may compose formal prayers on the models given above. Memorizing a brief invocation is a good way to shift gears as you begin. To deepen the experience, chant the name/s of the deity, or intone an appropriate rune.
Close your eyes and build up a mental picture of the god. When you can hold the image easily, repeat your prayer, and wait for reply. You may find it helpful to precede this activitiy by a systematic relaxation of muscle groups, or by slowing and counting your breaths. If you are experienced in pathworking or shamanic journeying, imagine a door leading from your room through a passage to the Midgard that lies within. Using the arrangement of the nine worlds on Yggdrasil as a map, seek the one where your deity is most likely to be found and build up an image of his or her home or temple. Ask to enter, call on the god, and hold your conversation there. An ancient practice was to lie down and wrap oneself in a cloak of hide for such journeying and communication.
With regular practice, you will find it easier to sense the presence of the deity, and eventually you may find that not only is your god always waiting when you journey inward, but that awareness of his/her presence comes to you when you are in a state of "ordinary" consciousness, so that worship becomes companionship. I believe that in the old days those who were known as "friends" of specific gods experienced the relationship in this way. Such an awareness may at times become quite powerful, to the point where it is necessary to explain to the god that you need to be able to work without distraction, and limit the interaction to appropriate times. Do not, for instance, contemplate your god while operating a moving vehicle (unless of course he is a better driver than you are). Carrying on conversations with the god in your head is not pathological so long as you do not do it aloud in public or when you are supposed to be doing other things.
The gods will also tell you what they desire in the way of altar ornaments and offerings. Again, you may find it necessary to explain that times have changed, and items such as gold armrings and fresh horsemeat may be hard to come by. It is reasonable to ask a god who wants something to cooperate by helping you to find/pay for it. In many ways, if an active relationship is to endure, common sense and courtesy are required on both sides.
However authentic we would wish to be, unless one lives on a farm and has mastered the skills involved in humanely butchering an animal (see discussion above), blood sacrifice is not an opportunity for the contemporary Heathen. However, in addition to the sumbel, offerings can be made in a number of ways. When one is holding a feast (or any family celebration) a portion should be set out for the house-spirit (who lives in a stone by the stove or hearth) and/or gods, first in a plate or an offering bowl and then on a hørg of heaped stones or hung on a tree in the yard. In my household we hang appropriately shaped gingerbread cookies on the Yule tree.
For a more elaborate ritual, go to a wilderness picnic area to make your offering. Try for a time and place where you can be reasonably private (such as a mid-week evening). If you ward the place well enough you are unlikely to be disturbed. Build a hørg of heaped stones, place offerings of meat, etc. upon it and pour red wine (such as the Hungarian "Bull's Blood") over it as you make your prayers. If barbecue facilities are available, take a pot and make a stew with barley, onions, and garlic or other herbs, and hearts of whatever animals are available. It is advisable to cut up all the ingredients and partly cook the barley ahead of time. Seethe the stew with beer or wine, and as it bubbles, stir it, chanting runes and spells. When it is done, some can be offered on the hørg and the rest shared. The experience can be amazingly powerful.
Food which is set out in this way invariably disappears, especially if you have pets. This is consistent with Heathen tradition. We are told by ibn Fadlan that when the dogs came out at night and ate the meat, the merchant would say, "Assuredly my Lord is pleased with me and has eaten my offerings". Even in Ásgard, Geri and Freki ate the food given to Odin.
Although there are days (such as Wednesday for Odin) and times (such as Yule or Ostara), when worship is particularly appropriate, honouring the gods is not an activity which should be restricted to one day of the week, or to those times when the community meets for feasting or festivals. Each day, and each activity, can be dedicated to an appropriate deity. Those who work with their gods on a regular basis will find a relationship developing with which they can enrich their lives. The Norse gods are not myths. They are living presences who are eager to interact with us, and will eagerly respond to almost any invitation.
KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson, "Sacrifice in the Troth" (unpublished previously).
Diana L. Paxson, "Worshipping the Gods". Idunna, vol 5, #3, Issue 20, Holymonth 1993 C.E., pp. 4-8).