In the past forty or so years, since the collection of traditions broadly termed “Anglo-Saxon Heathenry” have come to life, it has changed and grown. Not a surprise, as many other Heathen, Pagan, or what have you, traditions have done the same. Even in my year and a half involved in one of those traditions, and five years involved in others, I have watched attitudes, popular sources, and faces of these traditions change. Studying the history of their modern forms has taught me even more.
Watching as those who are either hardcore Reconstructionist Anglo-Saxon Heathens, or those who are based in it, but take things and attempt to rebuild it according to where they are, and interpreting what they know in different ways. (Which, to be fair, these categories may not be very different from one another, and may not need the differentiation I have provided.) One of the things I have noticed that differ between groups are the ways cosmology, in reference to different “realms” specifically, are both enumerated, and the meaning behind them.
Some face lift Norse cosmology, the Nine Worlds, and all. Giving them Old English names, and being done with it. Well, that is their interpretation, but I do not agree with that personally. I don’t see that having a place in Fyrnsidu, Fyrnsidu *based* traditions like our own, but, it isn’t something I find worth holding over others’ heads. So, others will say six worlds. Some say seven. That comes from the Nine Herbs Charm. Some will say that they don’t mean realms, but simply the Sun, Moon, and the known planets of the time. They may be right about that, I don’t know.
However, I personally believe that the idea of multiple, and let me stress, often overlapping “worlds” can really help place things into context. In this case, I don’t see them as innately and completely separate from our own world. Mainly because I suspect our ancestors had more of an imminent as opposed to a transcendent worldview. However, I continue to read and learn more, so, I try to be open to possibilities.
So, seven worlds, including ours. This compares to other Indo-European cosmologies as it leaves room for three general realms of Upper, Middle, and Lower. At this point, I see that as reasonable. With that, I share with all of you, and I welcome feedback, and would love to hear your understandings of cosmologies as well. Maybe we can teach each other something. Regardless, here are the Worlds According To Þunresfolc Heorþ!
The Lower Realm (Hell)
Let us start with the Lower Realm. This has basis in origins and darkness in a way. Much as the ancients reckoned their days starting at sundown. Thus, from the darkness and chaos come light and order. So, what is this “womb” so to speak. In this case, we call it Nifolham. Essentially, the chaotic mists of origin. From it came everything else. The primal chaos. The force of creation and all of the uncertainty that comes with it. This is at the base of Eormensyl, or the axis mundi.
Above that, but still Lower Realm, by far, is Hell. The Underworld. This is literally underground. Where people are buried, of course, especially the physical presence, and it could be thought of as where folks go when they pass. Especially if they are not cremated. (Part of a thought of my own.) Thus, one can expect to meet their ancestors there, likely provided they are buried in close proximity. I am no expert on the afterlife, as I am not dead.
I suspect, however, that it was believed that some part of the soul was tied to location of the corpse. However, I don’t dwell much upon it, but I came upon this idea from noticing that people go to commune with their dead relatives at the site in which they were buried. Since this has happened throughout millennia, including in Anglo-Saxon England, I suspect this may be the case.
Regardless, Hell represents this Lower Realm very well, and it is a word from Old English. Now that we have touched upon the Lower Realm, or, Hell for convenience, let us move upward to the Middle Realm…
The Middle Realm (Eorðe)
Here, in the Middle Realm, I like to summarize it as Eorðe. Here, things really overlap, we see both chaos and order. To get the more obvious out of the way, Middangeard is the cities, towns, villages, and farmlands. The places people usually live. This is where people come together, and in the past meant safety and security. (I hope it still does for all of you.) Where we live our lives. Our day to day world.
However, we share Eorðe with two other worlds. The first is Ælfham. The world of the Elves. It overlaps with Middangeard in some places and ways. Mainly the realm where most land wights landwīhta, are found (using the term loosely here). These are places that can be, and in the past were seen as possibly dangerous, and most people did not live in these places. Forests being a prime example. I would add the more shallow parts of the sea, as well as pretty much any other place where people did not, or usually did not live, but may have interacted with such places.
Old English had words for wood elves, sea elves, and mountain or hill elves. So, my conclusion as to what constitutes Ælfham comes from those words. These are all places folks normally didn’t live, of course not in the sea, shallow or not, but, places that man may be seen enough to name such elves.
Beyond that is Eotenham. This is where not only do people not live, but are generally places thought of as dangerous, where one probably shouldn’t be, unless, in the modern sense, they really know what they are doing. That would be high mountaintops, glaciers, volcanoes, anywhere that is pretty much unsuitable for human life. You could probably add the deepest hearts of deserts as well. Basically, places most wouldn’t visit, much less live.
As can be seen, Eorðe is a place that is caught between chaos and order.
The Upper Realm (Heofon)
At this point, it may sound like Christian baggage, but Heofon, also existed in the English lexicon before conversion. The words that were used post conversion, I assume, helped give the newly converted some sense of continuity. That being said, I find their usage appropriate. So, here we are at the Upper Realm. This needn’t necessarily mean the sky, but even a raised place. Here, we find two places.
I will say this before I go any further: This is very much a point of contention amongst pretty much everyone with whom I have discussed this. The first is Neorxnawang. Essentially, the Land of No Work, though Field of Contentment has also been used. Sounds like paradise already to me! (Laughs) Some consider this to also be Hell, but, I have heard others say different. Why I’ve come to this lies in the two different methods in which bodies were dealt with. One way, burial. The other, cremation. As Stephen Pollington puts it in ‘Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England’ (page 446, first couple of sentences in the section ‘Ancestors in the Earth’)
“The two places for the dead were the horizontal – the inhumed in their graves – and the vertical – the cremated who escape the material world through funeral fire. This corresponds to the two views of the afterlife: either a journey to another plane, or a sleep in the earth.”
That is, if one believes they are two separate places. In this case, I see no reason to count one or the other, and thus both can be included. I use Neorxnawang simply because it was a name given, though, it doesn’t necessarily mean the sky. However, it was a name already available, thus meaning I didn’t have to come up with another. So, this is certainly a “hot potato”. Here at Þunresfolc Heorþ, I have given my best guess. I draw this conclusion based on the idea that it may be that what happens to the body upon death affects where the person’s parts of their souls, assuming the multipartite soul assumption holds weight.
I try to be conservative in my use of other sources, only drawing upon them to build a more complete picture. So, anyone can judge my guess however they wish. We’ll all find out when we die, anyway. I only bring this up because it helps explain the case.
In this, I somewhat look at Norse sources in the sense that how and where someone died can influence where they end up. We see this with the idea of dying in battle, and remaining on the battlefield is how someone went to Valhalla, or Folkvangr. Those who drowned at sea going to Ran’s Hall. Along with those buried in their ancestral mounds (Hell).
So, and this is just a guess, the answer lies in cremation. Upon cremation, the smoke from the body being burned goes upward. Therefore part of the soul goes to another plane, up, or otherwise. I have no great answers as to what that is like, or if it is “better” than Hell, or what have you. The afterlife isn’t something I dwell much upon, and therefore have little more to offer than one Old English word, and a guess.
Once again, this is something that is a point of contention, and many answers and ideas are out there. So, before I’m accused of anything, I will say that I, in no way am saying anyone else should think this. That the entire purpose of the site and Facebook page are solely to share processes of how Þunresfolc Heorþ operates, to share ideas of practice and custom with others who wish to build up their hearth or group practices. So, this is not strictly source based, just my best guess. Take it for what you, the reader, will.
There are possible similarities to either the Elysian Fields, or the Plains of Ida, or both. Just in influence, not totality. I doubt it is a matter of difference in merit, as in special people go here as opposed to Hell. I suspect it is more a matter of method. So, take that for what it is.
Last, we have Ésaburh. This is where the Ése live. The seat of order over chaos, the stronghold of the gods. What that may be envisioned as is likely going to differ between group and person. Maybe each deity has its own hall, maybe they all live together. I see it as the realm of celestial gods. Deities don’t figure much in Þunresfolc Heorþ as they may in other groups or hearths, save for the obvious one.
As Þunor is the only deity that receives regular offering at þunresfolc Heorþ, and any other only at certain times of year, the first thing that would come to my mind is his hall being in Ésaburh, where other gods likely are as well, with their own respective halls. Þunor cult is heavy at our hearth. However, different people may elaborate more than that, and I assume they would. I leave that to everyone and their own traditions, lore, or ideas on the matter.
Of course, I’m constantly reading material to learn more. However, at the moment, I feel like the cosmology presented is at least coherent. This wasn’t something left to us in Anglo-Saxon lore. So, I figure that the answers to this vary from one to another. Which, I enjoy. It’s great to see people critically thinking about something like this, just as people in the past had to do the same.
A lot of heavy themes were brought up in this article, some may or may not be controversial. We fill in the blanks in our own way, and others in their own. Some fill in nothing at all. All of which are okay in my book. Regardless of such statements, piecing together such a cosmology may well challenge you to answer questions you didn’t think you would ever have to. For me, it did just that. Perhaps something of scholarly note exists, or will, that will give these answers. So, perhaps my own will change by then.
However, putting this together has been the most challenging piece I have ever done. As it was not as simple as saying something, and giving some sources. This forced me out of my “comfort zone” to answer tough questions that I didn’t expect to answer. So, this wasn’t me giving answers for answers sake, but the culmination of deep thought and reflection about the world, and how it makes sense. However, myths and lore come about as an attempt by ancient cultures to understand the world and universe around them. I merely attempt to do the same.
I accept any judgement, and the decision to share it was mine, and mine alone. Though a robust reading list has given me the foundation to build up to this point, and they continue to serve me well, there are some answers a book cannot give you.
That being said, this reflects cosmology as I understand it. If everyone agreed, then we’d be looking at a church, or some kind of organizing body. As opposed to a diverse, vibrant loose network of customs that reflects the diversity of beliefs our ancestors had, from tribe to tribe. Along with the common themes of languages and worldview that makes them make sense. I’ve mentioned that before in a previous article. That was “talking the talk”. This is “walking the walk”.
From us at Þunresfolc Heorþ, thanks for reading!