Saturday, 10 October 2015

Ibn Fadlan on the Religion of the Rus

The identity of the Rus – Germanic and/or Slavic polytheists

Artist: Ivanov. Source:
In the early 10th century a devout Muslim diplomat was sent by the powerful Abbasid Caliph to teach the intricacies of Islam to a king of the Volga Bulghars, deep inside Russia, who had recently converted – possibly so he could enlist the help of the Caliphate in his struggles to defend his kingdom against the nearby Jewish Khazars. This Arab traveller is now commonly known as Ibn Fadlan and he has become famous for his account of the polytheistic peoples he encountered on his journey, especially the Turks and the Rus – both peoples would, respectively, become Islamic and Christian within a century or so of his account. The Rus were (most scholars believe) originally Vikings who, over a roughly 200 year period, assimilated with the Slavs of Russia and gave their name to that great nation. The 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle is the primary source for this assertion. We also have corroborating evidence from another Muslim called Ibn Rustah, a Persian scholar who authored an encyclopedia that was completed in 913 – his entry relating to the Rus is thought to derive from an anonymous source dating from the 860s, and in it he seems to suggest the Rus and the Slavs are distinct from each other when he writes:
“The Rus raid the Saqaliba [an Arabic term with multiple connotations, it can be used to specifically denote Slavs, or as a general term denoting northern Europeans], sailing in their ships until they come upon them. They take them captive and sell them in Khazarin and Bulkar [ie, to the Khazars and the Turks]. They have no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging the land of the Saqaliba.”*
Ibn Rustah then goes on to describe the Rus in a way that is entirely consistent with what we know of Vikings:
“They earn their living by trading in sable, grey squirrel and other furs. They sell them for silver coins which they set in belts and wear around their waists.
… The men wear gold bracelets. They treat their slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade … 
If one of them has a quarrel with another, it is referred to the ruler, who settles it as he sees fit. If they do not agree with his settlement, he orders the difference to be settled by single combat …
They have great stamina and endurance. They never quit the battlefield without having slaughtered their enemy. They take the women and enslave them. They are remarkable for their size, their physique and their bravery. They fight best on shipboard, not on horseback [ibid at 126-127].”

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Germanic God and Gods of Fire

Scalloway Fire Festival (2014). Source:
Something that has long puzzled me about Germanic polytheism is the apparent absence of the worship of a God or Goddess of fire. Fire must have been an integral aspect of ancient and medieval Germanic life and is, in many other Pagan religions, accorded due reverence. That ancient Germanic Heathenry shared this characteristic is suggested by Julius Caesar who, in one of the earliest historical descriptions of the Germanic people, specifically mentions that fire was, along with the sun and the moon, highly revered by the Germanic tribesmen he came into contact with. So why is this great Germanic God of fire so seemingly elusive to us now?

What has survived from the myths of the Norsemen puts forth three of the more obvious candidates:
  • Surt – a powerful and destructive giant from Muspellsheim, the realm of fire; it is prophesised that he will ride out as leader against the Gods at Ragnarok with a weapon that shines like the sun and, after defeating the foremost God of fertility (Freyr), he will burn the world; this final act of destruction is necessary in order for the renewed earth, renewed men and renewed Gods to emerge from the ashes of the old.
  • Logi – a giant whose name literally means “fire”; he is most famous for outdoing Loki in an eating contest; for fire consumes more swiftly than man or God. Snorri Sturluson tells us that “the one called Logi was wildfire itself” (The Prose Edda). Arguably, Logi could be considered to be Surt by another name, or as one who manifests from the same destructive fiery realm.
  • Loki – a powerful deity associated with deceit and dishonour. The belief that he is a fire deity is popular among some contemporary Heathens. He is prominent in Norse mythology even though there is no evidence of his worship among Norse people. Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson aptly describes him as “a kind of semi-comic shaman, half way between God and hero, yet with a strong dash of the jester element” (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe). Sometimes his wiles are amusing, other times they are malevolent. He is strongly associated with the events of Ragnarok, for he is the father of the Fenriswolf (destined to kill Odin), the Midgard serpent (destined to kill Thor) and Hel, who rules over the realm where those who have died of disease or old age go (but from where the beloved God Baldr will emerge after Ragnarok). Loki himself is destined to kill and be killed by Heimdall, who watches over and guards the Gods. Loki is thus like Surt in the sense that he is, despite his oftentimes sinister and destructive nature, an integral player in the life-death-rebrith process signified by the events of Ragnarok. It is said that a “ship journeys from the east, Muspell's people are coming over the waves, and Loki steers” (The Poetic Edda). Whether or not these things are enough to establish him as a fire deity is ambiguous. Relatedly, in the nineteenth century the notion that Loki and Logi are in fact the same deity arose, partly due to the similarities in the pronunciation in their names. However the very facts of the myth surrounding Logi seem to contradict this notion, for how could Logi defeat Loki if they are but the same being? While Loki's destructive affinity with Surt and perhaps Logi may hint at confirming his nature as a fire God it is nowhere made explicit that Loki has a fiery nature, despite the extensive number of references to him in medieval Germanic literature. Davidson notes that “Loki does not behave like a fire spirit, and indeed seems to be as much at home in the water as on the earth, so that some scholars have even tried to see him as a water spirit” (ibid). Loki is a fascinating deity, but there just isn't enough compelling evidence  to establish him as a fire God. In any case, even if he is a fire deity, he can be of little assistance to mankind, for according to myth Loki is currently undergoing torment in that cave where the Gods are said to have tied him down as retributive punishment for his role in bringing about the death of Baldr. It is said that Loki is bound with the entrails of one of his children, and his face rests immediately below a venomous snake who continually drops poison onto his face – most of the time his wife holds out a bowl to catch the venom, but when the venom falls on him he convulses so violently that the earth shakes. 
The deities above are principally associated with destruction; none sounds like a God to give comfort, such as fire must of done, when it warmed the home and cooked the family meal. Much less so can we imagine Surt, Logi or Loki as Gods of ritual and sacrificial fire. At best Surt and Logi (and possibly Loki) are forces of nature to be propitiated as representations of fire in its most violent form. Is there not a more benevolent Germanic God of fire?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Pagan Swear Words, Expletives and Exclamations

The TV series Spartacus is full of inventive expletives
When I experience momentary frustration or surprise I tend to outburst variously with “Jesus Christ!”, “Christ almighty!”, “crikey Moses!, “oh my God!” and other biblical profanities.* These words flow out of my mouth impulsively, and in a sense they are just meaningless words, and yet sometimes after I unthinkingly exclaim them they bring home to me just how close Christian thinking still is. Should I then switch my expletives to a Pagan mode? On television and online I have come across the following alternatives:
  • Gods be good!
  • Juno’s c-nt!
  • Juno’s peacock!
  • Jupiter’s cock!
  • Jupiter’s eyebrows!
  • Neptune’s beard!
  • Odin’s Raven!
  • Pluto’s thorny cock!

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The Problem with Mythology

"The Rape of Europa" by Reni (1639)
We must be cautious when we read myths – too many of them are the spun out creation of storytellers that risk reducing the Gods to characters in a fairy tale. The great, divine and essential nature of the Gods may thus be obscured. We should be mindful that the popularity of some myths in the ancient world may have contributed to the decline of polytheism – and may also impede contemporary comprehension of the Gods. Christian writers of the Roman era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Minucius Felix, invoked Greco-Roman myths to mock the Gods, and therefore belief in them. The Christian poet Prudentius went so far as to write “depart adulterous Jupiter, defiled with sex with your sister” (cited in Beard 2 at 361). If we were to accept myths at face value then the early Christian fathers could be occasionally convincing, in terms of eroding our belief in the Gods. If we understand that myths may be beautiful and instructive in some way (sometimes acting as a gateway to sacred knowledge), but that they should always be treated with caution and never treated as somehow equivalent to religious scripture, then we get closer to the truth.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Germanic Divination – Runes

Anglo-Saxon ring with Runic inscriptions
(8th-10th century CE)
In 98 CE the Roman historian Tacitus described the divination methods of the Germanic people:
“They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices [typically by observing the movements of animals, especially birds and horses] and the casting of lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut [or fruit] bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the Gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking the auspices [Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, Oxford World’s Classics at 42].”
In this passage we seem to have the earliest recorded description of Germanic divination and, possibly, the use of Runic markings to do so. Tacitus does not refer to the Runic alphabet explicitly, only that strips of wood were marked “with different signs”. These signs could have been of anything, and certainly there is a possibility that they were not Runic at all but, perhaps supporting the case, the earliest archeological evidence of Runes dates from the second century CE – only one lifetime after Tacitus’ description. Professor Page of the University of Cambridge writes:

Saturday, 30 May 2015


Image source:
Nearly 2000 years’ ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote “religio honours the Gods, superstitio wrongs them” (cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 216). In ancient Rome religio was a word associated with conspicuous, but not excessive, reverence for and piety towards the Gods. Seneca’s comment suggests that religio stands in contrast to superstitio. But what is superstitio? In the propaganda war against Paganism, Christians claimed that anything that was Pagan was superstitio. In an earlier age it was the other way around. To some extent superstitio was, originally, any religious practice which seemed thoroughly strange, unappealing and inexplicable, thus Jews were condemned for superstitio for engaging in the seemingly bizarre practice of circumcision, among other things. But there is much more to the word than xenophobia. Superstitio implies a lack of self-control, excessive devotion, and perhaps an inappropriate desire for knowledge, such as might be thought to be obtained via certain magical rites (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 217).
“[The] use of the term superstitio seems to have widened over the first century AD, both conceptually and geographically ... the concept of magic emerged as the ultimate superstitio ... [However] the definition of magic is famously contentious and and debated ... According to the encyclopedia of the Elder Pliny, magic was a heady combination of medicine, religion and astrology, originating in Persia, and meeting human desires for health, control of the Gods and knowledge of the future. The system was, in his view, totally fraudulent. He recounts, for example, how Nero (‘whose passion for magic was no less than his passion for the lyre and the tragic song’) lavished massive resources on magical arts wanting to give orders to the Gods – but dropped them when they failed to work: ‘that the craft is a fraud there could be no greater or more indisputable proof.’ And he frequently points to the mendacious claims concerning the magical properties of particular animals and plants made by the ‘magi’ (the title of Persian priests, but extended in the Greco-Roman world to include all ‘magicians’): a cure for toothache, for example, that prescribed burning the head of a dog dead from rabies, before dropping the ash (mixed in cyprus oil) into the ear that was closer to the painful tooth [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 218-219].” 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Painting of a woman writing by Zocchi (b. 1874)
I thought it might be fun to create a website drawing largely on content created for this blog; essentially the idea is to present content that I have created for this blog (plus some additional content) in a more navigable way. The website is and it has just gone live today. To be honest it has not been that fun putting it together (in fact it has been more complex and stressful than I was expecting) but I have put so much work into it I thought I may as well publish it. I own the domain name for a year, so I am thinking of it as a potentially temporary venture, whereas I am more or less committed to blogging, so long as I enjoy it (which I still do). I wish to emphasise that this website presents one person’s interpretation of Roman polytheism. I don't know everything there is to know about Roman polytheism, I am just someone who is rather keen on it, and is as addicted to writing, researching and the pursuit of knowledge as I am addicted to the internet.

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at neo polytheist and