Rites & Practices

Heathen groups are typically called kindreds or hearths, or alternately sometimes as fellowships, tribes, or garths. These are small groups, often family units, and usually consist of between five and fifteen members. They are often bound together by oaths of loyalty, with strict screening procedures regulating the admittance of new members. Prospective members may undergo a probationary period before they are fully accepted and welcomed into the group, while other groups remain closed to all new members. Heathen groups are largely independent and autonomous, although they typically network with other Heathen groups, particularly in their region. There are other followers of the religion who are not affiliated with such groups, operating as solitary practitioners, with these individuals often remaining in contact with other practitioners through social media. A 2015 survey found that the majority of Heathens identified as solitary practitioners, with Northern Europe constituting an exception to this; here, the majority of Heathens reported involvement in groups.

Priests are often termed godhi, while priestesses are gydhja, adopting Old Norse terms meaning "god-man" and "god-woman" respectively, with the plural term being gothar. These individuals are rarely seen as intermediaries between practitioners and deities, instead having the role of facilitating and leading group ceremonies and being learned in the lore and traditions of the religion. Many kindreds believe that anyone can take on the position of priest, with members sharing organisational duties and taking turns in leading the rites. In other groups, it is considered necessary for the individual to gain formal credentials from an accredited Heathen organisation in order to be recognized as a priest. In a few groups—particularly those of the early 20th century which operated as secret societies—the priesthood is modeled on an initiatory system of ascending degrees akin to Freemasonry.

Heathen rites often take place in non-public spaces, particularly in a practitioner's home. In other cases, Heathen places of worship have been established on plots of land specifically purchased for the purpose; these can represent either a hörg, which is a sanctified place within nature like a grove of trees, or a hof, which is a wooden temple. The Heathen community has made various attempts to construct hofs in different parts of the world. In 2014 the Ásaheimur Temple was opened in Efri Ás, Skagafjörður, Iceland, while in 2014 a British Heathen group called the Odinist Fellowship opened a temple in a converted 16th-century chapel in Newark, Nottinghamshire. Heathens have also adopted archaeological sites as places of worship. For instance, British practitioners have assembled for rituals at the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire, and the White Horse Stone in Kent. Swedish Heathens have done the same at Gamla Uppsala, and Icelandic practitioners have met at Þingvellir.

Heathen groups assemble for rituals in order to mark rites of passage, seasonal observances, oath takings, rites devoted to a specific deity, and for rites of need. These rites also serve as identity practices which mark the adherents out as Heathens. Strmiska noted that in Iceland, Ásatrú rituals had been deliberately constructed in an attempt to recreate or pay tribute to the ritual practices of pre-Christian Icelanders, although there was also space in which these rituals could reflect innovation, changing in order to suit the tastes and needs of contemporary practitioners. During religious ceremonies, many adherents choose to wear clothing that imitates the styles of dress worn in Iron Age and Early Medieval Northern Europe, sometimes termed "garb". They also often wear symbols indicating their religious allegiance. The most commonly used sign among Heathens is Mjölnir, or Thor's hammer, which is worn as a pendant, featured in Heathen art, and used as a gesture in ritual. It is sometimes used to express a particular affinity with the god Thor, although is also often used as a symbol of Heathenism as a whole, in particular representing the resilience and vitality of the religion. Another commonly used Heathen symbol is the valknut, used to represent the god Odin or Woden.

Blót & Sumbel

The most important religious rite for Heathens is called blót, which constitutes a ritual in which offerings are provided to the gods. Blót typically takes place outdoors, and usually consists of an offering of mead, which is contained within a bowl. The gods are invoked and requests expressed for their aid, as the priest uses a sprig or branch of an evergreen tree to sprinkle mead onto both statues of the deities and the assembled participants. This procedure might be scripted or largely improvised. Finally, the bowl of mead is poured onto a fire, or onto the earth, as a final libation to the gods. Sometimes, a communal meal is held afterward; in some groups this is incorporated as part of the ritual itself. In other instances, the blót is simpler and less ritualized; in this case, it can involve a practitioner setting some food aside, sometimes without words, for either gods or wights. Some Heathens perform such rituals on a daily basis, although for others it is a more occasional performance. Aside from honoring deities, communal blóts also serve as a form of group bonding.

In Iron Age and Early Medieval Northern Europe, the term blót was at times applied to a form of animal sacrifice performed to thank the deities and gain their favor. Such sacrifices have generally proved impractical for most modern practitioners or altogether rejected, due in part to the fact that skills in animal slaughter are not widely taught, while the slaughter of animals is regulated by government in Western countries. In 2007 Strmiska noted that a "small but growing" number of Heathen practitioners in the U.S. had begun performing animal sacrifice as a part of blót. Groups who perform such sacrifices typically follow the procedure outlined in the Heimskringla: the throat of the sacrificial animal is slashed with a sharp knife, and the blood is collected in a bowl before being sprinkled onto both participants of the rite and statues of the gods. Animals used for this purpose have included poultry as well as larger mammals like sheep and pigs, with the meat then being consumed by those attending the rite. Some practitioners have made alterations to this procedure: Strmiska noted two American Heathens who decided to use a rifle shot to the head to kill the animal swiftly, a decision made after they witnessed a blót in which the animal's throat was cut incorrectly and it slowly died in agony; they felt that such practices would have displeased the gods and accordingly brought harm upon those carrying out the sacrifice. Heathen groups that explicitly reject animal sacrifice include the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið.

Another common ritual in Heathenry is sumbel, also spelled symbel, a ritual drinking ceremony in which the gods are toasted. Sumbel often takes place following a blót. In the U.S., the sumbel commonly involves a drinking horn being filled with mead and passed among the assembled participants, who either drink from it directly, or pour some into their own drinking vessels to consume. During this process, toasts are made, as are verbal tributes to gods, heroes, and ancestors. Then, oaths and boasts (promises of future actions) might be made, both of which are considered binding on the speakers due to the sacred context of the sumbel ceremony. According to Snook, the sumbel has a strong social role, representing "a game of politicking, of socializing, cementing bonds of peace and friendship and forming new relationships" within the Heathen community. During her ethnographic research, Pizza observed an example of a sumbel that took place in Minnesota in 2006 with the purpose of involving Heathen children; rather than mead, the drinking horn contained apple juice, and the toasting accompanied the children taping pictures of apples to a poster of a tree that symbolized the apple tree of Iðunn from Norse mythology.

Seiðr & Galdr

One religious practice sometimes found in Heathenry is seiðr, which has been described as "a particular shamanic trance ritual complex", although the appropriateness of using "shamanism" to describe seiðr is debatable. Contemporary seiðr developed during the 1990s out of the wider Neo-Shamanic movement, with some practitioners studying the use of trance-states in other faiths, such as Umbanda, first. A prominent form is high-seat or oracular seiðr, which is based on the account of Guðriðr in Eiríks saga. Although such practices differ between groups, oracular seiðr typically involves a seiðr-worker sitting on a high seat while songs and chants are performed to invoke gods and wights. Drumming is then performed to induce an altered state of consciousness in the practitioner, who goes on a meditative journey in which they visualize travelling through the world tree to the realm of Hel. The assembled audience then provide questions for the seiðr-worker, with the latter offering replies based on information obtained in their trance-state. Some seiðr-practitioners make use of entheogenic substances as part of this practice, although others explicitly oppose the use of any such mind-altering drugs.

Not all Heathens practice seiðr; given its associations with both the ambiguity of sexuality and gender and the gods Odin and Loki in their unreliable trickster forms, many on the Heathen movement's right wing disapprove of it. Although there are heterosexual male practitioners, seiðr is largely associated with women and gay men, and a 2015 survey of Heathens found that women were more likely to have engaged in it than men. One member of the Troth, Edred Thorsson, developed forms of seiðr which involved sex magic utilizing sadomasochistic techniques, something which generated controversy in the community. Part of the discomfort that some Heathens feel toward seiðr surrounds the lack of any criteria by which the community can determine whether the seiðr-worker has genuinely received divine communication, and the fear that it will be used by some practitioners merely to bolster their own prestige.

Galdr is another Germanic Neopagan practice involving chanting or singing. As part of a galdr ceremony, runes or rune poems are also sometimes chanted, in order to create a communal mood and allow participants to enter into altered states of consciousness and request communication with deities. Some contemporary galdr chants and songs are influenced by Anglo-Saxon folk magical charms, such as Æcerbot and the Nine Herbs Charm. These poems were originally written in a Christian context, although practitioners believe that they reflect themes present in pre-Christian, shamanistic religion, and thus re-appropriate and "Heathanize" them for contemporary usage.

Some Heathens practice forms of divination using runes; as part of this, items with runic markings on them might be pulled out of a bag or bundle, and read accordingly. In some cases, different runes are associated with different deities, one of the nine realms, or aspects of life. It is common for Heathens to utilize the Common Germanic Futhark as a runic alphabet, although some practitioners instead adopt the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc or the Younger Futhark. Some non-Heathens also use runes for divinatory purposes, with books on the subject being common in New Age bookstores. Some Heathens practice magic, although this is not regarded as an intrinsic part of Heathenry because it was not a common feature of pre-Christian rituals in Iron Age and Early Medieval Germanic Europe.

Festivals

Different Germanic Neopagan groups celebrate different festivals according to their cultural and religious focus. The most widely observed Heathen festivals are Winter Nights, Yule, and Sigrblót, all of which were listed in his Heimskringla and are thus of ancient origin. The first of these marks the start of winter in Northern Europe, while the second marks Midwinter, and the last marks the beginning of summer. Additional festivals are also marked by Heathen practice throughout the year. These often include days which commemorate individuals who fought against the Christianization of Northern Europe, or who led armies and settlers into new lands. Some Heathen groups hold festivals dedicated to a specific deity.

Some Heathens celebrate the eight festivals found in the Wheel of the Year, a tradition that they share with Wiccans and other contemporary Pagan groups. Others celebrate only six of these festivals, as represented by a six-spoked Wheel of the Year. The use of such festivals is criticized by other practitioners, who highlight that this system is of modern, mid-20th century origin and does not link with the original religious celebrations of the pre-Christian Germanic world.

Heathen festivals can be held on the same day each year, although they are often celebrated by Heathen communities on the nearest available weekend, so that those practitioners who work during the week can attend. During these ceremonies, Heathens often recite poetry to honor the deities, which typically draw upon or imitate the Early Medieval poems written in Old Norse or Old English. Mead or ale is also typically drunk, with offerings being given to deities, while fires, torches, or candles are often lit. There are also regional meetings of Heathens known as Things. At these, religious rites are performed, while workshops, stalls, feasts, and competitive games are also present. In the U.S., there are two national gatherings, Althing and Trothmoot.