A hardy people bereft of gods, the Dorns have crafted for themselves a rich and complex cosmogony, a spirituality based on the perseverance of the self over adversity, the adherence to the lessons of legendary ancestors and their deeds, and the exalting of historical figures into mythic heroes who embody specific ideals. However downtrodden and embittered, scattered groups still cling to these old ways and as such, they may yet continue on.
One of the most important concepts in a Dorn’s daily and spiritual life (the two are in fact the same for a Dorn) is the notion of Wyrd. Wyrd, in one sense, is the way the universe operates. All actions have wyrd; all beings have wyrd. Wyrd is the ebb and flow of cause-and-effect, just as it is the representation of the cosmos' universal laws. It is often related in song and lay to the weaving of cloth.
The woof (horizontal threads) crosses the warp (vertical threads) at many different points. One thread of the woof is the life of one person; each thread of the warp represents the events that intersect with one person’s life. Also, the warp intersects with the lives of many, so a person does not experience an event alone, nor without consequences, either good or bad. As warp intersects with woof, threads vibrate. The threads closest to a person—his dearest friends, family, and enemies—feel the vibrations the hardest, while those farthest away may feel little or nothing at all. Thus does the wyrd of one man or woman reflect on his family and his community.
A mythical group of women, called the Wyrdas, weaves the fabric of life. There are three such Wyrdas, each responsible for a different aspect of the weaving: one to spin the thread, one to weave, and one to cut the thread. Once a woven tapestry is finished and the lives of many are recorded, the Wyrda whose role it is to cut the thread, severs the last pass of the shuttle which weaves the warp through the woof, and the whole tapestry is unraveled so that the threads may be used again. In such a way do the deeds of the Dorn become past and present all at once; history is the ultimate instructor, and the Dorns are very aware of the immediacy of their forebears’ lessons.
The concept of the Wyrdas is a spiritual idea, and that idea does not have a following, per se. But in the lives of older Dorns especially, the Wyrdas’ role is just taken for granted. They are not worshipped or prayed to. They are thought upon as sisters, or aunts, or grandmothers, to the Dornish people. They do not have a fearsome aspect and are always regarded fondly, because to a Dorn, that is simply the nature of the universe. And like all things in the universe, they have wyrd, for it is their wyrd to record the deeds of all beings, great and small.
It is common to say, “Thus is her wyrd,” to mean “it was her fate.” Also, it might be heard that “he was avoiding his wyrd,” meaning that the man’s scylds (see below) have stacked up high and he is not making amends for his guiltas (sins). Wyrd is a commonplace concept and may refer to fate, luck (good or bad), fortune, destiny, etc, but is certainly bigger than all of those put together.
Another important concept to a Dorn is that of mægen, or karma, though that is not an entirely accurate description. “Spiritual strength” is more apt.
Just as all objects, events, and beings have wyrd, so too do they have mægen. Deeds and consequences all have a value that can be measured in mægen. An action that is done against someone, such as theft or murder, incurs a debt of mægen, also called a scyld (pronounced “shield”). A theft of jewelry, for example, debts the thief an amount of mægen equivalent to the amount of mægen inherent in the piece of jewelry. This means that deeds of wrong-doing done once or twice in a man’s lifetime may or may not stack up against him later on. But the continual doing of foul deeds will incur such a debt that a man’s life may be forfeit, and his fetch—or his guardian spirit—will abandon him. Such a man is not acting in accordance with his wyrd and will surely pay the price in a manner equivalent to his debt, no more and no less.
A person inherits the mægen of his mother and father, which is in turn bequeathed to any offspring thereafter. Thereby the legacy of a family is carried on through the generations. Scylds will linger on in consecutive generations until fulfilled or paid.
A scyld, or spiritual debt, may be paid off or fulfilled by a number of methods. The most important way is by making restitution to the wronged party or descendant thereof. This can be done most simply by performing an equivalent deed of good will, either to the wronged party directly or on their behalf. Also, a financial recompense can be given. In this way, even murder can be paid off. (Goods or services paid out in this manner are referred to as weregild—meaning, “man-payment”, or the payment made to avoid retribution for wrongful murder. A portion of this payment also went to the chieftain or lord to compensate for losing a vassal. The lord typically set the value to be paid to himself and to the family of the victim.) In these times, while literal wealth, like gold or jewels, is defunct, possessions and services can be used to pay a debt.
A person may hold on to his or her scyld, but as the old adage goes: “scyld chases scyld as the niÞing [“nagging”] nettle that woes the walking man.” Once a man allows his debt to accumulate, it becomes easier and easier to be lazy and shiftless. And soon enough, his scyld is too great and his mægen has diminished and his fetch has fled him. Thus are the most evil lonely and abandoned, for even their fetches shun their company.
Scylds are not necessarily negative in nature. For example, one who promises to accomplish a deed is taking a debt to his mægen, which will be fulfilled by the accomplishment of the deed. A request is made, let us say, to slay the beast which terrorizes a notable shield-thane’s mead-hall. A symbel (see below) is held and at the gathering a potential hero comes forth, vowing to slay the foul monstrosity. His vow is the beginning of the scyld-debt, but it is not yet complete. At the mead-table the hero-to-be begins making boasts of his personal prowess. His boasts must be of deeds similar to the deed that is yet to be done, or else he is in danger of setting a new precedent. The Wyrdas are typically the only beings capable of speaking laws—also called orlægs—or recording new precedents (though a bold enough hero may take on a massive scyld-debt to prove himself and the deed worthy of record). Therefore a hero must refer either to his own deeds (which would be merely a reflection of deeds done by a famous hero or ancestor) or he must refer to the deeds of one who came before him. The debt that he incurs is equal to the amount of mægen inherent to the act. In the above example, his debt would be equal to the amount of mægen possessed by the beast.
Sycld-debts are not numerical quantities. They are abstractions which are inherently understood by the Dornish. As such they would not be recorded as one would record financial wealth. There are certain folk, however, who take it upon themselves to pay attention to such things for the sake of the community. These folk are always elders.
The customs of measuring and maintaining community members’ scylds is old, and so only the old remember them. Sometimes an elder would be well-known for his ability to “scylda metan” (to mete out scylds) and he would gain the nominal title of ealdscycldr. Hand in hand with this role was the concept of the orlæg-cweÞr (rhymes with “four leg feather”), the “Quoter of the Original Laws”, a high title for one whose self-appointed job it was to tell young people how to live their lives. The ealdscydr and the orlæg-cweÞr were always the same person though not always at the same time.
Dornish Spiritual Anatomy
Almost to spite the absence of gods, the Dorns have developed an inward-looking spirituality that encompasses the self and the self’s relationship to those nearest itself.
The Dorns are also a very community-oriented group, even more so now under the pall of the Shadow. In their communities, they live by a concept called frith, which is similar to peace, but not necessarily so. It connotes a stability and security. A community may be besieged or warring upon another tribe, clan, community, or race, but may be considered to still be in frith, as long as that community is stable and sound within itself.
The most important aspect of frith and of the self-realizing spirituality of the Dorns is a wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, none of which a Dorn would view as separate entities unless one or more of the three were out of balance, or out of frith (also called unfrith). The totality of the soul of the person, the community, the nation, or the race is seen as a unique combination of parts, represented in the list below.
Lic, or lich = the body
Hyge = the intellect (also tied to the ability to care or to love)
Mynd =· the memory and all of its functions (also tied to the ability to care or to love)
Willa = the will, or the voluntary assertion of one’s soul·
Æðem (pronounced “ethem” or “etem”)= the breath of life, the animating principle (also called the ealdor or the blad)
Hama = the energy/matter form· surrounding the soul that protects it outside the body. The ethereal image of the body, manifesting as an aura to those with eyes to see. As the body goes forth the hama protects and maintains the soul so that it will not disperse. After death the hama is called the scinn (pronounced “shin”) or the scinnhiw
Orlæg = personal wyrd; also refers to the relationship between the· personal wyrd, the universal wyrd, and the primal laws of the universe.
Mægen = spiritual strength, akin to karma
Fetch (Norther “fecce”, old· Dornish “fylje”; for some reason, most Dorns now use the Erenlander word “fetch”) = guardian spirit, usually takes the form of an animal of opposite sex from the person. The fetch records a person’s action into his/her wyrd.
Mód = self, totality; the largest part of the soul containing instincts and emotions. This is from whence the Erenlander word “mood” comes.
Wód = seat· of passions and inspirations. To be in one’s wóde can also imply an ecstatic trance or a berserker rage.
Responsible for much forward momentum in Dornish culture, the symbel is a ritualized gathering at which deeds are announced and plans are laid. The symbel has the air of festivity, and in fact most simple get-togethers at some point turn into symbels. Mead and beer are drunk; food is consumed; and much pleasure is had.
The symbel-meet begins with a ritualized calling-out of the participants so that the meet may be identified. Thus, with the group named and addressed, wyrd begins to resound: deeds are to be invoked and the ancestors of the deeds are to be brought forth; ancestor-heroes, called cynne-guman, are to be named and sung upon. The following is an example of a calling-out (ge-cÿgan):
“Hereric Thrydwulfsson son of Cuichelm Fell-forge who fed many funeral fires with his reddened axe and his red battle-strength, son of Hereswið Hengistsdottir who served with love and honor at the sword-storm of Garesdene as horse-maiden to lord and land. May he drum the deep death-forge, shatter Shadow’s shields, splinter spears and sword-swing his swathing soul-sender one full night as a fighting Fell before the Shadow scents his battle-blood on the fighting-fields!”
And thus the symbel-meet is joined as all participants are named. The lord or leader who serves as host to the meet is responsible for calling-out each and every man and woman at the mead-tables.
The crux of the symbel is the boasting-round, also called the gielping, whereby participants stand with mead-cups held high and recount their own deeds of glory and renown. Another participant, known as the Þyle (“thile”), questions the boaster. The boaster (called the gylpr) then must make similar but grander claims to the satisfaction of those gathered at the symbel-table. If the gylpr is not shaken by the sometimes-very-insulting remarks of the Þyle, then his resolve and his ability are verified, and the deeds may be wrought. The purpose of this is to resonate the boasts within the wyrd of the group, thereby strengthening the deeds to come with the same mægen as those deeds that came before.
A symbel concludes with much venerating of ancestors and heroic deeds. Hails to the dead and the battle-slain are called forth and beers are drunk by the barrel. Songs and laughter ensues; sometimes (actually almost every time) a fight will break out and someone will be knocked out before they pass out. But the symbel is the place for just such a thing, and no honor may be broken at the symbel-table.
Without fail a symbel-meet will be held the night before an impending battle or raid. This is in fact considered part of the battle itself and without it, defeat would be assured. Symbels may also be held before weddings and births, and at any great social occasion for a Dorn.
In these times, while it is dangerous to adhere openly to one’s own cultural legacy, a symbel may be held by as small a group as two or three people. It is not entirely unknown for a man to hold symbel with himself alone, recounting his deeds to the open air, meeting with naught but the night and the songs of his ancestors. A symbel such as this held within the Dorn’s own ancestor stone circle will almost invariably bring forth a spirit to play the role of Þyle. An even rarer occasion has the very ancestor-hero that the Dorn is trying emulate draw from the shadows to participate and inspire. A symbel-meet held in that way is destined for great deeds. Much wyrd flows between the Dorn and the ancestor-spirit, and the Loom of All-things vibrates heartily.
Wyrd Against the Shadow
All such things as symbels and scylds, mægen and wyrd, and all other things besides are disappearing into blackness beneath the spreading Shadow. Many live now who do not know of the elder ways, who favor the despair and hopelessness of the times to the deeds and lessons of their ancestors. Many of the elder folk cling with death-grips to the old traditions while their grandchildren ignore the songs and flounder in the choking ash of another desperate defeat.
A great number of those who follow the old ways do not know why they do, though some are hoping to touch the past while others are too apathetic to do anything else. Soon enough the spiritual traditions of the Dorn will vanish, leaving only the shamed shell of a people who walk the Northlands with slow, aimless steps, whose eyes are bleary and red from trackless tears, whose bodies rumble with a hunger that craves no food, only a short and sudden death.
But here and there, the old ways persist. Family songs are sung; the virtues of old heroes are extolled. Symbels are still joined, and scylds are still proclaimed, kept, and paid. A sword may swing with ancestor-strength yet, and a fetch may cling ever-still to the soul of an errant Dorn.
And still elsewhere and elsewhen, three sisters may yet weave their threads upon a loom built of men’s lives, sewing the songs and stories of the heroic and meek alike. And still, the tapestry may yet be unwound and set anew upon the harp to thread again a cloth of deeds.
And thus may the Dorn endure, though the Shadow blacken the earth.
The Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times, by Swain Wodening
Beowulf: A Verse Translation, translated by Frederick Rebsamen
Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman's Library), edited by S.A.J. Bradley
The Angelseaxisce Ealdriht Asatru and Heathen Pages (http://www.ealdriht.org/index.html)