Column: Ritual in the Coronavirus Age

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It has now been over ten months since the announcement of the first reported case of the coronavirus in the United States. As of this week, there have been over 13 million cases and nearly 265,000 deaths attributed to the modern plague in this country.
We have all experienced some form of disruption to our lives, from minor inconvenience to great tragedy. Some families have been in lockdown since March, with parents working remotely and children attending school via video conferencing.

In many cases, wider relationships have become distant relationships. The friends and family we would normally and regularly see in person have become present only via scheduled calls and Zoom meetings. We have built a digital wall that precludes human touch.

The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1566) [public domain]

These are the times when we most need our communal religious rites. How can we celebrate them in a meaningful way amid all of this human distancing?

The question of meaning

For practitioners of Ásatrú – for those who revive, reconstruct, and reimagine the Old Way of the ancient Norse and Germanic world – the central religious ritual is called blót.

Before the virus, our standard practice in Thor’s Oak Kindred was to gather together in person for the major annual blóts – midwinter, spring, midsummer, fall – plus other special events such as home blessings, weddings, and pubmoots.

Since the first shutdowns in March, we’ve gone online. Each of us has a good reason to be careful about contact and contracting the coronavirus, so we’ve held our events on Zoom.

The pubmoot didn’t go so well. It’s difficult to virtually replicate a casual get-together with a larger group, to reproduce the easy give-and-take of sitting around a table at the pub and smoothly moving back and forth from smaller sidebars to larger group discussions. Online, it felt too much like a moderated panel, a classroom lecture, or everyone having to listen to two people have a discussion between themselves.

So I was a bit wary of moving our blóts online, but what choice did we have? Yes, we could wear masks and stand six feet apart, but that means a larger space than we currently have, and we’re committed to safety first.

The question is whether holding a blót mediated via video conferencing can carry meaning, whether it can perform the same functions as an in-person rite.

The answer is in the concept of blót itself.

A way forward

Like so much material within this new religious movement, the etymology of the Old Norse blót is contested. It may have a root concept of making strong, of imparting strength to the gods, but in regular usage it came to mean sacrificial worship within a system of reciprocal gifting.

The term evolved to include both physical objects and speech acts among its referents. On one hand, it referred to idols and amulets used for worship or magic. On the other hand, it was taken up in Finnish and Sámi languages as a term for magical words and songs.

This constellation of meanings shows a way forward.

I’m not interested in large online rites where a hundred internet acquaintances log in to watch someone they’ve never met in person perform a rite in the same way that they would watch a Tiny Desk concert. My concern is for kindreds, for relatively small groups of practitioners who have already built a tradition of celebrating blót together in real life.

Commitment to the moment

Beginning with the likely root of the word blót, I believe that we can impart strength even when we’re not physically in the same ritual space. We can send strength upward to the gods, outward to the land spirits, and backward to all the important people who have walked this planet before us. We can also receive strength as part of the reciprocal relationship that blót builds.

There is power when we all stand around the oak tree or around the altar, but there can also be power when we focus together in our own spaces, separate but united. The key word here is focus. Each participant must commit to putting their phones away, to closing all other desktop windows, to removing any distraction and concentrating fully upon the rite. Even one person smirking at something they’re reading over in Messenger can ruin the group focus.

In normal times, the blót meaning of “sacrificial worship” for us means setting incense under tree or on altar, pouring Doppelbock (“double goat,” a strong German lager that we choose to associate with the pullers of Thor’s chariot) from the drinking horn at the roots of the oak or into the offering bowl, and making offerings of wood or paper into the sacrificial fire. One of the deepest moments in our rites is standing together in meditative silence as the flames flare up, then slowly burn down to embers.

In this virtual age, this can all be replicated successfully. Each participant can set up incense on their desk or table, hold a horn or glass of Doppelbock, have a glass offering bowl ready, and – since most of us are indoors – prepare their fire offering to share with the group and burn outdoors after the gathering. The meditative aspect of the burning can be transformed into a personal moment of reflection.

The other meanings of blót can also be mapped onto an online rite. Each of us has “idols or amulets” related to our practice of Ásatrú. Each person can wear their amulets and set up their figures of the gods, goddesses, land spirits, and so on in front of them, behind or next to incense and offering bowl. Practitioners in the Viking Age had small figures they likely set up for performing rites when away from home, so each of us setting up our own idols has some historical precedent.

The Finnish and Sámi use of blót for magical words and songs is also helpful here. The most powerful moments of our in-person rites have been when each person speaks over the horn, whether focused on a specific deity or addressing those who are no longer with us. The speech act is the thing. We may not be performing magic or singing spells, but what we say in the circle is the beating heart of the ritual.

Again, focus is the crucial element. If each person sets up their individual space so that they can deeply listen to what others say, the transformative experience of speaking and hearing in blót can occur even when we’re physically separate. Commitment to the moment is key.

The unknowable future

Would I prefer we were all standing together around the oak tree, with the wind rustling the dry red leaves under the clear blue November sky? Yes, of course. Absolutely. Will we completely ditch online blót and return to only in-person ritual once a viable vaccine has been developed and distributed? Yes, without a doubt. No question.

But here we are. These are the dark times we are all living through together, and we must do as needs must. We can choose to snarkily deride online ritual, or we can work to make it as successful and meaningful as possible.

As always, we make our meaning. I choose to put in the effort to maintain our relationships during this coronavirus age and to do my best to facilitate blót that is as close to normality as possible. And so we walk into the unknowable future.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen, and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.