Village Gods: Wooden Figures at the Village Boundaries

Written by Dyami Millarson

On pages 32-33 of Mission to the Volga (2017) translated by James E. Montgomery, we find the following passage with regard to what are presumably the Volga Vikings or a similar group:

They disembark as soon as their boats dock. Each carries bread, meat, onions, milk, and alcohol to a large block of wood set in the ground. The piece of wood has a face on it, like the face of a man. It is surrounded by small figurines placed in front of large blocks of wood set in the ground. He prostrates himself before the large figure and says, “Lord, I have come from a distant land, with such and such a number of female slaves and such and such a number of sable pelts.” He lists all his merchandise. Then he says, “And I have brought this offering.” He leaves his offering in front of the piece of wood, saying, “I want you to bless me with a rich merchant with many dinars and dirhams who will buy from me whatever I wish and not haggle over any price I set.” Then he leaves. If he finds it hard to sell his goods and has to stay there too many days, he comes back with a second and a third offering. If his wishes are not fulfilled, he brings an offering to every single figurine and seeks its intercession, saying, “These are the wives, daughters, and sons of our lord.” He goes up to each figurine in turn and petitions it, begging for its intercession and groveling before it. Sometimes business is good, and he makes a quick sale. In that case, he says, “My lord has satisfied my request, so I need to compensate him.” He acquires some sheep or cows and kills them, gives a portion of the meat as alms, and places the rest before the large block of wood and the small ones around it. He ties the heads of the cows or the sheep to the piece of wood set up in the ground. When night falls, the dogs come and eat it all up, and the man who has gone to all this trouble says, “My lord is pleased with me and has eaten my offering.”

The passage is silent on the location of the Gods in relation to a village or settlement, but we may assume that the place where the boats dock is near a settlement or village; having reached civilisation is, after all, what prompts the boats to dock. The Gods, described as one large wooden figure surrounded by small wooden figures, are also reminiscent of the Korean 장승 (Jangseung), which are Village Gods, as they match the description: “The piece of wood has a face on it, like the face of a man.” The 장승 (Jangseung) are thus anthropomorphic wooden figures like those described in the passage. In the Dutch language, we may classify them as Paalgoden Pole Gods. Due to their beam-like or pole-like shape, the Korean 장승 (Jangseung) and their Germanic equivalents in the archeological and literary records remind me of the Native American totem poles. The Norsemen have a concept of Trémęnn, which one may translate as Tree Men or Wooden Men, and they have the related concept of Trégoð, which one may translate as Tree Gods or Wooden Gods. The quoted passage above uses the description “large block of wood,” but one may better understand this as a wooden pole or beam, since that is the shape one would expect, and it is also the most convenient; for if one wishes to transport a Pole God to a new location by boat or wagon, its stick-like shape makes it convenient for that. So, I believe “block of wood” should be interpreted as “beam of wood” or “wooden pole,” which matches with the Korean Village Gods and the Germanic archeological findings.

Who is the Lord, who is addressed in the passage, and who is represented as a patriarch or pater familiās with sons, daughters and wives? There is one God whom the Germanic peoples call Lord: Freyr, a name which is cognate with the Gothic word ᚠᚱᚨᚢᛃᚨ (frauja) lord. The worship of Freyr was very popular among the Norsemen. Thor was likewise a popular figure among them. So could it also have been Thor instead of Freyr? As already said, Freyr is known as Lord, and if the wooden figure had been Thor, it would likely have been described as wielding a hammer, like how the Sámi Thor, whom the Sámi name Horagalles, is described. So if the large figure is identified with Freyr instead of Thor, the small wooden figures, which are described in the passage, must be Álfar; for Freyr is closely associated with the Álfar, and it is even narrated that Freyr received dominion over Alfheim as a tooth gift. Receiving Alfheim is identical to receiving the Álfar, which means that the lore has accounted for how Freyr became the pater familiās or patriarch of the Álfar.

Since the Lord in the passage is represented as such a family man, could it not be Othin himself? The problem with this notion is that Othin was not as popularly worshipped among the Norsemen; the common man would worship Thor and Freyr. The worship of Othin was an affair associated with the elite. Othin should be excluded as an option. Furthermore, the leading role of Freyr is almost equivalent to that of Othin, and Freyr is even called Veraldargoð and Folkvaldigoð, World God and Foremost God, which emphasise His leading role, and which attests to His popularity. Freyr is a God of Prosperity, which means it would be fitting for a merchant to pray to Him. We must bear in mind that He is a son of Njörth, who is a Sea God, and the Sea is, moreover, a traditional symbol of wealth, making Freyr the son of wealth itself.

The Æsir may be described as Civilisational Deities — Gods watching over and protecting human settlements and villages, while the Vanir may be described as Nature Deities — Gods residing in nature and interacting with humans from their natural dwellings. This is the simple definition I gave in one of my recent articles. Jacob Grimm noticed that Áss means ‘Deity’ in Old Norse and its homonym áss means ‘beam, pole,’ leading him to connect the two etymogically, and since the words already sounded similar in Proto-Germanic times — as evidenced by Gothic ans ‘beam’ and *ansus ‘ancestor,’ the latter being a Gothic word which is attested in Latin as ansis ‘ancestors’ — we may certainly assume that the two words influenced each other semantically, implying that it is traditional for Germanic people to associate the Æsir with beams/poles, i.e., perceive them as Pole Gods (see pages 24-26 of volume I of Teutonic Mythology translated by James Steven Stallybrass; also see ans on page 19 of Ernst Schulze’s Gothisches Woerterbuch nebst Flexionslehre published in 1867). One may, thus, expect the Æsir to be Village Guardians, and to be identical to the Pole Gods as described in the passage. Reality may be more complicated; there may be a division between the Vanir and Æsir in their protective roles. Namely, the Æsir may be the ones protecting the inner core of the village, while the Vanir may be protecting the outler layers of the village. After all, the Æsir are the walled-in Gods — they are the Gods of Walls — and their walls might potentially have been a cause for tensions with the free-roaming Vanir, nomads like the Sámi, who felt obstructed by the Æsir and the Germanic peoples living in villages, because nature has no walls, no large defense structures, which are apparently distinctly human and civilisational. The Vanir may be understood as to be found outside civilisation or on the outer edges of civilisation, while the Æsir are the representatives of civilisation, thus inside it. The conflict between Æsir and Vanir may be seen as the tension between natute and civilisation, eventually reaching a compromise, such that the Vanir rule outside villages, the Æsir rule inside it, and both leave each other be. Nature, after all, immediately starts at the edges of villages, and so that is where the realm of the Vanir begins.

Given that the people disembarking from the boat would immediately go to the wooden figures which means they must be relatively close to where the boats docked as convenience would have it if you follow such a tradition, the wooden figures, which are described in the passage, must be located at the edge of a village just like the Korean Village Gods, which explains why, rather than being associated with the Æsir, namely Othin and Thor, the wooden figures described in the passage seem to be associated with the Vanir, namely Freyr and Njörth. Given that we have — at least in this particular case as the Æsir may be Trémęnn or Trégoð as well — found a link between the Vanir and wooden figures, might the Lord described in the passage not be Njörth instead of Freyr? An argument for this might be the fact that Njörth, who is doubtlessly a family man like described in the passage, is associated with waters, and a connection between boats and waters seems logical. Morris H. Lary says in his article on Njörth: “Njord (also anglicized as Njorth) was the [G]od of ships and seafaring, as well as the [G]od of wealth and prosperity (both things the sea can provide in abundance). He was also, unsurprisingly for a [G]od of seafaring, seen as having dominion over the winds and the coastal waters. And [H]is association with ships – especially for a people like the Vikings – naturally connected [H]im to trade and commerce.”

We should, however, not forget that Freyr, the son of Njörth, is likewise associated with boats. John Arnott MacCulloch says the following on pages 108-109 of his work on Norse religion, which is volume II of the series titled The Mythology of All Races: “[Frey’s] possessions are Skidbladnir, “swiftest and best of ships,” and made with great skill of craftsmanship by dwarfs. It was given to Frey, perhaps because [H]e, one of the Vanir, had to do with ship-faring. It is the ideal magic ship, so large that all the [G]ods may man it with their weapons and armaments. As soon as its sails are hoisted, wherever it is going it has a fair wind, like certain ships in the Sagas. When not in use it can be folded up and put in the pouch. Possibly this ship betokens the clouds.” The large wooden figure being Njörth or Freyr seems equally likely on the surface, but when one takes the popularity of Freyr into account, and secondly also the fact that Freyr was held in very high esteem among the ordinary Norsemen who called him the World God and Foremost God, and thirdly the fact that the large figure is addressed as Lord, I maintain that Freyr is the likelier Vanic option.

Since the wooden figures, just like the Korean Village Gods, seem to have a liminal function, one might also compare the large figure to Heimdallr, who is a Liminal Deity as discussed at length in my recent article on Heimdallr as a Liminal God. I would not seriously consider the wooden figure being identical to Heimdallr, because Heimdallr was not really a God to be worshipped, or at least was not commonly so, but rather it was a God with many functions for the order of the world. For worship, Freyr filled the place of Heimdallr, whose worship was, based on evidence from Old Norse writings and Scandinavian toponyms, by far not as popular as Freyr’s. Heimdallr is a Freyr-like Deity, and, the reverse being equally true, Freyr is a Heimdallr-like Deity; for due to Heimdallr’s function of protecting the world, one would expect Heimdallr to be called World God, but Freyr is called such, and this may also suggest a liminal function: Freyr is a protector of the world, He certainly acts as such at Ragnarök where He plays a prominent role just like Heimdallr, and He would therefore certainly be a good fit as a Village Guardian. One could say that Freyr is just as much a Vörðr watchman as Heimdallr; they are both apparently Vęrðir watchmen. Heimdallr and Freyr are both Gods of Wealth, and so they are, on the surface, equally fitting for a merchant to pray to. However, all things considered, we may safely exclude Heimdallr, an ambiguous Týr who is neither clearly one of the Æsir nor Vanir, from the possible candidates for the large wooden figure which is described in the passage; Freyr remains the best candidate or likeliest option.

If, like in my recent article, we strictly define Tívar as Sky Gods, Vanir as Nature Gods, and Æsir as Civilisational Gods, we may say that the wooden figures, likely located outside the village, are not a match with Tívar nor Æsir, but only Vanir. There is, of course, overlap between Tívar, Vanir and Æsir; the lines are ultimately blurred, and strict defintions, therefore, do not really work. Polytheists do not adhere to strict defintions, as exained in the same article where I define Tívar, Æsir, and Vanir, while polytheists recognise overlap, which naturally breaks down distinctions we may tend or try to make as humans; the world is a web of interconnected mysteries, which we mere mortals seek to interpret with distinctions, yet overlap, vagueness, lack of clarity, lack of extremes, balance, equilibrium, is the natural order of things. When we are trying to make distinctions, we may just be grasping at straws; the defintions, which I gave of the Vanir, Tívar, and Æsir in my recent article should, therefore, be perceived as mere tools, and while the Æsir may strictly speaking be Village Gods, the Vanir may also fulfill such a function. After all, the Vanir are legally tied to the Æsir, they are part of the Æsir, and so drawing strict lines in an attempt to distinguish Vanir and Æsir is futile. Worshippers did ultimately not care whether the Gods they worshipped were Æsir or Vanir; they were both worshipped equally enthusiastically, as exemplified by the popular worship of Thor and the popular worship of Frey among the ancients. Worshippers, although perhaps not treating all Gods as Vanir, did consider all Gods Æsir, and also all Gods Tívar; these were generic titles. Once upon a time, Tívar may have been a category treated more like Vanir; for Týr is the main Sky Deity in elder traditions, and Heimdallr, if an ancient God like Terminus, may be part of that tradition. A three-way distinction of Gods in the form of Tívar, Vanir and Æsir seems possible, though one might say that Vanir, Æsir and Jötnar already form such a holy division of factions, and that Tívar should always have been a mere synonym of Æsir. But then again, Vanir might also be such a synonym; for there should always have been Gods of Nature besides Gods of Civilisation among the Germanic polytheists and their pre-Germanic ancestors.

The Vanir-Æsir division might be a religious symbolism for the nature-civilisation clash, and perhaps the Tívar-Æsir division might fulfill a similar role; perhaps, in a now lost story, Othin replaced Týr as King of the Gods after a struggle between the Civilisational Gods and Heavenly Gods, though a sky-civilisation conflict seems stranger than a nature-civilisation conflict. Yet if one considers that the Sky is equally a part of nature as the Sea and Earth are, one may consider an Æsir-Tívar conflict to be a parallel to the Æsir-Vanir conflict; after all, it may have happened simultaneously, if we consider the Tívar to be related to the Vanir. However, the Æsir themselves seem to be Sky Gods; the struggle between Vanir and Æsir rather seems to be a struggle between Sky, Earth and Sea — we see something akin to tensions between Sky, Earth and Sea in Māori polytheism. After all, we know of no place called Tívaheimr or Tívagarðr, so, going by this logic, Tívar can only originally have dwelt in Vanaheimr or Ásgarðr; I am inclined to think the latter, while the brave God nmed Týr might be considered native to Ásgarðr, although it is harder to say for Heimdallr, who genuinely appears to be a Týr. Heimdallr’s mothers might be the nine waves; I have also heard people say it might be nine mountains; I have thought to myself that if the connection with Tívar is genuine, then it might as well be 9 clouds. One might be lost in thought for a long time whilst considering these intriguing possibilities carefully, yet if we go by the Eddic lore handed down to us, it seems the most likely that the supposed Tívagarðr, the realm of the Tívar, is identical to Ásgarðr; for Ásgarðr is also where Bifröst is located, and Bifröst seems quite heavenly on account of being associated with Heimdallr, who sees all, apparently from his high location — one might associate elevation with clouds and Holy Mountains, such as Mount Olympus, Mount Paektu, and Mount Fuji — and whose abode called Himinbjörg is even associated with the Heavens.

The form -týr is frequently used in epithets for Othin, the leader of the Æsir, which is in line with the Norse tradition of treating Týr and Áss as essentially synonymous, yet I treated Týr and Áss as tentatively synonymous when I asserted in my article on Heimdallr as a Liminal Divinity because I was more focused on comparing the Tívar with the Álfar, while I did allow for a Týr to be synonymous with an Áss in the first sentence, though I shifted to likening Tívar with Álfar in the second sentence: “Heimdallr is closely associated with (sun)light and he is called the White God and the whitest of the Gods. This makes sense considering that he is a Týr, one of the Tívar (Sky, Heaven and Light Deities); Heimdallr is considered the most Týr-like due to being the prime example of a White God, Sun God, Lord of Light. As such, He is a God that is hard to classify from the standpoint of Vanic-Asic duality, or one might say duopoly. He is a third type of deity; non-Vanic and non-Asic, but He is nevertheless truly Tyric or Alfish.” My statements allow for ambiguity, which is traditional in Germanic thinking; when I am philosophising about topics of Germanic religion, I may form a thesis, antithesis, and then a synthesis — comparable to the cycles found in polytheistic or folkloric thinking, as birth, death and rebirth or the three acts of building, destroying, and rebuilding. Since ancient philosophy was poetical, I am speaking in a poetical way; my words may intentionally have multiple meanings, such as that sometimes Tívar = Æsir, and sometimes Tívar ≠ Æsir, it all depends on the “poetical” situation — different realities or truths may exist simultaneously. Furthermore, it is a hallmark of traditional polytheism — or at the very least of philosophical poetry — to make distinctions initially, only to break them down later, or to allow multiple realities to exist simultaneously; ambiguity is the mystery of life, it is the natural order of things, it is fate.

I like the hypothesising part of science; I very much enjoy philosophising in the way the Greeks did who allowed complex ideas to blossom without concerning themselves too much with evidence and thereby ended up developing ideas that were precursors to our modern scientific ideas. However, unlike the Greeks, I will eventually concern myself with evidence when I deem my hypotheses to have matured far enough, and I regard making the most out of available sources — exploiting those sources of information as much as humanly possible — as an art. The methods peculiar to the arts of poetry, philosophy, and science are complementary in the study of Germanic religion; I say arts in reference to poetry, philosophy and science fully knowing that there are those who would only consider poetry an art, but not philosophy and science. What I am emphasising by calling them arts is a creative spirit that serves the practice of these three and the creative spirit is common to those who master any of the these three. I do not wish to master only one, but all; for combining poetical, philosophical and scientific thought is powerful. I consider the combination of all three to be an artistic analytical approach, not limited to one mode of thinking, but creative in that it is open to multiples modes, multiple possibilities, like the ancient polytheists were — by opening up to all the possibilities, one welcomes inspiration from the Gods or oerfoarmen. There is inevitable overlap between poetry, philosophy and science; the inevitability of this overlap is an important theme in my father’s art philosophy of oerfoarmen (proto-forms), and this is also why my father combines poetry, philosophy and science for his art, like I combine these for the analysis of Germanic religion. An altered state of thinking is conducive to understanding Germanic religion; like watching a movie or reading a book, we must suspend disbelief, and place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists — the Germanic polytheists in the case of the study of Germanic religion — and, finally, the better we can relate to and empathise with the characters, the more we can immerse ourselves in their reality.

The Vedic lore informs us about a conflict between the Asuras and Daivas (see an article about this conflict here). This is inspiring; for if Asuras and Daivas are cognate with Æsir and Tívar all the way back to Indogermanic, this suggests that an Æsir-Tívar conflict, which is similar in nature to the Æsir-Vanir conflict, is certainly a possibility (also take note of Jacob Grimm’s comparison of Old Norse Áss with Sanskrit Asura on page 1291 of volume IV of Teutonic Mythology translated by James Steven Stallybrass and compare Jacob Grimm’s remarks on pages 24-25 of volume I of Teutonic Mythology translated by James Steven Stallybrass). In fact, keeping this Vedic lore in mind, we may regard the Æsir-Vanir conflict as reminiscent of the Æsir-Tívar conflict in the same way that the Freyr-Freyja twin pair is reminiscent of the Njörthr-Njörthr twin pair or that the Njörth-Skaði dispute is reminiscent of the Njörthr-Njörthr dispute — or if one wishes to make yet another comparison: in the same way that Heimdallr’s hljóð being located at the bottom of Yggdrasill is reminiscent of Othin’s sacrifice at the bottom of Yggdrasill; for while Othin sacrifice his sight for foresight (i.e., visual knowledge of fate), Heimdallr may have sacrificed his hearing for forehearing (i.e., auditory knowledge of fate) (for those interested, this article discusses different ways of sensing the future — or fate if you will — including forehearing and foresight). In conclusion, there may have been multiple parallels, multiple instantiations of comparable things, in the Germanic lore; it appears that the Germanic lore rhymes with itself. Lost tales, which have not been handed down to us directly but which have still left their traces here and there, may be retrieved with the aid of comparison. The Gothic word *Ansjus is attested in Latin as Ansis, signifying (to) the Ancestors; this meaning is not strange, as the Norse Æsir and Gothic Ansjus may come from an Indogermanic word for beget, give birth, which would more directly show a connection between humans and this type of Gods, while these Gods would be Gods of (Clan) Lineages, who are ancestral to humans by being those who gave birth to or otherwise created mankind. The fact that there are traces of different divine leaders might indicate that the Germanic people had many different classes or factions of Gods, each lead by a different God, possibly with a different group name — which would, then, be ethnic explanations or justifications for how the Germanic tribes differed among themselves, and the different classes of Gods could, in such a scenario, also be associated with different tribes, such that different tribes could have different classes of Deities, an idea which seems to be confirmed by the notion that the Ingaevones, Herminones, Istvaeones (according to Pliny) or Istaevones (according to Tacitus), Saxones and Frisians trace their descent to eponymous Gods; namely, Yngvi, Hęrmaðr/Hęrmęnn (compare Einhęrjar), Istio, Saxnōt, and Friso. Different tribes may have had their own (esoteric) truths/realities, and these, if they existed, would be as equally traditional as they would be equally true; for they would be equally descended from a common source, making them equally authentic.

The passage which I quoted at the beginning of the current article mentions in the final sentences three relevant facts:

  • The Norseman makes a blood sacrifice;
  • Animals consume the sacrificial meat;
  • Since the sacrificial meat has disappeared, the Norseman considers this a sign that the Gods have accepted his sacrifice.

Interestingly, page 36 of Mission to the Volga (2017) translated by James E. Montgomery mentions how such sacrificial victims are cut: “They cut a dog in two and threw it onto the boat. […] They made two horses gallop into a sweat, cut them into pieces with a sword […]. They cut two cows into pieces and threw them on board. Then they produced a cock and a hen, killed them […].” It might be an error to think that by cutting in two with regard to the dog, it was meant that the dog was cut in half through the back, but I interpret this cutting in two to mean that the dog was beheaded; this is, after all, the easiest way to cut such an animal in two an instantly kill it. Beheading was, doubtlessly, in the past a favourite way of slaughtering/sacrificing in animal, and it still is today, especially when people are slaughtering/sacrificing by hand, instead of mechanically as in slaughterhouses.

The tying of “the heads of the cows or the sheep to the piece of wood set up in the ground,” as mentioned in the passage which I quoted at the start of this article, is an authentic Germanic tradition by the looks of it. In my recent article on what a Germanic sacrificial site looks like, I mentioned the following as an aspect of the Germanic sacrificial environment: “Heads (turned into skeletons) and hides hung in trees from previous blood sacrifices.” I could go into more detail about heads in Germanic sacrificial rites, but I will save that for another article.

Having witnessed a traditional pagan sacrifice in modern times, I may summarise it as follows:

  • A rooster is sacrificed;
  • The rooster is placed at its final resting place while the crowing of ravens is being heard, which is deemed a good omen;
  • The rooster has disappeared when the sacrificers return, signifying that the Gods have accepted the offer.

This follows the same sequence of events as described in the passage I quoted. The final point is the religious climax: the acceptance of the offer. The principle of nature consuming the offer is a recurring theme in Germanic sacrifice, and the resulting disappearance of the sacrificial meat symbolises the acceptance of the Gods. Being able to interpret such an omen in the traditional way of the sacrificers is relevant for comprehending the mechanics of blood sacrifice. To outsiders, it may seem like superstitious folly. However, to an insider, it is the magic of nature, the mysterious workings of the universe. After all, sacrifice is about eating, as the passage rightly points out; Gods in animal form may eat the sacrifice. We know that the Gods may assume animal shapes, and so it should not be surprising that they may consume the sacrificial meat in animal form. Furthermore, humans consume a part of the sacrificial meat as well and share the rest with the Gods; in doing so, the sacrificers commune with the Gods, and strengthen their local community’s relationship with the Gods.

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