2.3 The Heathen Concept of 'Patron-Gods'

The Christian doctrine of 'giving one's soul back to God,' so that one can receive special personalized favors must have appeared ludicrous or as a perversion to those holding to the concept that the soul resides with the body. Prior to the coming of Christianity, to force the soul out of the gravemound would have only been done in extreme cases where the draugr was haunting or harrassing the community. There are numerous examples of this not only is sagas like the Eyrbyggia Saga and Gisli's Saga but also in later folklore. The process of ridding the community of a 'soul' meant that the 'soul,' i.e. the animated corpse, was raising havoc in the community and that it was a matter of necessity. For the Germanic heathen, retaining the souls of ancestors in the familial gravemound was seen as building the family's foundation of 'luck providers,' especially if those interred had been lucky in life. Emptying the gravemound of souls would have been deemed a disservice, at best, and a death sentence at the worst. Here, then is the heathen's logic:

  1. The process of giving one's soul to the God of the Christians for special favors or personal salvation received during life is, in a sense, the same process that is described in the sagaic literature as an exorcism, a death after death, where the body is removed, decapitated, and burned with the ashes scattered on water, i.e. outside the earth of the family mound: the soul, i.e. the ancestor, is no longer available to the family/ community as a natural resource for luck, wisdom and prosperity. If the view of exorcism during the heathen period was to rid the community of a 'ghost', a minor extension of logic leads us to the idea that voluntarily separating one's soul and giving it away even to the God of the Christian dooms one not only to remain separated from the soul's true home, i.e. the family grave/ the corpse but to place it into 'slavery' as well.
  2. From the heathen's point of view, special favors were granted to communities by gods and powerful men such as dead kings. This was ultimately the purpose of the communal ritual sacrifice. In the early Germanic worldview, an individual's role was to support and defend the honor and integrity of both family and community. Selfish acts such as stealing or hoarding were considered to be despicable acts.

The Germanic heathens were a clannish people in the same manner as their cousins, the Celts, Slavs and Balts, and purely selfish acts were not tolerated well. From this mindset, gaining a personal relationship with a god so that one could obtain special favors in life and personal salvation after death had to have also been viewed as selfish disregard for the sanctity of family and community.

Vilhelm Grönbech in Kultur und Religion der Germanen spends much time defining and describing this worldview in such a way that one is struck by how far modern Anglo-American worldview has moved itself away from its heathen Germanic predecessor.

"If ever this straightforward simplicity, that sought its rallying point in things of common human interest, were justified in any case, it would be in regard to the Germanic peoples. "We find here a community based upon general unity, mutual self-sacrifice and self-denial, and the social spirit. A society, in which every individual, from birth to death, was bound by consideration for his neighbour. The individuals in this community show in all their doings that they are inspired by one passion: the welfare and honour of their kin; and none of the temptations of the world can move them even for a moment to glance aside. They say themselves, that this passion is love. What more natural then, than that we, who from our own lives know love and its power, should begin with what we have in common with these people we are considering? Given this agreement on the essential point, all that appears strange must surely become simple and comprehensible." 

And later when talking of the 'venerated dead,'

"And that which was the free man's mark of nobility, his 'gladness,' went with his luck into the higher existence (i.e. 'into the family gravemound' B. L). One might hear the dead man singing from his harrow or his ship about his wealth and his renown, in verses such as that known to have been sung by the barrow-dweller Asmund of Langaholt. This distinguished man had been buried in his ship, and the family had given with thoughtful care had given him a faithful thrall to share the grave. but this company proving by no means to his taste, he begged to have the grizzler taken out. And then he was heard with the proud boastfulness of life: 'Now, I alone man the ship; room better suits the battle-wont than crowding of base company. I steer my ship and this will long be in the minds of men."'

And in speaking of the 'luck' which flowed from the familial gravemound Grönbech says that

"a man, then, died as his power of life enabled him. The great man of luck slid with a little bump across the reef, and sailed on. Inferiors, poor folk, might find themselves stranded [in life], to sink and to disappear. He who had a great store of soul could, according to human calculations, live forever; the poor in soul peril of using up his stock in this world."

Luck, in the fashion of a fluid, was expected to flow out from the grave back to the living descendents so long as the dead were venerated. The system is simple and straight forward but is, also very difficult to comprehend in the year 2005 CE after many centuries of education in the foreign concepts of dualism and reward/ punishment for the soul after death. The Germanic heathen's view of life and death was simplicity in itself.

According to what is known about social organization in the Scandinavian communities as well as the northern half of Germany, Scotland with its associated island communities, and the Faroes during the Viking era, the individual was viewed, with notable exceptions for those who stood out as heroes, as being but a part of a family-complex and this complex was viewed as being the smallest single, indivisible unit of an entire community. This can be best illustrated by the legal codes of the time which held that if an individual committed a crime, the family was held ultimately responsible and was subject to community judgment. On the other hand, if an individual committed a crime against another family member, unless the commission of the crime affected the entire community, it was held to be a family problem. In the case of the murder of another family member, for example, wergild, could not be legally enforced by the community; there was, consequently, no way to restore honor or frith.

Returning back to the topic at hand, regarding the concept of a spiritual patron, although generally considered to be imprecise data to a large degree, it is known particularly from place-name studies that different cults dominated in specific areas at specific times. It is also known, particularly from sagaic literature, that certain families were devoted to specific gods. This family then functioned as the official intercessor for the entire community and at regular intervals (probably depending on the economic basis of the community as well as by community agreement) the family sacrificed to the specific god.

The role of each person was fairly well delineated within the community. The individual conducting the sacrifice was called the blótsmaðr. According to Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson's research regarding the history of his native Iceland, the goðí was the official elected by the district to oversee the sacrifice and make sure that it met all specifications. Normally, an individual was attached to a specific, usually local, cult headed up by a family whose specialty was to sacrifice according to community-wide accepted terms and who, at least in Iceland, was then overseen by an elected official. Families attended the blót who then consequently received the blessing of the particular god. Individual beliefs were relatively insignificant.

The concept of a 'personal patron' only shows up in Viga-Glúms Saga and since the saga itself seems to have been written late and primarily for a Christian audience, the idea of a personal patron must be viewed with suspicion. The concept of a 'personal patron' certainly does not appear to be consistent with the heathen worldview of the Viking Age and because of this, could, and probably should, be regarded as a Christian interpretation of that particular aspect of the heathen worldview. Social protocol was that those with the fewest social ties were those of the thrall class-in more modern terms, a class of landless, uneducated people whose family has not distinguished itself; those with the finest social ties, were families who had distinguished themselves above peers, understandably these would be 'leaders' in any field of expertise important to the community. The two closest then to the community patron would have been the equivalent of the local king, who held the 'luck of the entire community in his hand, and the family of the blótsman.

One of the most common examples from the sagaic literature is that of Thorolf Mostur-Beard who was a dedicated blótsman Thor. However, the use of Thorolf in this manner of argument shows little regard or understanding for who and what Thorolf was to his community.

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