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.