Heathenry does not require membership in a congregation. There is no need for a clergyperson to lead a blót, for oaths to a particular group before one may honor the gods, or for access to a hof to do it right.
However, heathenry is in its origins the indigenous religion of whole peoples or tribes, and hence the ancient heathens made no distinction between “religious” and “secular” tradition – both were referred to by terms that are most easily translated “law” or “custom.” For the ancient heathens, the religious community was simply the community. Tacitus noted in Germania that priests and/or chieftains used lots and omens to interpret the gods’ will for the nation, heads of families for the family.1 The regional gatherings for blót were also the occasions of things (assemblies), the bringing of lawsuits, and the making of agreements. And in Iceland, the goðar remained chieftains after the conversion. Most scholars are now skeptical that the ancient heathens had local and regional hofs – they sound like parish churches and cathedrals, and we have not found archeological evidence of nearly enough – or that pious heathens had private blót-houses – which sound like the private chapels of pious medieval nobles.2 But the sagas document the great distances between settlements in Iceland and much of Norway, and the difficulty of travel, and in Iceland even in modern times such settlements were often one or two houses rather than villages. So realistically, people must often have honored the gods within the family, and indeed in addition to the blót assemblies a few times a year, the accounts of travelers in the sagas do describe family Alfablót, family rites of Völsi, and so on, rather than going to a hof.
For some, it follows that the ancient heathens did not have a tradition of individual worship, and that we should avoid it. Landnámabók and the sagas make several mentions of individual worship: men like Hrafnkell Freysgoði are “great ones for blóting” precisely because they frequently honor the gods alone, people offer to the gods for good fortune or for the favor of a god or goddess, for example Thorkell offering an ox to Freyr and getting his favor in his dispute with Víga-Glúmr, and they offer as a method of divination or to gauge the wishes of the gods. Much of this is suspect. The sacrifices have often been added in later versions of the same story. One telling example is Jómsvíkinga Saga’s account of Jarl Hákon sacrificing his seven-year-old son Erlingr to his personal goddess Thorgerðr Hölgabrúðr before a battle . . . in which older accounts have Erlingr commanding a ship. There was clearly no sacrifice of the boy, who was presumably older than seven, and probably there was no Thorgerðr Hölgabrúðr either. The most influential academic exponent of the view that heathenry was entirely communal and the ancient heathens had no notion of personal religion was Walter Baetke, who condemned fulltrúar(patrons) as a Xian-derived notion and the gods speaking to individuals, for example in dreams, as an impossibility.3 But we know the gods do speak to individuals. We know some people do have a fulltrúi, although it is very likely more common now than it was then. And can we so easily dismiss Egil’s relationship with Óðinn, or his daughter Thorgerð’s with Freyja?4
Be this as it may, we are isolated in modern society, among practitioners of other religions, as the ancient heathens were not, and so most of us sooner or later band together in local groups to honor the gods, and on the analogy of a heathen family blòting together, the traditional term for such a group is a kindred.5
On one level, a legal one, a heathen kindred, unless it is also a legal family, is a congregation.6 Those jurisdictions that grant clergy privileges such as visiting prisons and hospitals and officiating at weddings and funerals to people who present signatures from members of their “congregation” regard a kindred in this way; so do the legal authorities where the kindred is part of a national organization that is registered as a charitable or religious group. There may therefore be legal ramifications and requirements if one wants either the kindred or the larger group to be recognized, for example to operate a public hof or in some places even to rent space. If legal recognition is a consideration, then records of membership should be kept and so forth, and there may be a requirement to have a clergyperson or spokesperson.7
Otherwise and more importantly, a kindred is in some sense a voluntary family, so membership should be seen as a serious commitment. It is important not to rush into forming or joining a kindred, but to make sure that everyone has similar ideas on how it will work and what will be expected of members. Most obviously, there are many doctrinal differences between heathens and most kindreds expect their members to agree on major points; these need to be defined. Also, there is little point in having a kindred if it is purely theoretical: how often will it meet, will all the meetings be blóts or sumbles, will some or all also involve study, for example of the runes, or will some be mainly social, and how often are members expected to attend? Will blóts be “led” by the same one or two people every time, should members expect to lead a blót regularly, or are they basically collaborative? Many kindreds meet once a month; as Valgard Murray says in his guide to forming an Asatru Alliance kindred, once a week is better for building real fellowship.8 We do not know how often the ancient heathens honored the gods together, but we know they did things with their families more than once a month. However we have as many or more non-family commitments, and most of us also have non-heathen families. And we do not have a religious requirement to keep a “sabbath.” So how much participation the kindred requires is something to be decided.
Most kindreds also require an oath of membership, since the person is being “adopted” into a “family.” This essay should be seen in relationship to those on professing heathenry and on blood brotherhood, and indeed as stated in those articles, published guides to heathenry typically treat two or more of the things together. Kveldulf Gundarsson’s ritual in Teutonic Religion and Edred Thorsson’s in A Book of Troth refer to the new member as “child” and “sib newly born” respectively and both require the adoption of a new name.9 An oath is always a serious thing. There should be a getting-acquainted period before even the founder members of a kindred swear to enter into what will be to them at least a family relationship. No one should form or enter a kindred expecting to be able to “just” dissolve it or “just” leave it, or if they are in any doubt about any of its tenets, requirements, or other members. Blood brotherhood is unto death – in fact blood brothers are bound to avenge each other after death. There was provision for divorce in the ancient Scandinavian lawcodes, but not for repudiation of brothers, sisters, or parents. So although it is lamentable that modern heathens are so divided by differences of opinion and allegiance, I have to disagree with Lewis Stead in his (Raven Kindred) guide to forming a kindred when he says “One kindred of a dozen people is much better than 3 kindreds with 4 members.” I do agree with his next sentence: “The exception to this, of course, is if people honestly can’t get along or have very different ideas about what they want from a group.” 10 Lew Stead also advises against oaths because he thinks people should be free to participate in and then leave a religious organization. In my opinion that is a congregation, not a kindred; if we want (inter)national organizations to reflect the nature of heathenry and not to take up too much time with constructing and maintaining by-laws and bureaucracies, the attitude of “Feel free to participate” makes sense, but if we want the structure and support of a local group, the fellowship, mutual assistance, and guidance for new heathens and for children of a voluntary family, something that can rightfully be called a kindred (rather than a lore or rune study group), then it must involve a serious commitment, at least in how a person joins it, if not in duties after joining.
Here, for example, is the oath of Edred’s Austin Kindred, of about 1980:
- Upon this ring of the kindred I swear by all the holy gods and goddesses to hold ever high the banner of the raven and always to help the growth and well-being of the kindred and of all the subs within it. By Woden and Tiw I swear this oath!
And Kveldulf’s simpler oath:
- I, [chosen name] take this gift as a sign of my troth: troth to the gods and goddesses; troth to my fore-gone kin; troth to my kin who are here. So be it.
As cited in the article on professing heathenry, the Raven Kindred Ritual Book oath is also an oath of profession:
- I swear to ever uphold the Raven Banner of Asgard, to follow the way of the North, to always act with honor and bravery, and to be ever true to the Aesir and Vanir and to Asatru. By the Gods I so swear. By my honor I so swear. On this Holy Ring I do swear. Hail the Gods.
One of the best ways for a kindred to define itself is to design its own oath and its own oath ceremony. Many kindreds have their own oath ring, as alluded to in the Austin Kindred oath above. Some have a blood mingling ceremony (although as in the article on blood brotherhood, I do not think this is safe in this age of blood-borne diseases). Some will have the new member affirm the by-laws or rules of the kindred. But here is one more suggestion.
At the close of a blót, one kindred member (the goði, the person who introduced the candidate to the group, or a particular friend of the candidate) rises or steps forward as sponsor:
- : Before we end this blót, I would like to ask [
- ] to stand (forward).
- [Candidate], you have told me you are ready to join this kindred. Is that so?
- : Yes. [He/she makes his/her own statement that he/she is ready and wants to become a member.]
- : Do you fully understand our rules, our customs, and what will be expected of you as a member of the kindred?
- : I do.
- : I advocate for [candidate] to be admitted as a member of our kindred. [He/she makes a personal statement in support of the candidacy; this can be all serious, or include a few jokes.]
- Do any of you have any objections?
- : [express any reservations or ask the candidate or sponsor for any clarifications; for each person who speaks, the sponsor should ask whether he/she is satisfied and receive a yes before continuing]
- : No objections having been raised or All objections having been satisfied, [candidate], I ask you now to repeat after me:
- Before Vár and all the gods and goddesses I swear
- That from this day hence until my death or my release from this oath
- I shall be an honorable and loyal member of this kindred.
- I shall help its members
- and consider them my brothers and my sisters
- and I shall honor the gods and goddesses of the North
- According to our ways.
[The sponsor then hands the new member the horn to drink to the gods to seal his/her oath. He/she then takes the horn and offers a toast with best wishes for the new member; and each kindred member in turn takes the horn and does likewise.]
1) Ch. 10: on omens (observation of sacred horses): proprium gentis . . . sacerdos ac rex vel princeps civitatis comitantur, hinnitusque ac fremitus observant. “nourished by the State . . . accompanied by the Priest and the King, or the Chief of the Community, who both carefully observed his actions and neighing”; and on lots: Si publice consuletur,sacerdos civitatis, sin privatim, ipse paterfamiliae, precatus deos coelumque suspiciens, ter singulos tollit, sublatos secundum impressam ante notam interpretatur. “Then the Priest of the community, if for the public the lots are consulted, or the father of a family about a private concern, after he has solemnly invoked the Gods, with eyes lifted up to heaven, takes up every piece thrice, and having done thus forms a judgment according to the marks before made.” Thomas Gordon translation.
2) In addition to Víga-Glúm’s swearing an oath in three hofs of the same district, the supposedly ancient system of local and regional hofs is enumerated in “Úlfljótr’s Laws,” which occur in some versions of Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlements) and two sagas and are dismissed by Olaf Olsen in his dissertation, Hørg, Hov og Kirke: Historiske og Arkæologiske Vikingetidsstudier (Copenhagen: Gad, 1966), p. 278 as “a learned attempt at reconstructing heathen legislation, written in about the year 1200, based on unreliable tradition and deduced from contemporary conditions.” In ch. 9 of Germania Tacitus even states that the Germanic tribes considered all temples and images of the gods distasteful and honored the gods only in sacred groves: Nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur: lucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident. “From the grandeur and majesty of beings celestial, they judge it altogether unsuitable to hold the Gods enclosed within walls, or to represent them under any human likeness. They consecrate whole woods and groves, and by the names of the Gods they call these recesses; divinities these, which only in contemplation and mental reverence they behold.” Thomas Gordon translation. But clearly there were some heathen temples in both Scandinavia and England by the time of conversion; we have some archeological evidence. The word hof basically means “farm” or “estate,” and that is all it ever meant in Germany, but in Scandinavia and to some extent Anglo-Saxon England, it came to be used of “a farm which serve[d] as the meeting place for organized pagan worship,” as Olsen puts it (p. 280).
3) See “Christliches Lehngut in der Sagareligion,” partial reprint in Kleine Schriften: Geschichte, Recht und Religion in Germanischem Schrifttum, ed. Kurt Rudolph and Ernst Walter, Weimar: Böhlau, 1973, 319-50, from Berichte über die Verhandlungen der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, Philol.-Hist. Kl. 98.6 (1951): pp. 334-37, from which the examples are drawn.
4) Egils Saga ch. 78. Egil loses two sons and takes to his bed. His daughter does the same, declaring that she will not eat again until she is in Freyja’s hall, because she knows no better example than her father. The strategy works and he instead expresses his grief in a poem to Óðinn, the “Sonatorrek.” But the entire passage demonstrates personal relationships to the gods.
5) Words of similar meaning include the Geferraeden Fyrnsidu‘s híred and The Troth’s hearth and garth.
6) I note that hearths of The Troth are legally “church” study groups instead: Kveldúlf Gundarsson ed., Our Troth, 2nd ed. ed. Berkeley: The Troth / North Charleston, SC: BookSurge, v. 2, p. 82.
7) There are privacy concerns here – and differences of opinion on the necessity of clergy – that should be respected and have led some not to become public groups. Both Valgard Murray’s and Lew Stead’s guides to forming a kindred assume it will have a public profile, and Valgard advises incorporating as a non-profit, but both also strongly advise getting a post office box rather than using a home address, partly for security: http://www.asatru.org/thekinrd.html; http://www.ravenkindred.com/kindred.html. Other privacy measures to consider are not publishing members’ real names unless they wish it (Our Troth v. 2, p. 81states that The Troth “neither encourages nor discourages” the use of “heathen names” but mentions the option partly because of privacy), not publishing their (or at least their children’s) photographs where non-members can see them, and keeping kindred e-list archives private. But how far the kindred is public and legally registered is something the members should determine. Some kindreds hold frequent public blóts, publish pamphlets and books, do charitable works as a group, and present at Pagan Pride Days; some keep their activities and membership entirely private.
9) Kveldulf Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern Tradition, St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993, pp. 244-46; Edred Thorsson, A Book of Troth, St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1989, p. 165.
11) Thorsson, op. cit. subs may be a typo for sibs.
12) Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 246.
13) “Profession”; Lewis Stead and the Raven Kindred(s), later editions titled Ravenbok, available in multiple versions online, some with revisions by J.S. Pereira, and 3rd ed. Wheaton, MD: Asatru Today, 1994.