Writing and Working Rites
Poetry fulfilled many functions among our spiritual forebears. It told of heroic deeds, kept our laws, was used in charms, and no doubt formed a part of religious rites. We can tell as much from the Anglo-Saxon "Æcerbot" (Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 173 ff.), which fulfills the function of poetry as much as it does that of a charm. Good-sounding verse within a ritual not only makes for a rite that is pleasing to the ear, but one that actually packs power. Our spiritual forebears thought poetry was magical, and that the better the poetry was, the more power it contained. However, before you begin writing verses for a rite, you should ask the following questions: is this right for a High Blessing, and if so, which one? The poetic symbolism for Yule will differ from that for Midsummer. Is this rite to be for all the Ases and Wanes, or for a specific god? A blessing for Ing must be worded differently than one for Frigga or Thor. Is this rite for yourself or a kindred? Personal rites can afford to be more personal, more exclusionary. These questions and others have to be answered as you formulate what you wish to do with a rite. Once you know what you wish to accomplish, you are ready to compose the rite. It is best when composing blessings for you to use the outline in A Book of Troth or one of those given here. Fundamentally the outlines are the same, except for the insertion of a bede (prayer) following the call. The outline is as follows:
A slightly different form is given by Gamlinginn's "Nine-Point Blót Plan", thus:
The participants gather and arrange themselves.
The area is warded (made spiritually safe).
An explanation of the purpose of the ceremony is given.
A signal is sent to those the ceremony is to honour.
The mead (or other beverage) is made holy.
The participants and the altar are sprinkled with mead (or other beverage)
Each participant gets a small quantity of mead (or other beverage). Each swallows a bit and pours the rest into the blótbolli (blessing bowl).
The mead in the blótbolli is poured onto the ground.
The area is desanctified, and the ceremony is ended.
The verses for each step of a blessing must be handled differently, but first one must know how to compose poetic verse in general. Most Trothers feel traditional alliterative verse (verse using words whose initial consonants are the same) written in Germanic metres is best for rites. The problem with this is that most people are daunted by the difficulty of composing alliterative verse in the old Germanic metres. They shouldn't be. When most of us think of alliterative poetry, we think of Beowulf, the Elder Edda, or skaldic poetry. This brings to mind how scholars state that such works must have been difficult to compose (though, as seen in Orkneyinga saga among other sources, there were folk who could make very good skaldic poetry off the tops of their heads, and it is the most difficult form - KHG). First off, the men that first sang Beowulf, the Eddic poems, and so forth were the Lord Byrons and T.S. Eliots of their time. Naturally, we cannot hope to duplicate their efforts in the old tongue, much less in the hybrid child of Anglo-Saxon and Latin (that's to say, English). Second, alliterative verse varied in quality. The Anglo-Saxon charms are not at all as well-done as the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, which is not as well-done as Beowulf. So when writing verse for blessings or other rites, you should try as best you can to catch the flavour of Germanic poetry, while realizing that you can't duplicate the ancient masterpieces (the Warder of the Lore, who has seen it done - and not even by a Heathen, but by a christian scholar of Germanic heroic literature - begs to differ with this. It is my opinion that alliterative verse which rivals that of our elder kinfolk can be written in Saxon English - KHG).
The main feature that distinguishes elder Germanic poetry from modern poetry is the use of alliteration or stave rhyme rather than end rhyme. In alliterative poetry that stress or emphasis usually falls on words that alliterate (begin with the same consonant). This is done via the poetic metre or rhythm. Metre measures the number of stressed and unstressed syllables of a line of poetry, as well as when and where they appear. The most basic metre to alliterative Germanic poetry is Old Lore Metre. It is best known from Beowulf, but was once the standard metre for all alliterative poems in the Germanic tongues. Old Lore Metre has two half-lines linked by words that alliterate in each half-line. Each half-line consists of at least two stressed syllables and a variable number of unstressed syllables. The last stressed syllable of the last half-line may not alliterate, in Old Lore Metre or any other.
Old Lore Metre is the easiest of the old metres to use in modern English (as well as in the elder tongues), and sounds quite dramatic when spoken. An example in modern English is a translation of the first line of the rune-verse Daeg (Dagaz) of the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem. Stressed syllables are marked by bold type, while the alliterating consonants are underlined.
Day is the drighten's herald dear to man.
As can be seen above, this metre is easy to work with, and can produce verses with a variety of rhythms (Ruth P.M. Lehmann's translation of Beowulf , which was done with the intention of following the metre of the original as closely as possible, offers an excellent example for those interested in writing their own poetry. See "Hearth Reading List" under "Book-Hoard" - KHG). Other metres, such as the Eddic ljóðaháttr ("song-metre"), are harder to work with. Ljóðaháttr alternates between two half-lines and one full line, with stanzas of four half-lines and two full lines. The half-lines are like those of Old Lore metre, while the full lines must have three stresses, of which two alliterate. "Hávamál", for the most part, is written in ljóðaháttr, thus:
A ring-oath I know / Óðinn has sworn,
how shall his troth be trusted?
He swindled Suttungr / took symbel from him,
and Gunnlöð was left to greet ('weep').
Similar to ljóðaháttr was galdralag (enchantment-order), which works in much the same way as ljóðaháttr, except that it repeats one of the full lines (sometimes with minor variations) at the end of a stanza. There are also skaldic metres used by the Norse (either a late development or, as the archaic vocabulary suggests, possibly survivals of a Heathen ritual tradition which was lost in English and Continental poetry - KHG), but these are quite difficult to use (for information, see the "Skáldskaparmál" and "Hattatal" section of the Prose Edda).
A modern alliterative metre is what I call alliterative free verse. This metre is used by many Trothers, and is characterized by full lines containing two to three words that alliterate, but otherwise follow no set pattern. It is extremely easy to use due to its free form.
What metre one uses is important as the metre determines the rhythm and feel of the verses. A rhythm that is slow and halting will give a different feeling from one that flows smoothly. This can be seen by comparing Byron's "She Walks in Beauty Like the Night" to Poe's "Annabelle Lee". Even if you did not understand English, you could tell which poet was in love and which was mourning the loss of someone he loved.
It also helps to build the right imagery in ritual verse. Imagery and symbolism are as much a part of poetry as metre, and can help a rite achieve its purpose. In English, as in the other Germanic languages, the bulk of imagery rests not on adjectives and adverbs, but on nouns and verbs. For example, consider the following sentences:
The rain pounded on the sidewalk.
It rained hard on the sidewalk.
Which sentence produces the image of a sidewalk during a cloudburst? The first sentence does, as the second lacks the power worthy of a cloudburst, or even a hard rain. In the same way, "The knight swooned at his Lady's touch," contains stronger imagery than "The knight felt light-headed at his Lady's touch". Also a part of imagery are such literary devices as simile, where one compares two things that have little in common with the word "like" ("sparkles like sun-beams from her eyes"); metaphor, a phrase that creates an identity between two different things ("all the world's a stage"); and puns, plays on words that sound or are spelled alike (mostly used for jokes now, but some great poets have used puns in deadly earnest - as for instance when Lady Macbeth, planning to frame Duncan's guards with the blood from the murdered king's wounds, says, "If he do bleed, I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal, for it shall seem their guilt"). While such literary devices are best used sparingly, they can come in handy when building up imagery.
One device of our spiritual forebears was the practise of using heiti, or by-names of the gods. Many of these survived in Old Norse, and it is also believed that a few may have survived even in Anglo-Saxon (albeit adapted to Christian use). These can be collected from the Eddas and even a few Anglo-Saxon poems. A few examples in modern English are: Witty Drighten, Grima ("Masked One"), and Sige-Father ("Victory-Father") for Woden; High Thunderer or Goat-God for Thor; the World's God for Frey; and Cat-Goddess for Freya. One can even create new heiti, such as the "Wise Queen" for Frigga. Similar to heiti are kennings, which are symbolic names for objects or people, used to create imagery, to avoid naming the subject directly, or to maintain alliteration. A kenning for the sea, for example, is the "wet way", while a king might be called "giver of gold". An Anglo-Saxon phrase from the Nine Herbs Charm which is sometimes thought to be a kenning for runes is "glory twigs". Many translations of the old poetry contain kennings in modern English, or you may wish to create your own (for ex.: "wand of words" for ink-pen). Both kennings and heiti can be used to avoid excessive repetition of names, to call on different aspects of the deities you wish to invoke, or to build a unified and possibly quite elaborate set of images for your rite.
Many also believe that our spiritual forebears differentiated between the speech of gods and the speech of men. Support for this is found in Alvíssmál, in which words for different objects are given in the tongues of various dwellers in the Nine Worlds (gods, etins, alfs, humans, the folk of Hel-Home, and so forth). Much as we say a word is "poetic", our forebears might well have said that it was used by the gods. Today this is reflected by the use of words that are of Germanic descent (see also "Saxon English" in the Word-Hoard - KHG) in Troth ritual verse. There are several good reasons for this. For one, words with Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon roots pack more auditory power: to quote E.B. White, "Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin". Second, the first words learned by children are of Germanic descent, and these same words form the 100 most-used words in the language - so they are the most familiar words to native speakers of English. Finally, words with Germanic etymologies come from our world-view, and therefore express our beliefs best. Unfortunately, many good Saxon and Norse words have fallen out of use completely, or don't readily come to mind. Fortunately, many, many such words are preserved in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED with its mammoth volumes has preserved native words for honour (ar), altar (weved), victory (sige), and hundreds if not thousands of others. Many translations of the old lore also use words of Germanic descent (cf. the famous, or infamous, "Hollanderese" of the best-known translation of the Poetic Edda! - KHG), as do Tolkien's works. Many Trothers keep lists of archaic words for use in poetry, and this is probably a good idea. After all, if the gods have a poetic language, who's to say that they don't find Latin crude and vulgar?
Once you have a good idea of how to compose Germanic poetry, you can tackle writing a blessing. Each part of a blessing has a different aim, and so each part of a blessing must have verses specially tailored to it. The aim of hallowing, for instance, is to mark off holy space, ward that space, and give the blessing a suitable starting point. Therefore, the verses of a hallowing rite require the invocation of protective powers (such as Thor's hammer) or warding wights (various gods and spirits as appropriate), while the actions of a hallowing rite require going to the cardinal points of the compass, making a protective circle, or saining (tracing) warding signs (the Hammer, runes, and so forth). Naturally, the verses of a hallowing rite must be in sympathy with the actions of the rite. You would not invoke Mjöllnir without saining the Hammer-Sign, for example. Likewise, when drawing a circle, you may wish to use such phrases as "let this circle ward us as Asgard wards the gods". Since part of a hallowing rite's function is to ward the holy site, it may need to be repetitive if going to the cardinal points (like Thorsson's Hammer Rite from FUTHARK, for example), or have verses that are "flowing" if drawing a circle. However, often the best hallowing rites are simple, like the Hammer Rite (note: hallowing rites that tend towards the lengthy, such as a full runic circle - especially if the folk there are not magicians or intense mystics - risk losing the interest of the celebrants and thus lowering, rather than raising, the energy level - KHG).
The reading section of a blessing should be chosen from a part of the old lore (the Eddas, sagas, etc.) that is consistent with the blessing's aims (again, try not to choose passages that are too lengthy. Full Eddic poems are too long for most people to sit through, especially if the reader has difficulty pronouncing Old Norse names - KHG). And the rede should be composed to tie the reading into the blessing, as well as to state the reason(s) for and aim(s) of the rite (for ex.: "We are gathered together for Midsummer"). The rede can easily be the most poetic part of the blessing, as part of its aim is to ensure that those gathered are in a ritual mindset.
The next part of a blessing, the call or halsing, should sound like an invocation, for that is what it truly is. Each deity being fained should be called by name, a heiti, and a known deed or attribute from mythology: (as: "Thunor, Goat-God, he that slew Þrymr") and a simple phrase like "we call thee" or "be with us here". The opening lines of the call can be a general hailing of the gods, as: "Gods of our forebears, fare here from afar". Overall, the call should be simple, majestic, and to the point.
The bede or prayer should be extemporized, though it should consist of heiti or other formulaic elements in its recitation (traditional poetry could be spontaneously composed swiftly and well precisely because a poet knew a great many such formulas which could be plugged into the appropriate place - KHG). In the bede, thanks may be given to the gods, requests made, praise given. Above all else, it should come from the heart, and be spontaneous.
The next part of a blessing - the loading - can, like the rede, afford to be a poetic tour de force with its ultimate aim being the "loading" of might into the gift being given. The verses of the loading should serve to funnel hamingja into the gift, while stating what the gift represents (for ex: "the might and main of those gathered here"). Naturally, the verses of the loading should have a quality of power about them, and therefore should use any and all poetic devices (heiti, kennings, mythic references) available towards achieving that feel of power being loaded into the gift.
The drinking or housel, on the other hand, should be silent: no words need be said. As for the act of blessing itself, it can be a simple, "the blessings and bliss of the gods be on you," as each person is sprinkled. The next part of the blessing rite, the giving or yield, may be simple or complex depending on personal taste. Often, however, a simple "we give this gift to thee" will do. The leaving, too, depends on personal choice. A formula like, "This work is wrought, now let us leave in frith and free right. Let the blessings of the Ases, Wanes, and wights of this world be upon us" works well, though you may choose to have a simpler or more complex one.
Once you have composed the verbal parts of a blessing, other elements may be added such as a procession prior to the blessing complete with drumming (though I prefer silence), seating, and so forth. The decor of the grove or hall should be geared towards the season of the blessing and the gods being fained. Lighting should also be taken into consideration (especially if the rite is going to be read, rather than memorized). Natural lighting (sun, moon, stars) works well, as do candles, torches, and bonfires. Electric light, if toned down with a dimmer switch, can also add to a rite. The godhi or gydhja and their helpers should also plan what actions will be performed during the blessing. The elhaz position (feet together, hands raised upward and slightly spread - standard Ásatrú "prayer-stance") should be assumed by the reader during the rede, call, and loading (if earth-mights are being called on, the root-elhaz position - feet shoulder-width apart, hands by side - or full tree-stance, feet spread and hands raised as for elhaz, may be preferred - KHG). The Hammer-sign should be sained over the gift during the drinking (regardless of the god/esses being called on, as the Hammer is the general sign of hallowing - KHG). Some groups have their members assume the sowilo-stance (see FUTHARK) whenever the speaker assumes the elhaz position. These and movements about the hall, such as during the drinking, must be taken into consideration. Failure to do so can result in the performers of the blessing bumping into each other and creating other disruptive mishaps.
Techniques similar to the ones given here may be used in composing lesser rites such as tree-gifts, land-wight yields, and daily rites. Sumble, on the other hand, must be treated differently due to its set order of elements, and is spoken of elsewhere.
In order to work a rite and work it well, you must understand how the rite works and what it means to accomplish. There is no need even to undertake a rite if its aim is not known. Fortunately, most religious rites in the Troth work on an exchange of main between gods and men, and this is also their usual aim. However, it is also necessary that you have the proper mindset and be able to project that mindset during a rite for it to be effective. There are four tools that you can use to accomplish this: 1) self-control; 2) visualization/perception; 3) vocalization; 4) personal movements.
When talking about magical rites, control of one's emotions and will are often brought up, but alas, with religious rites this is not the case. Yet self-control is as necessary for religious workings as for magical ones. You must approach the gods, forebears, wights, dwarves, elves, dises, and so forth with certain attitudes. To seem distracted, detached, or otherwise preoccupied when approaching hallowed wights is as rude as to do so when visiting mortal friends. Therefore you should feel real love and affection or have a sense of awe when yielding to the gods or doing similar rites. Likewise, you should focus all your mental energy on the rite at hand, whether it be a Great Blessing or a simple prayer. It is important that this "focusing" not be mistaken for concentration. Concentration implies a narrowing of awareness to do intellectual activity. Rather this "focusing" is an outpouring of spiritual power (in the form of affection) towards the gods. This should be reflected in all aspects of a rite to the gods, esp. blessings, and requires that you stay clear of unbelief, wandering thoughts, and emotional disturbances.
Part of self-control, and needful to proper mindset, is the use of visualization, or rather perception. Many works on Troth magic and religious practices emphasize visualization as necessary to working rites. The problem with this is that visualization implies imagining something that is not there. This can lead to self-delusion and empty rites. Rather, what one seeks is perception of what is there. We know our gods, main, and other wights exist, so why not try to see them when they are present. This requires we develop second sight or the sixth sense, but it makes more sense than pretending something's there when, indeed, it is not (note: in magic, visualization actually focuses the worker's might to create the reality of whatever is imaged, which depends chiefly on the worker's will. This is not the desired result in religion, where the consenting presence and friendship of existing Beings is the goal of the working - KHG). Developing such a heightened form of awareness is not easy and requires that you not rely so much on your physical senses. Perhaps the best you can to is try to be aware of spiritual activity, and watch for signs of its manifestation (shadows, changes in light level, cold and warm spots, and so forth). Once you learn to spot such activity, your field of perception will gradually increase with time and practice.
Vocalization forms the core of many rites, and also shapes the route the rite will take. Many good pieces have been written on the singing of galdors, and the importance of singing should not be underestimated, but another type of vocalization (one which those with poor singing voices may use), has been ignored. Poetic performance of ritual verse may be as important as singing those verses. Many scholars believe that our spiritual forebears may have "performed" their heroic poems much like the art of poetic reading (also called oral interpretation, or dramatic reading. The scholar and performer of poetry Dwight Conquergood holds the view that heroic lays were related to heroic boasting, and has said, "It is reasonable to claim their performances were vigorous and highly theatrical". He points to several phrases and words that emphasize a scop'd performance in an Exeter Book riddle and Beowulf (for ex.: the speaker cries out hlude, "loudly"; he may also styrman, "storm, shout, or rage"). If the scop was a dramatic performer, and not just a singer of songs, then one can assume that ritual verse may have been handled similarly. Theories about the use of emotional arousal or play-acting in the rites of some societies may also point to the idea that ritual verse may be performed instead of sung. Some scholars have noted that shamans often assume the appropriate emotions and mindset for their rites (hate for curses, love for fertility charms, and so forth), and manifest these emotions in their voices and actions or mock actions. This opens an important avenue in ritual vocalization for those that cannot sing, and gives them a form as effective as singing, if not more so. By vocalizing the verse of a rite as if it were Shakespeare, the true beauty of a rite may come out. This means, of course, taking advantage of the natural rhythm of verse, rises and falls in volume, dramatic pauses, and whatever else may show the gods our sense of awe and affection for them. It also means using breath control, memorization (memorized rituals are much more effective, dramatically and spiritually, than those that are read - KHG), and training one's voice. A study of poetic performance can help one use such vocalization to its fullest potential.
Tied to vocalization are the physical actions of the performer of the rite. Usually in blessings, these movements are limited to saining the Hammer-sign, assuming the elhaz stance, and sprinkling the participants. These movements should be executed smoothly and gracefully, unless the rite calls for vigorous action. The elhaz stance is best assumed quickly for dramatic effect. Other movements may be added to a rite as needed to enhance its effectiveness. In blessings, the blessing bowl may be raised to the sky before giving it to the gods. Participants may assume the sowilo stance with the slight modification of holding the arms flat, palms against each other, with upper arms resting on the chest. It is vital, however, that every movement be consistent with the rite and the lore.
There are many other aspects of working rites, and most of these are best learned from experience. Rites shouldn't be overly long, nor should they be done too fast. A lot of pageantry often takes away from the true meaning of the rite, while a lack of pageantry often leaves something to be desired. Most important, though, is that rites be performed with love and respect for the gods. Any time such love and respect is lost, rites will seem poorly done.
Swain Wodening, Elder-in-training
Gamlinginn, Elder (9-pt. blót-plan)