Within a Sacral Heathen Context: The Case for Ritual Purity
Posted on February 28, 2015
One of the benefits that I’ve recently come across and this is perhaps better known to other practitioners is that, while Heathenry has certain (many) historical deficiencies, Religio Romana and Roman Reconstructionism most certainly does not. The extant writings that we have for historic reconstruction about pagan pre-Christian Germanic peoples are more broadly categorized under a proto-historical narrative – the writings were written about the German tribal practices from the perspective of non-Germans. By the time the Germanic tribes (later kingdoms) began to write about their own histories, they were already heavily Christianized.
Roman ethnographies and histories of non-Romans were the result of personal involvement of the author within Roman affairs. Authors often interjected numerous virtues and incidences of romanitas (“Romanness”) on to the narrative of the peoples that they were speaking. Tacitus and Germania is the prime example of this; despite being an ethnographic work, it was just as much (if not more) of a critique on Roman society. Likewise, when it came to Christian writers, the intersection of interest in an accurate portrayal of pagan history and tradition was usually nonexistent. Bede’s writings in the Ecclesiastical History only intersect fleetingly with Germanic practice, he discarded anything that did not fit in to the triumphalist Christian narrative he was penning. The rest of “The Lore” that forms the corpus of Heathen religious foundation is similarly biased.
While Heathen primary source writings are often through the perspective of another person, often in another cultural context, we do not have this problem when it comes to pagan Roman studies. There exists a veritable treasure trove of Roman material, written throughout the course of history of the pagan Republic and Empire, as well as writings of Christians who rose against those peoples and beliefs. In studying the Cultus Deorum Romanum we have so much of an available source material to study and cross-reference, many times we are faced with an overburdening of sources. The reading list for the Religio Romana is absurdly large, especially since there is a not yet published introductory work for revivalism of the religion.
The difference in existence of source material is such that after a certain point some comparative studies must come in. Of course, comparative studies are methodologies which compare two things in order to glean information between them. It is a common practice in Anglo-Saxon pagan mythology and practice, where it is often compared (in varying quantities) with later Norse practices and lore. This practice is not without its failings, of course, but provide a useful clue which can lead towards a greater understanding. Between the Germanic and Roman paganisms there is something to be said about the value of comparative studies – the basic similarities in their fundamental practices behoove a consideration. I believe there is some merit in considering an augmentation of Germanic practice with some of the basics of Roman practice, not as a syncretic or synthetic contemporary blending, but as a methodology for exploration.
At their most basic, Roman and Germanic practice focus on home practice, probably stemming from their shared heritage as an Indo-European culture and that, by in large, polytheism reflected the day-to-day more than any strict deific observance. It is generally understood that the individual’s day, the impacts of daily life, such as agarian cycles, a cultus of the ancestors, and local spiritual veneration took precedence over persistent worship of the cultus of the gods. Genus loci, Lares, and Manes would have been the go-to for every person of any social standing. Roman religion was informed by their position in society, with religious preferences and cultic aspirations drawn from that position. Otherwise, the foremost practice of important was household practice. Neglecting it would certainly bring ruin, more than any lack of devotion to the gods.
Contemporary Heathenry has grown to pace an emphasis on similar forms of household and local practice. A common metric is “Ancestors, Wights, Gods” in terms of importance of worship, although this is not one that I personally share. The understanding is that the individuals family, their ancestors, and their local wights will be more interested in the minutiae of the lives of their descendants/stewards.
Okay, so why bring up the idea of ritual purity within a Heathen context, and then veer off in to a comparison with Roman practice? I have written in the past about being more naturally aligned with the Roman calendar of practice than with, say, the traditional calendar focused on a more agricultural history. The month of Feburary is a month given over to concepts of religious and ritual purity in the Roman system, which got me started on this thought train earlier in the month. There were festivals, of course, but the majority of them dealt with the purification of the individual, a concept, or a rekindling of a purified state of being in preparation for the Roman new year on March 1st.
Roman religion is indescribably big on praxis, eschewing the concept of orthodoxy. There are proscribed rules and rituals that one must follow, regardless of general belief. These were, again, largely informed by the position one held in society. While I do not hold that belief is wholly disconnected from these systems, as some would assert , I would say that the emphasis is arguably placed more on practice than what is considered more or less “correct” belief.
Browsing through the sources dealing with the purification of Roman citizens this month has lead me to consider whether pre-Christian Germanic pagans had concepts of ritual purity, whether or not it would be possible to identify historic ones, and whether or not the development of contemporary purification practices would be beneficial to us as modern practitioners.
I do not, honestly, see why such a practice would not be beneficial. Contemporary Heathenry has identified, through studies of linguistic and cultural topics, a fairly defined concept of what constitutes a “holy space”, what informs “sacredness”, and an establishment of clearly defined borders which separate this sacred space from the mundane (profane) space. It would stand to reason that, in an effort to prevent the intrusion of the profane within the sacred spaces, where the numinous might exist, there would be an acceptable process of ritual purification that one might undergo.
Halig is employed within Anglo-Saxon Heathenry as the word for “holy”, a representation of the Old English understanding of health, well-being, and wholeness of body and mind. The Old English word Wih, “temple” or “holy site”, is derived from the proto-Germanic word *wih. *Wih is thus something that has connotations of separation and otherworldlines and appears  to be associated with the distinction between the Godly realms and the human enclosures. These two words clearly show that there were conceptions of boundaries and can best be understood in conjunction with their representation in Latin and Greek (sanctus/agios and sacer/hieros).
Swain Wodening positions the idea of *wih as a series of enclosures detailing the human condition in existence, the largest “being the tribe”, representative of the ancient Germanic tendency to view the world in a series of such boundaried existences. It is the gloss of *wih with the Old Norse ve that interests me, the intersection of the mentality of otherworldiness with that of “sacred space”, or a cultic site. Insofar as I can parse through, a *wih is not only a natural region that has been cultivated to contain the numinous powers of the gods, but consists of a constructed enclosure for this purpose, fitting in with the greater understanding of multiple enclosures within the Germanic context. At its root it is a designation of something that is given over to the gods and the divine.
In this sense, a wih is *wih. An ealh, or temple, carries the connotation of *wih. A friðgeard, or an area that is conducive for the establishment of frið, is *wih. Entering into these locations constitutes a necessary separation from one’s mundane, if not profane, realm in to the realm of the divine powers.
I often see comments that it is our actions that maintain the reciprocal nature of the relationship we have with the gods, and that our actions have a direct impact on the development and perpetuation of frið for our groups and communities. But I also see a lack of emphasis being placed in the act of purity, especially upon entering a sacred or holy space that constitutes *wih. If purity enables petitioners to be able to interface with the numinous divine, but at the same time there are actions which can pollute the sacred space (carrying a bladed weapon into a friðstead, for instance), then there is a need for actions which can reduce the mundane pollution in order to enter and take part inside of those holy spaces.
And yet these are not talked about in a Heathen context – entering into an area that is a *wih of the Gods in this middangeard, in any respect, seem to be hard to find, save for in some specialist corners. This seems incongruous to me, as Heathens place a significant emphasis on many holy concepts. Things like keeping ourselves out of actions in which we can violate taboos or encourage the perpetuation of negative actions which can persist in polluting our wyrd and mægen, and make us incapable of interfacing with the divine. Not through the destruction of the numinous, mind you, but through the desecration and offense of their space.
The avoidance of certain substances, the rote methods of purification, sacrifices and honoring one’s ancestors, all played a part in the month of February for the Romans. I would not feel remiss in performing some of these actions in regards to concepts of Heathen purity. While some would argue that the development of Heathen practices might not be necessary, as we already have pan-Pagan practices for it, I find that these are lacking. This is more than just taking a bath before walking in to a sacred space.
A temple, whether a hof, wih, or an ealh aren’t necessarily community centers in the way many modernists believe in them. Historically, for some cultures, they were the abodes of the Gods and only a scant few could enter the inner sanctum. This sacred space isn’t intended for humans. It is intended for the Gods, and the other Divine. It is an aspect of their abode, part of their house, made manifest in this world, and we would be right to go in to it in the cleanest way possible. This must be remembered.
I’ll be thinking more on this.
Thanks for reading.
 Modern Pagans have been developing an almost ultra-Orthopraxic meme for the past handful of years now, which I have run in to more and more lately. The writings of many of the Roman authors of the 1st Century CE would argue against approaching the deities without some kind of belief in their heart. I’ll probably attack this subject in the future.
 Swain Wodening, Hammer of The Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times, pg 33.
 Wodening, Hammer, pg. 35
 As a note: I had the hardest time getting the last third of this paper to come out. It took me over a week of being stuck to finally power through the hump of this work and, although I am not happy with the quality, I will be posting it as is, just in time for the end of February. Maybe there will be a revision in the future.
Thanks for posting. “Purity” as such is not something I see some up in Heathen discussion much (unless it is the dreaded “racial purity” diatribe from the Folkish groups) but it’s a good concept to ponder because many other groups (both ancient and modern) do incorporate this into their praxis and beliefs.
We had a somewhat similar discussion when my group was getting ready to put on our Facets of Freya ritual at PantheaCon this year. We knew that, just going by the sheer number of non-Heathens at Con, most of the people who would be attending would likely not be Heathens but would be eclectic pagan (or at least Wiccan-ish) and they would expect us to cast a circle or something similar. However, most of uys thought such a “cleansing” was unnecessary and perhaps even anti-Heathen beliefs. In the the Lore, as far as I can tell, and in modern Heathenry, though some places (ves) are treated as being sacred than others, there is no underlying need to “purify” a space as such, or to set it aside as sacred, because everything is *already* sacred and hosts a spirit of some kind (wights). Heathenry, both old and new, is very animist in this way.
However, most of us do have a background in Christianity, and so we bring this need to “purify” something, to make a boundary between sacred and profane. And Wiccans, coming out of a Western Ceremonial Magic tradition, have this as well, and if you’re a pagan in the modern world, you’re likely dealing with Wiccans and “WIccan Priveldge”. So, even though I am a Heathen and have been one for 15 years, I still get a bit twitchy if I don’t do something that sets aside space when I do my rituals.
What we ended up using was Edred Thorsson’s Hammer Rite, which, regardless of what you might think of Thorsson himself, is a useful rite that I’ve seen used in various Heathen and pan-pagan places. I think it’s Heathen enough to make me feel that I’m not in somebody’s Wiccan ritual, and it’s accessible enough for Wiccans to feel that they are, indeed, purified and protected and ready to start ritual.
Thanks for the topic and insights, and I look forward to getting more to ponder in the future. 🙂
Thanks, Cara, I appreciate it! I love the work you do, by the way.
I can understand how it seems to be relatively frivolous in this sense, and I’ve actually seen people argue against, or otherwise sidestep, these topics. I find that much of American Heathenry is hung up on ideas like ritual purity, mostly because they operate under an assumption that purifying actions are beneath them. The way I look at it is that I like people who enter my house to kick off the mud from their shoes outside, so I feel like the numinous would appreciate it were we to do the same.
Perhaps I didn’t write as clearly as I had thought I had (or had in my head! Like I said, this post took me forever to get over the hurdle), and I am sorry if I was unclear! My words are oftentimes clunky and obtuse.
It’s not about being pure enough to be able to step over a line and physically enter a sacred space, although I’m sure that is one use. And it isn’t so much about purifying a space for the manifestation of the divine, but about clearing oneself that is conducive to interface with that divine in such a way as to work more fully within it.
February, being the Roman month of purification in preparation of the New Year (in all of an hour and 30 minutes for me) is what got me started thinking about this, because I was reading accounts from the sources we have of different rituals and practices they employed in order to meet the new year (and ritual/events/temples) in a state of purity.
I think the concepts of defined enclosures (applied to the demarcation of mortal/deity boundaries) can be seen, at least linguistically speaking, from either a later pagan Germanic period or from a very early Germanic Christian one. But it is most definitely seen in earlier pre-Christian writings of Mediterranean traditions. I don’t necessarily see it as something we have left over from a Christian perspective, although that could play a role, and I won’t deny it.
I’d be interested in hearing any more thoughts! And I hope I continue to spark that thought.
“The way I look at it is that I like people who enter my house to kick off the mud from their shoes outside, so I feel like the numinous would appreciate it were we to do the same.”
Nods, exactly. Which is why we also decided to throw in a generic cleansing as well, as our ritual was the last slot on the third day of Con; plenty of time for ick to build up. No worries; there’s a wide variety of ways and reasons people would want to purify themselves, their space, or each other, so there’s bound to be some confusion when discussing it. It’s a complex topic. 🙂
Speaking of which, I just read PSVL’s post on polytheist.com which talks about this same concept, except from a Shinto perspective (technically, PSVL’s article is about syncretism and the purification part of the Shinto calendar is only his example, but still, it’s very relevant–http://polytheist.com/speaking-of-syncretism/2015/01/12/syncretism-and-shinto-a-short-examination/)
Actually, I take that back–we ended up calling the dwarves instead, as per Hrafnar’s tradition. My bad! I was thinking of a different ritual. Also, a good mix of Heathen belief plus Wiccan praxis.
You have given me a lot to think on, and if I did not already have two posts in the writing I think I would going through this post too, analyzing and prodding how I feel about it in even deeper depth and writing in response to it. I think I will do so once they are out.
Thank you for writing this and exploring these ideas.
I look forward to what you have to say!
Enjoyed this perspective. It struck me as refreshing to read about paying mind to the quality and setting of our observances, instead of reading someone telling me what size of mead horn is correct based on “their research”. Thanks.