Thoughts on Blotby Gerd Forsta Axenthowes
Reading something James Kalb, a traditionalist Catholic, wrote about the Tridentine Mass (that's the real one - the one in Latin) here: Turnabout, I found myself thinking about the difference between Asatru and Theodish rites that I have attended. While there are many differences in the two approaches to Germanic religion, I think that the essential differences between the two are seen fairly clearly in their different approaches to ritual, at least as I have seen it. What is quite fascinating to me is that the difference between Theodish and Asatru rites tracks quite well in many ways with the differences Kalb discusses between the Tridentine Mass and the New Mass.
To begin with, I think Kalb's description of the central place of the mass to the religion is worth noting. “It's the most important single thing the hierarchical Church does, because it's the center of unity--spiritual, social, historical and physical--between Heaven and earth and among Catholics It's a bit like the position sex holds in marriage, only more so.” I see blot as the opportunity for the gods and the community (whatever community we are talking about) to come together in what I take to be a similar way. Blot is where the ordinary world is opened to the holy, and in this open space humans and their gods interact in a concrete way. Sumbel is similar, in that men and gods interact, but the interaction is different. Other spiritual methods that we use in heathenry, for instance seidhr or spa, involve another different kind of interaction. While blot is a gathering of community, such methods tend to be more individualistic (admittedly this may be a symptom of modernity more than something essential about the methods in question) and do not involve the same exchange between humans and gods as blot does but are rather one way exchanges. In any case, inasmuch as we are religious, blot, it seems to me, is the central part of our religious practice, functioning to bring together man and gods, our world and the other world, perhaps we might even say temporality and eternity, although I am not sure how well those concepts work in heathenry given our conception of time.
Thus, blot should be done right. How it is done matters. I am still working through in my mind whether blot can be described, as Kalb does mass, as "symbolism that works concretely," but I think that may be a good description, except that in the ritualized slaughter of livestock that is central to blot there is more at stake than symbolism. Now, for a Catholic like Kalb, mass is something already given to him. No one has to write it or figure out how to make it work, since it has been used for centuries, at least until Vatican II came in and mucked the whole thing up. Even then it was a question of modifying what already existed, not of making it up from whole cloth.
Unfortunately for us, people like those who invented the Tridentine mass also eliminated from history any mention of the details of heathen blot. We have only a few bare outlines to work from and from that we have to work to create a usable liturgy on our own. Thus, for us, whether we want or not, blot involves a certain amount of experimentation that mass never involves for Catholics. Nonetheless, for many of us this experimentation has led to a fairly uniform and meaningful outline of what a blot should look like, which is informed by the few mentions in ancient texts. How we do blot is important. In blot we are essentially speaking a symbolic language and, if we want our blot to do what it is meant to we need to speak that language proficiently. This is not to say that every blot must be identical, it is to say that every blot is a form of communication and that communication needs to be effective, which means using the symbolic language properly. Blot is not merely offering, nor is it merely a drama. It is certainly not a kind of teaching experience. Indeed, communion almost seems to be the best word to describe what blot is supposed to do: it brings us and our world into some kind of communion with the gods and the holy.
In Kalb's third and fourth points he contrasts the New Mass, with its emphasis on the people present and on transparency in its symbolism with the Tridentine mass where "The priest faces the altar along with the people, the most important parts of the service are said silently, the language and music are liturgical and of the highest possible quality, and the people mostly participate by assuming attitudes (like kneeling) that suggest rapt contemplation of something beyond themselves. It's visibly God-centered rather than man-centered." This distinction, in my experience, is very much what distinguishes Theodish from Asatru rites. In Theodism, the actions in blot are definitely directed outwards, toward the gods, rather than back inwards toward the gathered folk. In terms of language we, of course, use ancient languages. Although this has been explained in terms of being a "courtesy" to the gods, I have never found this explanation particularly satisfying. The point of the use of archaic languages is that they contain a poetic power that modern languages do not and they contain religious vocabulary that often can only be approximated in modern English. The only draw back is that the people gathered there might not understand the language, but then the language is not meant for them, it is meant for the gods. Additionally, there is the advantage that the use of such language serves to remind us that what we are doing, even if it is a revival, is in fact ancient. It also helps to emphasize that in our holy stead where we are doing our blot we are no longer in the profane world. Even the words that are used are different, as are our clothes, out bearing, and hopefully our attitude.
Some Asatru rituals I have attended involve standing in a circle, the folk all facing each other, not looking outward, in what seems to be a deliberate rejection of any hierarchical order to the assembled folk. The language is always English and only sometimes poetic. Sometimes there might be some thought given to facing the gods when speaking rather than facing the assembled folk, but this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes explanations of what is happening in the ritual are given while the ritual is underway, breaking up the continuity of the ritual. Mead is often used as a surrogate for the blood of the slain beast (which is something we often do in Theodism as well). Unfortunately this often leads to mistaking the rite in question for sumbel, leading to what some have come to refer to as a "bumble" - both blot and sumbel and not really all that good an example of either. Sprinkling is often left out, I suppose to keep people's nice clothes from being wrecked, this despite the fact that it is the physical act of blessing (bletsian - to mark with the blood of the sacrificial animal) that is central to blot. Now, I don't mean to be particularly critical of such rites here. What I do mean to point out is that such rites are not what ancient heathens called blot and they do not work to accomplish the same purpose as blot. They do, I think, work to pull together a community and on those occasions I have been invited to such rites I have been grateful that the gathered folk have been nice enough to wish to include me as part of their community. Anything done in a sincere spirit is unlikely to be bad. However, I always feel there is something missing. The feeling of awe at the presence of the gods that I get from a well done Theodish blot simply is not there, or if it is it is not to the same degree.
Of course, part of that feeling of awe comes from an acceptance of there being something much larger and more powerful than myself involved in a rite. This brings me to Kalb's last point, which is the opposition of some groups in the church to the Tridentine mass. I have seen people in Asatru oppose Theodish rites with the same sort of vehemence. I have never been entirely certain of the motivation for this, but I think there is an element of fear. It is probably an unfair caricature, but there do seem to be those in Asatru who think that the proper way to address the gods is by bellowing their names and standing with one's chest puffed out like in a bad fantasy movie. In a Theodish rite a person's voice might very well break with powerful emotion while reciting or singing poetry to the gods, or a person might end up on his knees, not cowering like a slave like in Islam but again from emotion and a feeling of awe. Such things are hard for the Conan types to understand. Damnant quod non intelligent.
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