One of the means of assessment for the new religions intensive course at the seminary this semester involved an opportunity to attend a Yule Sabbat in December. I thought it might be instructive to share the results of my observations here.
Given my relationship with a Pagan member of the Ogden Pagan Community Builders group from Yahoo!, I attended a Yule Sabbat celebration associated with this group which was held on Saturday, December 23 at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Ogden. This Sabbat celebration was conducted by Eagles Kindred, a Pagan group representing Odinism, Ásatrú, and Norse Paganism. In keeping with this assignment’s parameters, the first portion of the paper will consist of a description of the Yule Sabbat ritual celebration, and the second portion will include my impressions and reflections on the meaning of this gathering for Pagan participants.
Soon after my arrival I met with my contact, Luna Aileen, and she immediately introduced me to one of the two individuals who would be leading the evening’s celebration. He was cordial, and had heard of me previously through Luna. I discovered later that several members of this gathering had heard of me through Luna, as well as through my interaction with various Utah Pagan Yahoo! Groups. Most were fine with my attendance that evening, and one even voiced their appreciation for having read the ethnography I wrote on Eclectic Mormon Women. Another woman, however, was uneasy with my attendance at the Sabbat, and she would later approach me to share her concern over how I might describe the evening’s events in my paper, and what I might do with my report. She said I seemed nervous around this Pagan group, and when I assured her this was not the case, and that this was not my first time among Pagans, she told me that she was nervous around me, which led me to believe that she might have been experiencing a case of projecting her concerns on me as a result of my presence at the Sabbat. Her reaction, coupled with the curiosity that other Pagans expressed, provides an indication that Christians and Pagans still have a long way to go in terms of understanding and interacting with each other.
Before the event began I took note of the room’s arrangements. The event took place in a fellowship or banquet hall type of room in the lower level of the Unitarian Church. The room included several tables and chairs set up for dining which resembled what Christians might expect to see at any potluck gathering. In front of the dining tables was a table filled with food, and in front of the room was a table where various items were set up that would play a role in the ritual of the Sabbat. This table included several candles, three different types of animal horns, large and small pieces of wood including a staff with Nordic runes carved into them, a small evergreen tree, and something that resembled a crystal ball. Other elements included a small horse statue, a Viking warrior, a bowl, and types of drink including water and a beverage with alcohol (possibly mead, honey-wine). Behind the table on the wall hung a banner with the words “Eagles Kindred,” referring to the Ásatrú group hosting the evening’s event, and below the wording was the figure of an eagle and on either side were symbols comprised of three interlocking triangles.
The event was begun by the lead facilitator. He wore a green robe and took the long staff from the table at the front of the room and called for the ritual to begin by declaring the area a space of hospitality, a place of peace, and for all discord to be left outside. The ritual for the event included three parts and began with a group meal that the facilitator told me was an important part of the Yule Sabbat ritual. Before a meal a prayer was offered to the gods for the meal and the evening’s ritual.
Toward the end of the meal I had a discussion with one of the leaders about the meaning of the rune symbols carved on the staff and horns on the table. He told me that they are both an alphabet and also are believed to have the power to unleash the power of the gods for magic and for divination. I was told that Ásatrú practitioners believe that when Christians pray they access the same sources as those accessed through the runes.
After dinner the leader explained the background for the evening’s events and what these events would include. He discussed the Pagan Wheel of the Year and the place of the thirteen days of Yule within it. He described the god Odin as one of the deities overseeing Yule. Thor was another deity that received great recognition during the evening’s ritual. The facilitator said that through the evening’s ritual Thor would be sending his energy to participants and they would be sending their energy to him.
The second phase of the ritual, the blot, involving a ritual sacrifice offering of liquid to the gods, began after the tables and chairs were put away and a circle of chairs was arranged in the center of the room. Everyone took a set and then the lead facilitator recited words in an Icelandic language as he faced in the four directions of north, south, east, and west. He then repeated these words in English as he consecrated the space and the lives of those present to Thor. The leader, with the assistance of another leader also wearing a ceremonial robe, went around the circle and offered either an alcoholic drink or water to each person who then made a toast as a symbol of their sacrificial offering. As they offered their toasts and pronounced “Hail, Thor!,” they asked that the power and might of Thor might be poured into the horn containing the drink. As each person offered their hails to Thor the group repeated this in unison. This portion of the ritual was completed with the facilitator staying “Hail and farewell,” which was repeated by everyone in unison.
The third portion of the ritual was the sumbel, or ritual toast of three rounds. In the first round a toast was offered by each individual to their patron deity who had blessed them during the year. Patron deities mentioned included Odin, Frejya, Freyr, Diana, the Goddess, Athena, Isis, and more general offerings to the gods. The second round of toasts was offered to the ancestors who had passed on, and the third round of toasting was more general, and included well wishes to the community.
Meaning to Participants
The remaining part of this assignment is to reflect on why this Yule Sabbat ritual celebration is meaningful for those who participated. In order to understand this more directly and appropriately, toward the end of the meal during my conversation with one of the leaders I asked him why the celebration of the Yule Sabbat was meaningful for him. He told me that for him this was a great time of year in that that which separates us from the gods is especially thin during this time of the year and thus it represents a wonderful time to commune with them. As the leader shared with me I was able to catch a sense of the emotional satisfaction he took from his own celebration of Yule, and how he was able to share this with members of his family, and others who were present at the Sabbat ritual. His joy and satisfaction seemed as meaningful as that which might come from any Christian who reflects joyfully on the birth of Christ during the Christmas season.
Beyond this personal story, in my observation of those Pagans present at this Yule Sabbat they appeared to be enjoying a real sense of community with each other as they came together to eat, fellowship, and participate in religious ritual that connected them to each other, the gods, and the seasonal cycles of nature. As a part of this community participants seem to find a sense of self-identity and self-affirmation as well. One Pagan shared with me that when she participates in Paganism and in the Pagan community, particularly in community rituals such as the Yule Sabbat, she feels that she can really be herself. While she was part of another religious community in the past, and one of a more traditional nature with a connection to Christianity, she found this unsatisfying and restrictive in its institutionalism, and by contrast she now has the freedom to express herself within Paganism.
Another aspect, and one which is admittedly likely found only among a minority of Pagans, was illustrated in the Utah Pagan Yahoo! Groups. My contact in Eagles Kindred, Luna, posted a comment in some of these groups which drew attention to a concern she had that surfaces during the Yule time of year, a concern that is also shared with other Pagans. Luna’s post provided a link to a video on the increasingly popular YouTube website, produced by a Pagan who noted the various aspects of the Christmas celebration that have been appropriated by Christians and secularists from Paganism. The self-produced video mentioned elements such as the wreath, the Christmas tree, the Yule log, and the offering of gifts, and shared the video producer’s concern that these symbols and traditions of the Christmas season celebration have been borrowed from Paganism without any acknowledgement of the source. I discussed this concern with the leader from Eagles Kindred, and he said that this was not a concern for him, but he was aware that it may be a concern for some Pagans, particularly those who may come to the practice of Pagan pathways out of a Christian background. With this consideration in mind, a small number of Pagans may find the Yule Sabbat celebration meaningful as a means of identity construction and boundary maintenance in relation to Christianity and secular culture.
It would seem in light of these differing aspects of the Yule Sabbat celebration among Pagans that the reasons for the meaningful nature of it is diverse, and for many of the same religious, social, and personal reasons that any member of any religion or spirituality might find their differing pathways and practices significant.
I found this assignment beneficial for me in that it afforded me with another opportunity to engage the Utah Pagan community, and to learn about a tradition within Paganism, Ásatrú and Odinism, that I had heard of previously but had never researched and engaged.
John it was a pleasure having you attend the ritual. I enjoyed reading your post, you always seem to see everything around with such clarity. I know that this group would not hesitate to let you attend again if you so asked, they were impressed with you and how you were able to just blend in and not stand out.
I am glad that you had a chance to speak with Kelly. He and I live what we call an authentic life, this means we are open about our beliefs, we attempt to be honest in all our dealings, and we don't try to make ourselves out as someone or something we are not.
My Coven is having an open ritual called a Seekers Moon, if you wish to attend let me know, it is in February on the 1st. We usually have several non Pagans attend. The muslums next door love to attend, imagine that!
Luna, thank you for your kind comments, and for serving as my "guide" during the Sabbat event. I felt welcome, and learned a lot. I will try to attend the Seekers Moon ritual at your Coven. It would provide another opportunity to meet Utah Pagans, and to learn about Wicca.
I too have attended many of these celebrations. What was your level of participation in the celebration, and how did you determine what you could or could not paticipate in? This is always an interesting dynamic.
When I first arrived I was offered the opportunity to participate in the evening's event. I would have gladly enjoyed the first portion of the night's festivities, the group meal, but I had eaten with my family prior to arriving. With the other portions of the evening, the ritual offering and toast, I felt it best to observe rather than participate. I have twofold reasons for this. First, I felt it inappropriate for me to offer a toast to one of the Pagan deities given my Judeo-Christian monotheism. Second, I felt it would have been inappropriate to offer a toast to Yahweh and Christ in this context as it would have likely been interpreted as confrontational.
While I am open to participant observation whenever possible, I need to practice this critically in order to discern the appropriate boundaries for my faith as well as that of my Pagan contacts.
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