Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Why I No Longer Celebrate Freyfaxi

Freyfaxi is an American Asatru holiday based on the American Wiccan holiday Lammas. Lammas means loaf mass, that is, a holiday celebrating harvest and the baking of loaves of bread. It is generally celebrated on August 1st.  In the early days of American Asatru, Asatruars borrowed Lammas from Wicca and then tried to find an appropriate heathen name for it. They knew that in ancient times, heathens regarded the horse an an appropriate animal for sacrifice. They found the name of a horse in the lore and named the holiday after the horse. 

I have been reading The Sagas of the Icelanders and just read the one about the horse. The name of that story is the Saga of Hrafnkel Freysgodhi. The story is a tragedy, in that Hrafnkel brought about his own downfall through his tragic flaw of rashness. Hrafnkel swore a rash oath to kill any man who rode his stallion Freyfaxi, whom he had dedicated to Freyr. Someone rode the horse, and Hrafnkel killed the man. Hrafnkel was outlawed for it. He lost his chieftanship / priesthood, his land, and the horse, too. 

After Hrafnkel was declared an outlaw during criminal court, a confiscation court was held to dispose of his property. This was the historical heathen version of civil asset forfeiture. The relatives of the murder victim were to receive Hrafnkel's assets. The court decided to dispose of the horse by killing Freyfaxi and thus sending him to his other owner, the god Freyr. The horse was driven off a cliff. 

This is not a story about a sacrifice. The horse was given to Freyr because the god was considered to have an ownership interest in the horse, due to the horse having been dedicated to Freyr. This is about the legal concept of joint ownership. 

The saga of Hrafnkel doesn't stop there, but for my purposes only the part about Freyfaxi is relevant. Heathens whose patron was Freyr were known to keep sacred horses dedicated to Freyr. However, the story of Freyfaxi in this saga does not make me want to celebrate the historical event described. Hrafnkel himself found nothing to celebrate in Freyfaxi's death, and according to this saga, he became an atheist after that.

Things we can reasonably learn from Hrafnkel's saga: 

1. Don't swear to murder someone because of your love for a god, or a a horse.

2. Don't swear a rash oath. Think it through first.

3. If you do swear to do something criminal and then you actually do it, expect to be treated as a criminal even if you did it because of an oath.

4. In heathen Iceland, a godhi was the lord of a district in addition to being a priest, but he could still lose a case at law even if the person he wronged had less social status (the man he killed was a shepherd named Einar who worked for him) but only if the wronged family got the support of other powerful men.

5. In heathen Iceland, a god was considered a person to the extent that the god Freyr could have legal joint ownership in a horse. 

6. In heathen Iceland, people believed that killing an animal sent it to the god to whom it was dedicated, indicating that they believed in animal afterlife. This is certainly related to the idea of sacrifice but it isn't precisely the same thing. The horse Freyfaxi was dedicated to Freyr while it was alive. It served Freyr as a living horse, and Freyr was expected to receive it after it died in the same way that Hrafnkel Freysgodhi-- Frey's godhi, priest dedicated to Freyr-- might have expected to go to the god he served in life when he reached the afterlife. A belief in animal afterlife is a necessary precondition for sacrifice because if the essence or soul of the animal doesn't survive death then there would be nothing for the god to receive from a sacrifice. But, an animal sacrifice has another dimension to it: the idea that the act of slaughter is a sacred offering that is an exchange between the sacrificer or community and the god to whom the animal is given, and that this will benefit the relationship in some way, and may benefit the sacrificer or community. This element is absent in the saga of Hrafnkel.

7. In heathen Iceland, one man's religious oath did not have the force of taboo to the wider society and did not legally excuse killing someone. Not even if the man who made the oath was a priest. An Icelandic godhi could only create a taboo for himself, not for everyone else. Neither Einar the shepherd nor the participants in the law court regarded Freyfaxi as illegal to ride. Einar apparently thought it was OK to ride the horse as long as Hrafnkel didn't find out. Einar may not have been the sharpest tool in the toolshed. Nonetheless, it is apparent that there was nothing in heathen law that would make it OK to kill someone for blasphemy or sacrilege or for breaking someone else's personal taboo, and an individual priest could not change that. There was no legal basis for excusing the killing of Einar due to Einar's riding the horse. Hrafnkel had to kill Einar or lose his honor because he had taken that oath, but that did not make killing Einar legal. 

Things we cannot reasonably learn from Hrafnkel's saga:

1. The horse Freyfaxi was sacrificed as part of a holiday celebration (Nope.)

2. Heathens in Iceland celebrated Lammas by any name (Nope.)

This is why I've decided to stop celebrating Freyfaxi. I have had some nice feasts for Freyr over the years, but I think now that when Asatru was being reconstructed, trying to borrow Lammas and calling it Freyfaxi was too Wiccan-influenced for my current taste. I always thought that there must be something in the lore that tied Freyfaxi to a summer harvest celebration, because why else would it have been chosen as the heathen Lammas? But there is no such tie, and the story of Freyfaxi and his owner is not celebratory and has nothing to do with a holiday. When I read the saga for myself, I decided to remove the holiday of Freyfaxi from my personal practice and that of my kindred. 

While I was researching the holidays for the Heathen Calendar, I found a lot of more authentic holidays to celebrate, and I've also decided to celebrate some American holidays from my culture and community as an American, as I wrote about in my book American Celebration. My kindred celebrates a harvest holiday at Thanksgiving along with my non heathen family and community, and we have a Thanksgiving Candy Pig for Freyr, so that is our holiday for Freyr. I celebrate wheat harvest in June, when I actually harvest my wheat, and at that time I honor Sif. Going forward, my ritual calendar will include many holidays, but not Freyfaxi. 

Image: Icelandic horse photo by Blaer, creative commons via Pixabay

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


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