Priesthood in Norse heathenism

Foreword

In Norse religion every free man (but not slave) had the right to hold a ritual, unlike most of the other polytheist (and monotheist) religions. Anyway, generally every person devote his live to a specific craft or vocation: warriro, smith, politician, and so on. So, since late 50 B.C. (Julius Cæsar’s time, indeed it was he to report this), there were men and women who dedicated their lives to serve the gods, and in Viking Age (750 – 1000 A.D.) they were called “goði” (priest) and “gyðja” (priestess). The term is not to be confused with the later “góði”, which is the nominative weak inflexion of “góðr”, meaning “god”, and is differently pronounced, [goothi] (while “goði” is pronounced [gothi]) which then became the Scandinavian “gud” and Icelandic “guð”.

The goði and the gyðja

The person of the goði or gyðja is may be different from the common conception of “priest”, even if we are talking about heathen priests. In facts, Greek and Roman priests were mostly fulltime priests, instances of warrior priest were at last rare, of smith/politician/a.s.o. priest practically nil. In Southern Europe traditions they were the only admitted to hold rituals; with exceptions of important people, who usually can hold a ritual but were also sacrified to the gods if needed.

In Northern Europe, instead, as yet said, every man was free to hold a ritual, not only private, but also public. Therefore, as every man was in part a “priest”, the real priests didn’t dedicate their entire lives to the gods, but they did other crafts, they went to war, they had family, and so on. However a go
ði or a gyðja is not a common person: he was (and is) wise, cultured, knows very well every ritual and knows very well all that mankind knows on the gods. A goði or gyðja is appointed by another goði or gyðja in a nameless ritual intended to consecrate that person to the gods. As a rule a goði or gyðja chooses a god or goddess to whom devote; but this doesn’t mean that they believe only in him/her, because their soul is being linked to all the gods; simply they reatain themselves particularly devote of that one god or goddess.


Consecration rite of a goði or gyðja

The consecration rite is private and involves these steps; it is the only Norse rite which can be hold only by another consecrated person:

1stThe appointor sacrifices an animal or plant to the gods and sprinkle with it the appointed;
2nd – The appointor carves a cut with an athame on the chest of the appointed;
3rd – The appointed swears loyalty to the gods and particularly to the god/godess to whom he/she reatains himself/herself a priest/priestess;
4th – The appointor assigns a new name to the appointed, composed by the name of the god/goddess (of course in genitive declension) with the suffix “-goði” or “-gyðja”;
5th – The new goði sacrifices in its turn an animal or a plant to the gods, as first act as a priest and as thanksgiving for the trust in him reserved.

Nowadays not much is changed. Steps are the same, but goðar (pl. of goði) and the gyðjur (pl. of gyðja) are chosen with more wariness. Practically, yet appointed goðar and gyðjur refuse to consecrate who they don’t consider worthy, and because they are the only who can consecrate a normal man into a consecrated man, it means that the pretending priest cannot pass from a normal man (who can anyway hold every rituals!) to a consecrated man, a goði or a gyðja. This happens because with the beginning of “neopaganism” and “Viking fashion” so many men and women approach Norse culture without real information (e.g. the “Yule” hold on 21 December and not the real Jólablót hold on 13-14 January) and not knowing the traditional truth. Recapping, a goði or gyðja differs from a normal man or woman only because he/she is consecrated to the gods. Thus permises them to appoint in turn other goðar or gyðjur. But, particularly, a goði or gyðja is a person who dedicate its live in learning the Ancient Way, the real rites, the culture and the knoweledge on the gods. Therefore, when they are present, they are usually responsible of holding the rites.

Last but not least, it must be remember that norsemen, 1200 years ago as still today, didn’t make distinctions betweens men and women, neither in minor part, for what corncerns rights. Rather, in Norway and Sweden, in Viking Age, religious people were mostly gyðja: this because women were more inclined to serve gods for all their lives, because usually they didn’t go to war; whil the men usually die too young or anyway had always more chances to die than a woman. Therefore a gyðja must be considered exactly as a goði, without any difference. The same is true for the normal women, who, exactly as the other normal men, can held and hold every ritual.



Sources

Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf the Saint, Hrafnkels saga.

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