Monday, May 9, 2011

The Whiskey of Spirit: Viking Religion and Sacred Foods

Part of my work with the Powderhorn Cultural Wellness Center is uncovering the root-culture practices of my ancestors – discovering the ancient rituals and practices that have contributed to who I am today. This research also forms the background of my upcoming fantasy novel, 'In the Company of Stones.'

This post is Part III of a series looking at what the Norse-folk ate; how, when and why they ate it; and the spiritual significance of their foods:

The Raw Barley of Research: The Viking Diet
The Ale of of Culture: Viking Festivals and Food-ways
The Whiskey of Spirit: Viking Religion and Sacred Foods

Eating is one of our most primal connections to the natural world. There are many reasons to eat besides nourishment and pleasure. Food are eaten to mark belonging to a tribe of people, to take in and harbor the spirit strength of an animal, to celebrate or commemorate an aspect of a deity. Foods might also be eaten as physical or spiritual medicine.

Viking-cam photo of ancient ancestress preparing kålrot.

Bodily nourishment may given by raw foodstuffs, but spiritual nourishment is found in the intentional ways that foods are consumed. By eating with full awareness of the plant or animal's intimate connection with nature, and gratitude for the sacrifice that makes our nourishment possible, food is blessed with spiritual potency.

When the Vikings shared food offerings with the gods, the gods accepted the devotion, and 'tasted' the intentions and good will behind them. The gods left the material remains behind for the Norse-folk to relish – in that way, the gods' potency was absorbed into the food, and material substance became spiritualized. The devotional process became an exchange of good will between the gods and man.

Gods like Frey and Freya, Odin and Thor, Heimdall and Frigga were not the only spiritual beings the Vikings worshiped. Unlike our belief that land is merely a source from which to extract wealth, the Norse considered the land to be hallowed and filled with sacred spirits. 

The álfar (elves) and landvættir (land-wights) lived in the wild places, inhabiting boulders, mountains, groves and streams. The álfar were semi-divine, magical beings not bound by physical limitations. They were associated with fertility and healing. The landvættir protected and promoted the flourishing and fertility of the land they belonged to. Norse-folk who passed away were also believed to 'die into the land.' They became ancestor-spirits that lived on in their grave mounds, as another form of landvættir.

I imagine the Norse land-spirits to look like the subjects of Terri Windling's paintings.
The álfar, landvættir and ancestor-spirits were capable of offering protection, luck, guidance, and healing. If offended, they were also capable of inflicting great harm.

To bridge between the spirit world and human community, the Norse offered the gods and spirits food and drink. The Old Norse word for such sacrifice is blót, which meant 'to strengthen.' These gifts of nourishment were freely given to the gods, álfar, landvættir and ancestors, to encourage them to be well disposed toward the living.

This reciprocal relationship between the Norse and the spirit-world should not be mistaken as a form of commercial exchange. Rather, food-offerings were an ongoing practice of hospitality and neighborliness. By sharing gifts of food with their gods and spirits, the Vikings acknowledged forces larger than the human community and strove to be in right relationship with them.

 A Norse chieftain leading a blót to Thor.

As mentioned in the previous post, there were 'reasons and seasons' to the types of foods offered to the gods.

However, no food consumed by the Vikings carried the same freight of spiritual meaning as the sacrificial offering of horse flesh.

In my research into Viking culture, I've found no other practice that seems more alien. Yet this is exactly the kind of culturally specific detail that brings a story alive, and takes the reader into a different world.

Icelandic horse, descendant of Viking fjord horses. Too dang cute to eat, IMHO.

To the Vikings, the horse was a magical and spiritually powerful creature. At a time when roads were rare and land-travel was very difficult, the horse's mobility gave it a supernatural quality. Although not referred to as a land-spirit, in many ways the Viking horse's nature as half-wild and half-domesticated made it a liminal, and spiritually powerful creature.

Its speed and strength made the horse the ideal mediator in and between all of the Nine Worlds of the Norse cosmology, from Asgard (in the heavens) to Hel, the land of the dead. Saga sources even mention horses as the means of transport to Valhalla.

Odin's steed, the mythological horse Sleipnir, was said to travel between Earth and Sky. There are stories in the sagas in which Odin himself rides Sleipnir into Hel. Sleipnir as the 'horse of death' becomes a vehicle of shamanic flight, a horse conveying the shaman from the heavens to the underworld and back.

Runestone depicting Odin riding Sleipnir.

Domestically, the horse was valuable to the Vikings as a pack, plow, and war animal. The ability to afford a horse sacrifice demonstrated you had great wealth and standing in the community. To sacrifice a horse to the gods, land-spirits or ancestors was the greatest gift you could give. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the hoped for gifts in return.

At festivals such as Winter Nights, Jul, or Midsummer, horses were slaughtered in sacrifice and the meat was served to participants. Eating horseflesh served a sacramental function, the power of the horse mediating between the eater and the spirit-world. Its ceremonial consumption strengthened the bond between the community, land-spirits, ancestors and the gods, particularly Odin.

One prominent site of horse sacrifice is Skedemosse on the island of Oland in the Baltic. More than 100 horse remains were preserved in the bog at that site.  Of note is that only the heads and feet of the horses were preserved, attached to the skin.  As several bone fragments show traces of marrow extraction, it is believed the rest of the horses were consumed at sacrificial feasts.

A firsthand account of sacrificial rites in Hedeby, by the Arab traveler Ibrahim al-Tartushi indicates that bits of sacrificial animals were impaled on poles in front of the houses so that neighbors would know a sacrifice had been made. It's likely that these public offerings were the hides, heads and feet of the animal, as found at Skedemosse.

After sacrifice, the hides were hung as an offering.

Horse finds at sacrificial sites show no traces of blows to the head. Some reports describe horse fighting or racing before sacrifice, which roused the heart. Death would have been by stabbing and exsanguination, the blood collected in a vessel. As described in Heimskringla, a bundle of twigs would be dipped in the collected blood which was then sprinkled on the altar, the house or ship, as well as on the participants in the rite.

There are no records describing the emotions of Viking participants in horse sacrifice and blots. It is difficult to understand how my Viking ancestors steeled themselves to perform such “awe-full” deeds. I can only try to imagine the seriousness of the undertaking, the liminal sense of stepping outside of ordinary reality into Sacred Time, the feeling of 'taking in' the power of such a magical creature, the sense of holy sanctity involved with receiving the protection of the horse's blood.

In contrast, 21st C arm-chair Vikings who shout 'Meat! Meat! Meat!' when they come to the table fail to realize that for them to eat, a living creature must die. For them, eating is profane consumption, not sacred communion.

There were social and political implications to diet as well. Diet can say 'who we are NOT,' as well as 'who we are.'

Our own culture's refusal to eat horse meat is not that dissimilar to the Muslim or Jewish avoidance of pork. In all three cases, the refusal of a food is connected to a religious taboo.

During the process of Christianizing the Germanic peoples, in 732 A.D. Pope Gregory III forbid the eating of horse meat to the newly converted. The practice had been a Heathen sacrificial rite, and was now taboo for Christians. Diet promptly became a determiner of religious identity. Those who ate horse meat were Heathen and proud of it, and those who did not, were Christian.

In the Saga of Hakon the Good, the Christian King Hakon attempted to avoid the sacred horse sacrifice. But the Heathen farmers he ruled over pushed back. They believed the horse sacrifice and feast was necessary to ensure the protection and health of their land, and was necessary to confirm Hakon's status as King. The farmers withheld their fealty until the Hakon acceded to their demands, and ate a piece of horse liver.

Although horse meat has been touted as a sweet, rich, superlean, and soft meat, closer to beef than venison, the taboo against eating it carries down to this day in most English speaking countries. Eating horse meat has even become abhorrent. Horses are viewed as pets, working animals, and intelligent companions – and also sentimentalized in a way that would be as alien to the Vikings as horse sacrifice is to us.

Our identities as a people are implicit in our diets.

There is a marked cultural difference between a people who must beseech the spirits of the land to yield up the means to survive, and a people for whom eating is a profane act, who simply take whatever they want from the land.

For the Vikings, offerings of food to the spirit world sanctified what was consumed. Food offerings were a reaffirmation of their connection to the ancestors, their gods, and the land itself.

If you want to know more, here are some of the sources I've relied on for these posts:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Ale of of Culture: Viking Festivals and Food-ways.

This is the second of three posts concerning the Viking-era foods research begun for my upcoming fantasy novel, “In the Company of Stones.” I believe that the material culture of a People says as much about them as written records. And I've come to understand the culture of my own Nordic Family of Origin much more clearly in the process.

I've discovered that food is so much more than mere fuel. It's a very primal thing, connected to our deepest natures. Refined by the processes used to cook it, and the ways and reasons it is eaten, food and drink express cultural values.

Celebrations where food is eaten in community strengthen the bonds between individuals. Viking noblewoman presenting an ale-horn with drink to oath-bound warriors, a bonding rite.

 The Norse diet was tied both to the seasons and to the yearly calendar of their religious festivals. When specific foods are eaten in a seasonally defined cycle, those foods express culture. They become foodways.

In Minnesota, we have our own ritual food-ways, our own seasonal festivals celebrated with seasonal foods. In August, it's the State Fair ritual of eating anything-you-can-get-on-a-stick. (I've even eaten alligator that way.) In November, Thanksgiving brings us pumpkin pie, cranberries and roast turkey. Christmas holidays bring Christmas cookies, egg-nog, and either turkey or ham. Our February Valentine's ritual involves chocolates. May is the time for fresh greens straight out of the garden, and fish after Fishing Opener. And the 4th of July is a barbecue festival.

If you compare our own ritual food-ways with those of the Vikings, it's much easier to understand the rhythm of the 8th century culinary calendar.

The Viking food-cycle began with the festival of Winter Nights, a seasonal turning point that occurs in mid to late October. It is the last harvest festival, and the first of the ancestor festivals. Winter Nights marked a time of turning inward to the community and re-connecting with the deceased.

By the onset of winter, the sheep milking season has run its course. Since it takes feed and grain to overwinter animals, Norse-folk had to decide how many cattle and sheep they could afford to feed when pasture wasn't available. The rest were slaughtered, smoked or pickled for winter storage. At this time, animals were also sacrificed as a way of asking the Elder Kin (Norse Gods) and protective ancestors for a good winter season.

The blood of the sacrificed animals was collected and used to ritually sprinkle the altars and people in a ceremony called a blót (pronounced 'bloat'). The meat was then ritually shared in communal feasting.

(Picture of the Lofotr Viking Center. This is site is where I draw most of my inspiration for Halfdan's Hall. Some day I hope to visit here.)

Once harvest season ended, the time of eating stored foods began. It included pickled or smoked meats reconstituted in stews with peas or beans or root vegetables and herbs (split pea soup with smoked ham, anyone?); both sweet and savory porridge; skyr and cheese; and barley flatbreads.

The Nordic winter diet was also heavy on dried fish.

Cod drying at Lofoten.

The next major festival season was Jul (pronounced as Yule), at the time when the sun is least visible. It marked the time when the sun begins to return – the Midwinter Solstice. During Jul, food offerings were made to the Elder Kin and ancestors, asking for good crops in the following year.

Since pigs were slaughtered from November to December, Jul feasts included pork. The traditional English 'Boar's Head' feast is a continuation of the Norse sacrifice of a pig to Freyr, the god of the harvest, planting, growing and fertility. This gift of food was meant to implore Freyr to grant an easy winter and a favorable new year.

 Freyr, with his many attributes.
Many Jul practices have continued on into our time, such as eating ham at Christmas, or gifting each other with special foods. In my family, gifts of chocolates, walnuts and oranges still arrive in my Christmas stocking. Some families still leave out a plate of cookies for Santa the Jolly old Elf on Christmas Eve – a holdover of the Viking food-offerings to the land-spirits for good luck in the new year.

The further out from harvest season, the leaner the Vikings ate. As winter wore on, less fats were available to season food, and the more heavily dishes relied on fillers. Without enough nourishing, high-energy foods, winter could become a lean time of hunger and famine. Then foods like the inner bark of birch trees might be pounded into flour, and used to extend meals. A fortunate, and well run homestead would have laid in enough foods to sustain everyone through winter.

 Lean and Hungry Vikings Looking for Fresh Meat

As winter waned and summer approached, many different minor festivals were held in parts of the Viking world. This time marked a transition point, the end of the ancestor festivals, and the first of the agricultural festivals. One such was the 'Charming of the Plow' – blessing the plow used to furrow the fields. Some would plow a loaf of bread into the fields for luck and as a gift to the land spirits, asking their blessing on the crops.

With spring, the Norse diet began to shift from the consumption of stored foods to fresh grown or fresh caught food. The laying season for domestic fowl and wild birds was spring and summer, so eggs became available. With the end of winter storms and bad ice conditions, fish could be fresh caught. The first of the cold weather greens like cabbage would come in. Winter stores of smoked or dried meats would dwindle at the same time that hunting waterfowl, and fishing became easier.

By Midsummer grain stores and flat-bread made from the previous harvest would be running low. Mineral rich greens like nettles and lambs-quarters, and treats like berries would be added to the spring diet, as well as early bean crops such as broad beans.

In May, sheep's milk becomes available after lambing season. Available...but not necessarily easy to get.

Four horned sheep, introduced to the Hebrides by Viking settlers.

The third major turning point of the year was Midsummer Festival, when the Norse-folk made wishes for a good harvest of barley, rye and oats. This was a victory feast, a celebration in hopes that the Viking entrepreneurial activities of trading and raiding should bear fruit as well.

As the year turns, we come back around to the first of the harvest festivals, and Loaf Feast -- the time when the grain comes in. This is the time of abundance, the time when the diet is the most varied. Apples, hazelnuts and walnuts are harvested, the winter's store of flat-breads baked anew, and porridge grains are fresh and plentiful.
You can imagine how the character of the Vikings as a People was shaped by their food-ways. Awareness of the seasons and their affect on the diet led the Vikings to plan ahead for lean times. The need to exercise foresight and creativity to insure full bellies shaped Viking culture just as surely as easy, fast and universal access to foods shapes our own.

In harsh northern climes, the Viking virtue of Hospitality was paramount. You shared what you had with guests as a form of mutual aid. Mutuality and reciprocation ensured your own survival in times of trouble.

Nordic mutuality is a trait that found later expression in many places, including formation of upper midwestern farmers cooperatives in the early 20th century. The ancient necessity to cooperate and insure each others survival continues to find expression in today's Scandinavian welfare model economies. (Norway has been rated as having the highest level of Human Development by the U.N.)

Even today, no woman of Scandinavian descent will allow a guest to cross their threshold without asking 'can I get you something?' The Viking virtue of Hospitality still holds sway.

In each case, cultural patterns are an outgrowth of ancient, land-based foodways.

The next, and final post in this series will be on the connection between foods and spirituality in Viking culture. I'll see you then.