What gods do pagans believe in?
The Return of the Gods: Germanic Paganism in Modern Times
Once again briefly “ventilate the dog”, then off we go. While his wife is doing another lap with the dachshund Morpheus, Carsten Dahlmann is already packing his rucksack. He takes a cloth from the altar in the bedroom and wraps three figures in it: Thor, Freyr and Odin. Then another bottle of mead, the folding table altar and homemade cookies in the shape of Thor's hammer. “My wife bought a new baking pan especially,” says Carsten enthusiastically.
The 41-year-old describes himself as “the non-typical student”. On his second educational path, he is studying German and linguistics as a master. He recently completed his bachelor's degree in history and Latin. But not only in this way does he live out his enthusiasm for ancient languages and sources. Carsten believes in paganism and makes sacrifices to the old Germanic gods. So just before Christmas. More precisely at the winter solstice or Yule Festival, the shortest day of the year.
It doesn't mean: who do you believe in? But to whom do you sacrifice?
In the afternoon he leaves for Radevormwald near Wuppertal with his wife and dog Morpheus. There they meet up with friends, some of whom have come especially for the ritual, the so-called blót. They are all polytheists, most of them Ásatrú: Germanic neo-pagans. The term Ásatrú means “faithful to the sir”. In mythology, Aesir is the name given to the Norse family of gods, to which Odin and Thor belong, among others. “In Germanic paganism one likes to say: It doesn't say to whom believe you? But to whom sacrificed you? ”explains Carsten.
When it begins to get dark, the group sets off. Only a few meters away is a forest in which a path leads along the course of the river. The host has already scouted a suitable place for the blót. After a while he deviates from the path and everyone trudges one behind the other through the undergrowth. It is almost dark when they reach the banks of the Wupper. Everyone is satisfied: It is quiet, in the middle of nature and far away from the eyes of curious or disturbing people. Carsten sets up the folding table and torches are lit. The figures and the “Mjöllnir” biscuits are also unpacked and draped on top. The offerings of the others follow: apples, nuts, a piece of jewelry, mead and other figures.
A belief without rules?
There are no priests, no rules or dogmas established by higher institutions. One of the biggest differences to monotheistic religions is freedom: everyone sacrifices as they see fit. Nevertheless, the rituals are based on sources. One tries to authentically adopt the customs from earlier times known from sources. Much of it remains in-house creation due to the limited number of sources.
For Carsten, polytheism is the most important aspect of neo-paganism. “Depending on their personal circumstances, needs and professions, people prefer different gods,” he explains. "If someone is a lay judge, Tyr may be the most important god for him, if he or she is a soldier or let's say a policeman, it is perhaps Thor, the protector of men."
Through his Latin studies, he also dealt with the Roman deities. In the Latin wing of the university there is now even a lararium, a Roman house altar. “There are always small offerings there,” says Carsten. “A polytheistic student must have started to sacrifice at this altar in the evenings, when hardly anyone can be found at the university, and to ask for the successful passing of an exam.” Even having his own lararium is a project that Carsten would like to implement in the near future.
One with nature
A figure of Aphrodite also finds its place on the altar on the Wupper. Carsten also puts a drinking horn next to the altar. Everyone stands in a semicircle around the table of gifts with a view of the Wupper. Slowly everyone becomes quiet, the torches flicker and cast warm light on the offerings. The host and at the same time the ritual leader begins to speak. He addresses the Wupper and welcomes the river. A gust of wind blows across the water, the Dachshund Morpheus whines softly. A sign from the gods? It could be like that for those present.
After addressing a few words to nature and the gods, the Blót is open. One after the other, those present step forward, say a prayer or gaze silently and mentally at the river. The offerings are thrown into the Wupper, poured or placed in a gnawed tree trunk. Paganism is a nature-loving religion. Thus, with the offerings, care is taken that, for example, no squirrel gets stomach pain from the biscuits. Incense offerings are therefore also common. However, living beings would never be sacrificed. There are even some vegetarians and vegans among the pagans.
But how do you come to Germanic paganism at all? Carsten has long been interested in polytheism and then got to know Christian Derksen through a friend. Christian Derksen is a member of the Eldaring e.V. association, which practices Germanic paganism in Germany. In the individual federal states there are different “flocks” that meet once a month. Christian Derksen runs the stove in the Ruhr area. In Derksen's opinion, the monotheistic worldview often creates an inhibition threshold. But through series, films and comics, the gods always find their way into pop culture. Isn't it like there are Jesus comics? “There is also,” says Matthias *, who is also a member of Eldaring e.V., with a grin. Often the characters are caricatures of their Nordic role models. Carsten thinks it is “a blessing and a curse at the same time. This makes a lot of people curious, but there are also a lot of clichés. " So you have to catch the people.
The voice of reason: association work against “right-wing nuts”
The basics are clearly defined in the association's statutes. The only entry condition: “Don't be a fascist,” says Derksen. That could happen again and again. The association has therefore made it its business to get paganism “out of the dirty brown corner”. Many symbols are incorrectly occupied, such as the Thor's hammer, which many of the members wear as a chain around their necks. Carsten too did not only come in because of the community: The Germanic gods are nowadays often misused by “right-wing nuts”, so that a “voice of reason” is needed. He has therefore also been part of the board of directors since 2018 and is responsible for the association's public relations. Eldaring is also represented on social media such as Facebook and Instagram to educate people.
Matthias * has also been “mistaken” because of the silver hammer-shaped chain pendant: A man spoke to him on the train. He quickly noticed that the man had interpreted the symbol differently. When he explained to him, the man quickly disappeared. Matthias is a good example of the club's openness. He is married to a Jewish man and works as a Protestant religion teacher. Many of the members come from Christian families or have Christian partners, so compromises have to be made. “However, there is a lot of overlap with other religions. During Jewish Hanukkah, for example, many candles are put up,” says Matthias. The Hanukkah festival coincides with the Yule festival, when the light is also important.
A drink to the gods, the great-grandmothers and new resolutions
After the sacrifice in nature, the sumbel, a toast, is an important part of the ritual. Already with the Vikings, drinking alcohol played an important role in society. In most of the Blót groups, the Sumbel takes place immediately afterwards, but Carsten's group is only looking forward to warming up with dumplings, red cabbage and venison goulash. After everyone is saturated and the table has been cleared, a brown kettle is placed on it. They agree on a type of mead and pour the contents of the bottle into the pot. The host puts a cloth over it and sanctifies the mead. Carsten's wife takes on the job of the tapmaiden. She is therefore responsible for ensuring that no one passes an empty drinking horn on. When a man takes on the task, the names vary.
Now the first round begins: You drink to the gods. Freyr, the god of fertility, is particularly popular at this time of year. In the second round, the horn circles and you drink to the ancestors: to philosophers, deceased pets or the favorite recipe from the great-grandmother. The third round is also about personal issues. Everyone in the group drinks to a plan for the next year or even swears an oath. It's not just about the gods, but also, for example, about losing weight, productivity in everyday life or at university. After the classic Sumbel there are also free rounds. This time the members have agreed on a fourth round: they should drink to good teachers. In the last (and thematically completely free) round, everyone agrees: They thank you for the evening, the nice hospitality and drink to the successful ritual. Then the Sumbel is closed.
* Name changed
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