Bīnaman: A Distinctly Fyrnsidere Approach to Divinity

Author’s Note: This piece partially builds off of “Prayer in a Heathen Context” and “Prayer in a Fyrnsidu Context”, as a natural continuation of those practices within Fyrnsidu.

For practitioners of Fyrnsidu, or other Anglo-Saxon Heathen traditions, there exists a fundamental impasse in the understanding of divinity within strictly “Anglo-Saxon” religious perspectives. The problem is quite simple: the identifiable “pantheon” of Anglo-Saxon deities is beyond poorly represented in surviving literary works and materials. Outside of place-name analysis, the linguistic lineages such as the days of the week, and a few inclusions in authored works that survive – like Bede’s De Temporum Ratione – the actual identifiable names of deities are few and far between.

On the surface, this would not seem like much of a problem, until one thinks about the plethora of divinity that other tribal peoples would have access to. Instead, it generates the idea of a cultural monolith, which positions an unreasonable idea of uniformity across a group made up of several peoples. This consequently leaves Anglo-Saxon practitioners bereft of the vast theological expression which may be exhibited in other polytheistic traditions. A comparison between the list of known deities of the Norse mythos to the Anglo-Saxon will show the inherent deficiency in the Anglo-Saxon view.

This is a similar issue faced by conventional academic scholars interested in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religious expression, as adequately stated in Marilyn Dunn’s The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons:

Both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon paganism were fluid and constantly developing phenomena, and we should always bear in mind that there may be a very real gulf between the Anglo-Saxon gods and their later Scandinavian personifications, as well as an inexact fit between the two pantheons.” [1]

And,

..not only that the Anglo-Saxons did not know the entire pantheon of Scandinavian gods now familiar to us through Snorri, but they also worshipped several divinities whose memory has all but vanished. These include sea-deities or personifications of the ocean; a heavenly body who may be the morning star; and a ‘brilliance’ or ‘glory’ numen, Old English wuldor. None of these entities – thought of both as persons and personifications – crystallized into later Norse gods and goddesses, though their characteristics and attributes are preserved in later Old English poetry and in Old Norse vocabulary.[2]

These same issues hold true for Anglo-Saxon Heathens who approach their religious practice independently from – but perhaps buttressed by – the writings of Old Norse Heathens and their practices. At one time, it was common for notable Anglo-Saxon practitioners to have utilized ‘Anglicized’ Nordic deity and mythological personalities and names in order to fill the deficiencies in their own mythos [3]. For those practitioners who no longer wish to do this, or who may feel that this action is inappropriate to their iteration of Heathenry, there are few alternatives. As a result, many contemporary Heathens either include non-traditional (foreign) deities into their daily practice, or otherwise place less emphasis on the overall interactions with the divine gods in favor of greater emphasis on the nameless local wights, tutelary spirits, or ancestral bodies which may be important to the individual.

It is not the purpose of this writing to determine the appropriateness of these actions. It is, however, the purpose to explore the alternatives. There is much to be desired with these traditional stopgaps. It is a common defense of contemporary Heathen practice that the pagan Anglo-Saxons did not place a great emphasis on the deities and instead focused on the beings of closer ‘value’ to their relative position in society. Two historic incidents would place somewhat different emphasis on the social interactions with the divine:

  • Toponymy: the identification of place names, their social origins and meanings, their overall use, and the typology of the place. Numerous places in Old English history have been identified as associated with particular deities and, although the revisions of these places have reduced their incidence somewhat, they are nevertheless prominent in Anglo-Saxon history.

  • Christian responses: Gregory the Great’s expression of change in regards to the orders of the establishment of the English Mission in a letter carried by Abbot Mellitus to Æthelberht in 601. The evolution of the mission focused not on the systemic destruction of pagan attitudes and practices, but the adoption of such non-doctrinal actions into the Christian framework. Notably he abandoned, wholesale, the destruction of shrines and temples (fana) and established feast days to subvert the sacrifices to pagan personalities.

These two incidents indicate that specific attitudes and approaches towards the gods were prominent within society, not necessarily displaced solely by local spirits or ancestral veneration. The deeply ingrained social and cultural attitudes could not be excised in a hardcore, doctrinal fashion which Gregory had at first extolled [4]. These were living faiths, holistic and all-encompassing, grounded in social reality and reflected within society, and the gods undoubtedly took a more familiar place within the mentality of the individual as reflected in other contemporary and indigenous European paganisms.

Within the practice of contemporary Heathenry, a point is thus reached where there are a few options available to the individual practitioner regarding the question of the gods:

  1. Accept the inherent deficiency in understanding Anglo-Saxon tribal divinity and not be concerned.
  2. ‘Anglicize’ foreign deities in order to fit the lacking roles, as needed. This includes adopting Scandinavian deities from later history, or a-historically adopting Romano-British, Brythonic, or Continental Germanic deities.
  3. Develop contemporary, historically informed, practices in order to expand the interaction with divinity.

For the purposes of this discussion, the first two points are undesirable. The third must then be considered with the understanding that contemporary developments are historically informed can indeed be particularly relevant to modern practice. So what is the aspiring practitioner to do in this regard?

Here is where the idea of bīnaman is relevant to the discussion.

The Basis for Bīnaman

Germanic poetic literature, particularly the Old English and Old Norse literary corpi, contains numerous instances of embellishments of figurative language. These are compound words which are utilized in order to describe some noun – a person or an object – featured in the poetic meter. Known as kennings, they are most prominent found in the Old Norse corpus (particularly Eddas and Sagas), and in these we see them most often used as descriptive qualifiers for entities, as well as conventional nouns. Oðinn is reported to have two hundred such kennings. The Old English corpus, with its lack of emphasis on pre-Christian mythology, does not utilize them as frequently for the deities we are concerned with [5]. Kennings provide a native Germanic framework of by-naming within poetry or praise.

When applied to divine figures in the literature, kennings take on a similar incidence to the use of epithets, which have historically been used with great effect in some polytheistic religious practices. These are most notable in the Roman and Greek traditions.

Epithets likewise are by-names, descriptive phrases which are affixed to a deity name – or replacing the deity name – in order to further refine and reflect the particular qualities, aspects, or roles of that deity. One use is to identify localized variations or interpretations of the divinity, which would otherwise be subsumed by wider, or later, understandings of the deity in the national conscience or mythology. We can see this in Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of Nemi. Divine associations were oftentimes over-broad, and the use of epithets enabled them to focus on a more appropriate aspect for their particularly stringent prayer formulas.

For contemporary practitioners of Fyrnsidu, these are best known as bīnaman (Singular: bīnama; literally: ‘pronouns’), and offer an opportunity to expand on interaction with the diety in one’s religious practice without necessarily relying on the incorporation of foreign deities through Anglicization.

Bīnaman effectively isolate qualities in the use of prayer in order to direct one’s focus in order to more appropriately petition, honor, and venerate a deity’s role in the world and the practitioner’s practice. They utilize what is known about the deity in traditional legends and mythologies, those qualities which are ascribed to the deity in geographic relations, linguistic and literary expressions, or the ‘best guess’ of the figure’s role within society.

These are used in order to establish the deity’s position in the most probable of placements, effectively derived from the best guess of the actions of the elder tribes, were they placed in the same situation.

A bīnama is a contemporary development in approaching the gods of Fyrnsidu, an attempt at looking at the world and applying that worldview’s philosophy of the elder heathens to our present time. It is a way in which we can take what we associate with that worldview and adopt it, apply it in practical contemporary experiences, while simultaneously extending the breadth of our religious identity.

Consider that the Germanic gods were not native to Britain prior to the arrival of these tribes, and that their understanding of the gods similarly had to “settle” in the lands which they themselves began to inhabit. Their associations with the local landscape were discovered and applied after settlement. Their tribal variations differed across England, in part due to different geographic conditions, but also due to the differences inherent between the tribes themselves and their unique historical traditions.

Modern practitioners overwhelmingly find themselves in much of a similar position as these ancient peoples. Taking the central idea of a common religious practice, contemporary Fyrnsidere are diffused from it. These people are establishing their own contemporary practices from a variety of geographic locations, each with different influences that have formed a foundation of world view. Each of these individual practices will necessarily become informed by different factors, from location and experiences, and other environmental variables.

The use of bīnaman is simply a modern perspective of an older tradition of religious interpretation.

Formation and Examples of Bīnaman

As stated bīnaman are divine by-names and are closer to epithets than poetic kennings. They specifically identify the aspect or purview of the deity in question in order to attain a level of proper engagement in sacrifice or in request. Performing a daily hearth ritual to Frīge Heorþmōdor, Frige Hearth-Mother, will necessarily fulfill a different role in one’s religious expression than a rite approaching Frīge as Hǣlugifa, or Frige Health-Giver, who might be otherwise approached in a charm to cure an ailment. Likewise, approaching Ingui as the Lord of Ancestors (Ingui Ælf-Cyning) on account of the Anglo-Saxon propensity to conflate an ælf with the dead, is fundamentally different than a harvest faining celebration honoring him as Blædgifa, or the Giver of Prosperity.

In both of these instances Frige and Ingui are identified and appellated as separate representations of the deities in accordance with the purpose of the ritual or prayer. However they are nevertheless representative of the whole. Frīge Heorþmōdor and Frīge Hǣlugifa are still Frīge, still form part of the totality of the understanding which Frīge-as-divinity represents. Bīnaman should not be misconstrued as creating divinity where it was not previously. It is a simple recognition of different specializations or associations. Just as practitioners are different in different walks of life, so too are the gods they give worth to.

As is the case with other cultural epithets and kennings, a bīnama in the understanding of the Larhus Fyrnsida is formed by taking an associative descriptive essence and applying it after the name as a title or adjectival phrase.

The following list are a quick series of bīnaman for a handful of deities, established by interpreting the role that the god or goddess might have had in the society. These are based on their known attributes, qualities, and traits, which we have gleaned from toponymic, literate, and comparative studies. They are as follows, and do not represent the sum totality of bīnaman available for the recognized gods:

Frīge Cursberend – Frīge Curse-Carrier
Frīge Fēstermōdor – Frīge Foster-Mother
Frīge Freoðuwebbe – Frīge Peace-Weaver
Frīge Heorþmōdor – Frīge Hearth-Mother
Frīge Hǣlugifa – Frīge Health-Giver
Frīge Scildwīf – Frīge Shield Lady

Ingui Ælf-Cyning – Ingui Lord of Ancestors
Ingui Blædgifa – Ingui Giver of Prosperity
Ingui Cornsāwere – Ingui Grain-Sower
Ingui Werhād – Ingui Virility
Ingui Hunigflōwende – Ingui Flowing-With-Honey

Þunor Eorð-Cweccere – Thunor Earth-Shaker
Þunor Flōdes Ferigend – Thunor Flood Bringer
Þunor Regn Ferigend – Thunor Rain Bringer
Þunor Mann Freond – Thunor Friend of Man
Þunor Middangeardesweard – Thunor Warder of Middangeard

Wada Eormenmere – Wada of the Great Lakes
Wada Norþēa – Wada of the North River

Wōden Hyge-Ferigend – Wōden Soul Bearer
Wōden Pæþwyrhta – Wōden Path-Maker
Wōden Wordsāwere – Wōden Word-Sower
Wōden Wihtferiend – Wōden Wight Ferrier

As can be seen, this list is fairly straightforward. It incorporates poetic kennings and epithets in order to further define their intended role and position within a prayer, ritual, or other formalized setting. Wōden as the psychopomp – the soul collector and lord of the dead – is notable in his epithets of Wihtferiend or Hyge-Ferigend, despite never having been formally attested as in use within Anglo-Saxon lore. These epithets are granted, contemporaneously, based on the knowledge that Wōden is a ‘soul-ferrier’.

This is replicated throughout this list. The exceptions to a more traditional role are given in those of Wada Eormenmere and Wada Norþéa – Wada of the Great Lakes and Wada of the North River. These both were included to give separate instances where contemporary practitioners of Fyrnsidu might otherwise represent their geographic locations within their practices. This forges connections with their sense of place.

Someone living along the shores of the Great Lakes may feel a keen connection to Wada, and a marriage of their Heathen practices and contemporary lifestyle brings the two into a more seamless harmony. The same goes for “The North River”, an old by-name for the Hudson River in New York State. Both of these fundamentally reflect the practitioner’s engagement with the local, incorporating a continuation of similar associations that would have probably been reflected by Anglo-Saxons, despite existing inherently within the twenty-first century.

So then we shall take this concept of a contemporary form of a by-name, and utilize it in a prayer:

“Wōden Pæþwyrhta – Wōden Path-Maker

he who trod the unknown paths; who inspires wanderers,

guide of travelers, solitary lord of open road.

Realm walker and traveler, parter of shadowy trail,

Protect me, O’ Pæþwyrhta, grant me safe passage,

avert from me your savage gaze,

so that no harm may befall me upon my journey.”

This prayer is simple and straightforward, approaching Wōden in his aspect as a wanderer in order to gain some good fortune in one’s travels. Though Pæþwyrhta is not attested in the Old English literary corpus, it is nevertheless an appropriate compound word and by-name for this expression of Wōden’s role in one’s practice.

Conclusion

This piece has discussed the practice of applying a contemporary interpretation of historically informed by-names in a modern Heathen usage. In doing so, the usage of these bīnaman allow practicing Heathens a greater flexibility in appropriately engaging with and approaching individual deities for the purposes of prayer and ritual. It offers a complementary, not supplementary, focus for individuals seeking to work within a singular religious identity without necessarily incorporating alternative deities into their rites.

By building on the historic flexibility of epithets within prayer and practice, bīnaman allow a more varied and personalized engagement within an oftentimes ill-defined approach to divinity. We have seen that this practice is not at all inappropriate for those Heathens who wish to expand on their intersection with the gods.


[1] Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, c. 597-700: Discourses of Life, Death and Afterlife, (Continuum: London, 2009), pg. 56.

[2] Marilyn Dunn, Christianization, pg. 56.

[3] As is popularly championed by Swain Wodening in his work “Hammer of the Gods”.

[4] Marilyn Dunn, Christianization, pg. 56.

[5] This could potentially be due to the nature of Old English literature as compared to the Norse corpus. The Eddas were written, in part, as a glorification of the cultural history of the people, and necessarily dealt with the deities directly. Old English literature, on the other hand, did not feature stories of the gods nearly as prominently, with notable exceptions.

janussaxon

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About thelettuceman

Anglo-Saxon Heathen and Roman Polytheist. MA Post-Roman/Early Medieval History. Wannabe Classicist. Wino and antique firearms collector. Lay craftsman and blacksmith. Biker.
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3 Responses to Bīnaman: A Distinctly Fyrnsidere Approach to Divinity

  1. thelettuceman says:

    Reblogged this on Of Axe and Plough and commented:

    I wrote a piece on Larhusian Fyrnsidu, and a unique perspective that we take towards Heathenry. While I traditionally share the pieces here first (see: Prayer in a Heathen Context), I opted not to for this page. But I am sharing it, and I hope that people enjoy it!

    Like

  2. The Lone Heathen says:

    Great article and really helpful. Details exactly and professionally what I have long thought and believed.

    Like

  3. The Lone Heathen says:

    Also, Wuldor has sometimes been argued to have a link with the God Ullr in Old Norse, suggesting a possible deity of winter and/or hunting, but then there is even a suggestion of a connection with Tiw and even Woden so it is really anybody’s guess!

    Like

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