Asking Too Much

There is an oft-cited stanza from the Havamal that cautions us against giving too much.

It is better not to ask, than to sacrifice too much.
A gift always looks for a gift.
It is better unsent, than over sacrificed.

I know Heathens who argue that this is a sign that Heathens are not supposed to bother praying to our gods, or at least that our offerings can or should be small. It’s sometimes put forth as a point of macho Viking pride that unlike some religions, which expect everyone to pay tithes, sheep-like, to the religious hierarchy, we independent Heathens are not so foolish. Mostly that irritates me because I don’t like Christian (or Not-Heathen) bashing. As has been said many times before, “You can be pretty sure you’ve created the gods in your own image when They hate whomever you hate.”

Some Heathens seem to use it as an excuse to avoid giving anything that would cost them much to our gods. Pouring out a bit of what they’re drinking anyway is no big deal to any Heathen I’ve ever met, but going far out of our way with time, effort, or money? Well, some folks think that goes against the idea that Heathen religion is an every-day sort of religion that isn’t about setting a lot of effort, time, or money aside for the gods and spirits, so much as it’s about living a good life according to Heathen values. Whether that’s a sound practice or not I leave to the gods to teach them. If a person isn’t much of a mystic, or doesn’t have much to spare, their obligations are likely quite different from mine, and besides, what seems like no small effort to me may be huge to someone else, and vice versa. I can appreciate an attitude of “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”.

A while back I read an article on Patheos which argues that this can’t refer to gifts to the gods, because the Havamal is advice to travellers, and thus is interpersonal, and besides, there’s no such thing as giving too much to the gods. Now, I’m not sure I agree with that either, since I’ve worked with some very greedy Powers over the years, and one of the challenges of working with certain Powers is learning how to set reasonable boundaries with Them.  There are a lot of good points in this article, and I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall arguments the article makes. Still, I think an important point is being missed all around.

I’m not reading Havamal 145 as saying we should be parsimonious in our offerings, nor that such cautions are irrelevant to the gods. The translation above is Chisholm, and I find it tremendously clarifying. Now, I don’t read Old Norse directly, so I am at the mercy of good translators, but this is the only translation I have read that made instant sense to me.

What it says to me is that it’s better to fend for ourselves than to depend too much on gaining the gods’ favor for our well being. Or, to put it another way:

It’s better to make a decision with the information you have, than to harass the gods for answers.

It reminds me of the times, as a diviner, I’ve had to tell a querent to stop asking their question over and over, in the hopes of getting an answer they want to hear.

I’m not sure I agree that it’s better to not ask at all than to ask too much. Really, I think it’s better to ask once, and perhaps to ask for confirmation from an independent source or two if the answer you get back is very drastic. But to not ask at all, or else to obsessively ask over and over and over again, are both bad extremes. Still, if those extremes are your choices, yes, it’s better not to ask. Just because you make sacrificial offerings each time, doesn’t mean They’ll like it – or you – any better.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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5 Responses to Asking Too Much

  1. Pingback: When Godphones Ring – Discernment for Pagans | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

  2. caelesti says:

    I’ve seen Heathens tell new people “Don’t pray to the High Gods, they’re too important, pray/make offerings to the land vaettir and ancestors” and “Don’t make offerings unless you have a Specific Important Reason.” Apparently actually practicing the religion is “fluffy”? Yes don’t be too dependent, agreed on that. I think the translation of the Havamal a lot of Heathens seem to be reading was done by Ayn Rand. That’s where they got the Nine Norse Virtues- though they forgot Egoism. They definitely live by that one though!


    • EmberVoices says:

      Heh, well, I DO think it’s important to start with where and who you are, and build outward from there, which can easily translate to honoring the Ancestors and Landvaettir first. I do think focusing on the smaller spirits still counts as practicing religion.

      But yeah, I’ve heard the argument too that the gods are too important for us to talk to, and I think that’s… hm. That’s a safe way to play it if you don’t want undue attention? But of course it doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are actively called to those relationships.

      Realistically, if we’re a historically-grounded set of traditions, it makes sense that we’d have some folks who are closer to the gods than others. But it seems inappropriate, to me, to say that nobody *should* have direct relationships to the gods.

      I wrote an essay once, for one of my religious studies classes, which apologized for what may seem to be hubris, but humility is not listed among the virtues of my religion. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • R.Fry says:

        I’ve had my own on-again, off-again relationship with practicing my faith. Over the past year or so, one of the ‘big’ gods finally stepped into my life and I find myself putting out some real efforts in maintaining that relationship. Surprisingly, the only ‘gifts’ he has asked of me are those that make me a better person. (Ritual practices that build up my health, that have strengthened my ability as a Seer, and that reduce the time I spend on trivialities).

        Still, I regularly give Him small sacrifices. Not thinking consciously of this passage, I still get the feeling that while a bigger sacrifice would be welcome, it’s more important if it heralds a new level of our relationship, and not simply a gift for favor.

        Reciprocity and all that.


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