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:

1 comment:

  1. I was looking for some information on the Viking consumption of horsemeat and your blog post was perfect – thank you.
    I particularly like the thought of consuming horse as mediating between human and spirit worlds, a sense of the sacred that, as you say, we have now lost. Food has become a commodity rather than a sacrament.
    Again, thanks for the post.