Germanic Belief : Kneeling in Worship

There is a popular (though by no means universal) notion in the Asatru community that kneeling, even in worship of our native divinities, is a sign of weakness, cowardice, subservience, unmanliness, and so for all intents and purposes the kind of action that would make one a nithing (one beneath contempt; THE insult in the elder era). It’s a strange phenomenon of course. Especially when such condemnations are preceded, or followed, by talk about how we Heathens “honour our noble ancestors”.

Now, I do of course get how a person can fall into believing this. And I’m not talking about the “Christians in recovery” that so often seem to define what might be dubbed “pop-Heathenry”. No. I’m talking about the wide-eyed newcomer, entirely unprejudiced, who is starving for knowledge of his ancestral ways, and perhaps for a little “companionship in belief”, as I myself was back in the day. Thus, if this is what people presumably more knowledgeable than us have to say, then this is what we are willing to believe. It’s only natural.

And hey, in my own defense, when you’re not even out of your teens yet, as a young male, the notion of standing proudly before your gods and refusing to kneel before anyone or anything does sound bad-ass. Par for the course at that age, really. And it fits right in with everything you’ve learned from Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels too boot!

But of course there is that entire “knowledge” thing. Knowledge of the lore, of the customs and beliefs, and attitudes, of old. The desire for that knowledge. Reaching “that point” where it’s no longer enough to take someone’s word for it, even if you respect them and they are backed by the majority. There comes a point when you want to know your heritage as it was left to you by the past.

And it’s at “that point” where you quickly begin to discover that, well, you have been misinformed about your ancestors and their customs. And, at least in regards to kneeling, that you have been insulting them and their ways even as you claim to honour them and refer to them as noble.

As early as the Iron Age we read in Tacitus’ 1st century CE work, Germania,

At a stated time of the year, all the several people descended from the same stock, assemble by their deputies in a wood; consecrated by the idolatries of their forefathers, and by superstitious awe in times of old. There by publicly sacrificing a man, they begin the horrible solemnity of their barbarous worship. To this grove another sort of reverence is also paid. No one enters it otherwise than bound with ligatures, thence professing his subordination and meanness, and the power of the Deity there. If he fall down, he is not permitted to rise or be raised, but grovels along upon the ground. And of all their superstition, this is the drift and tendency; that from this place the nation drew their original, that here God, the supreme Governor of the world, resides, and that all things else whatsoever are subject to him and bound to obey him.”

While this custom is noted as being Semnonic, it is likewise noted as being participated in by all of the greater Suevi tribes. And needless to say, the custom goes well beyond kneeling; though it serves fundamentally the same purpose. In fact, if a human sacrifice doesn’t implicitly express the notion of man’s subordination to the divine, I’m not sure what exactly would!

This extends on into the Viking Age, where we read in Ibn Fadlan’s 10th century CE account of the Rus,

… and betakes himself to a long upright piece of wood that has a face like a man’s and is surrounded by little figures, behind which are long stakes in the ground. The Rus prostrates himself before the big carving…

And again we find it in the (admittedly late) Norwegian Rune Poem where we read,

Sun is the light of the world; I bow to the holy judgement

This is hardly an exhaustive study on the subject of kneeling in worship and Germanic heathenism, muchless general Indo-European paganism. And of course it neglects an estimation of Judaism, Christianity, and how either might have effected or been effected by the surrounding Hellenic culture of the Roman Empire.

As a matter of fact popular consensus doesn’t remove the burden of proof, and I’d love to see someone present a well informed study of standing in preChristian Germanic worship. I’d love to see any evidence at all; seeing as how popular opinion on the matter often demands evidence to the contrary, but is never actually capable of producing any when their demands are met.

Clearly, our great and noble ancestors knelt, or otherwise showed subservience, in worship. So, you know, pick one; are they great and noble? Or are they nithings? And if you deem them the latter — which is the clear implication of prevailing Asatru attitudes regarding those who kneel — you really have to ask yourself what you’re doing here???

In the final analysis, I don’t particularly care how one chooses to worship. If they’re not here with me and mine, it’s a non-issue. However, spreading untruths about the ways and perceptions of our ancestors, indeed of “our people”, ie. modern Heathens — who are not all of the same stripe by any means — that is not something at all worthy of toleration.

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22 thoughts on “Germanic Belief : Kneeling in Worship

  1. ganglerisgrove

    Reblogged this on Gangleri's Grove and commented:
    Our ancestors knelt in worship. All this “i won’t bow my head or knee to any Power” is modern, egregious horse shit and for those who need things backed up in lore, note the bronze age pictographs.

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    1. jameybmartin Post author

      Right. This entire kneeling vs. standing debate is what keeps us from getting onto the next set of questions in modern day Germanicism. Clearly our ancestors knelt in worship, but we also know that they stood. Accepting this, we can begin to consider the etiquette surrounding it all, ie. when is it proper to stand, to kneel, who, etc.

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  4. rosemarieosborn

    I don’t kneel before the gods, I have an aversion to the notion as it seems, to me, to be symbolic of groveling before the gods and I won’t do it but I won’t knock any one who does as I don’t care what others do

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      1. Ramona

        Hi Jamey, what exactly do you mean by “Christians in recovery” who define what might be dubbed “pop-Heathenry”?

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      2. jameybmartin Post author

        By “Christians in recovery” I mean those heathens who come from Christian backgrounds, ie. most of us in the West, but who have such a negative reaction to it that their view of “Heathenism” is “anything that isn’t Christian” and so define their beliefs and those “of their ancestors” off of (their perception of) Christianity. As for who defines what is pop-Heathenry, well, popular opinion of course; generally, but not necessarily, set off against what is actually known of preChristian Germanicism, eg. the belief that our ancestors did not kneel in worship, etc.

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  6. Petter

    Considering Nordic Bronze Age society and religion as whole, it wouldn’t surprise me if they knelt before their gods now and then, but the rock carvings are scanty evidence. The people (and likely the figurine) are depicted in a canoe, where kneeling would be the natural sitting position. I don’t think Homer mention anyone kneeling in worship, but that’s no evidence either.

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    1. jameybmartin Post author

      You make an excellent point! Thank you! However, needless to say perhaps, this is not the extent of the evidence — though it would’ve been nice to “have pictures” lol — which remains much more profound than the evidence of standing in worship.

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      1. Petter

        Thank you for sharing this blog with us!
        Yes, the Viking Age sources are clear on this, but for the earlier periods?
        We have very little evidence for anything unfortunately. My belief is that, standing or kneeling, the personal mystical approach to divinity was of less importance than the cult. Religion was something you did, rather than had. Grandiose ceremonies, offerings, rituals, celebrations, dances, songs and ordeals are what we can see in in rock carvings, material culture, folklore and comparative religion. If the ritual require you to kneel, you kneel. Maybe this is what you mean by etiquette?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. jameybmartin Post author

      Yes, in fact, “Petter” pointed it out in the comments back in October. I appreciated his class, which is all too often lacking among heathen folk these days. But hey, thanks for reminding me to get that out of there! 😉

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      1. Hedningen

        well, maybe I made a “stupid” comment there as well, but then again, the evidence for kneeling or “praying” seems a bit conflicting, at least. Much hinges of what to make of the Graevensvenge figurines – are these humans paddling or rowing another small craft, or deities lifting axes – to name but one thing – and then “pracise” as of today, or worship in the modern World – which is another matter… Standing, kneeling or sitting down, what suits us the best ?

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      2. jameybmartin Post author

        Well, as we move on from the Bronze Age our evidence, while not of the ideal “look, we have pictures!” variety is nevertheless quite compelling … that kneeling (or other similar postures) did occur in a ritual context. And certainly there is no evidence of this “people who kneel are weak” nonsense that is commonly spouted. I would love to see someone present a study on the standing prayer stance, and really, to move beyond the tiresome conflict and begin asking real question like why and when and whom?

        Of course in terms of individual practice one can do as they see fit. That’s their personal business. But to promote personal preference as ancestral practice and belief is just … lacking in integrity.

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  7. Arthur

    Interesting post. I think there’s definitely a case to be made that a certain amount of this (plus an awful lot of practices in an awful lot of pagan communities, reconstructionist and neo-pagan alike) involves a blind knee-jerk response to Christianity, rather than actually thinking things through.

    I’ve sat through various Christian worship services in my time, usually Church of England. Guess what – nobody ever asked me to kneel. In fact, the main act of worship asked of me was to stand up and sing hymns in praise of God.

    Let’s talk real talk. Standing to attention when you are told to, like a soldier, is an act of obedience and submission. Kneeling to someone is an act of obedience and submission. Honouring an ancestor as a role model embodying values you aspire to exhibit in your own life is an act of obedience and submission. Acknowledging a god as being a higher power than you is an act of obedience and submission. Carrying or wearing a symbol that marks you out as the follower of a particular god or set of gods, sages, prophets or teachers is an act of obedience and submission Religious worship of anything external to you is, intrinsically, an act of obedience and submission.

    This is “weak”, “cowardly”, or whatever you want to call it only if you consider it weak or cowardly to ever acknowledge that you personally might not be the absolutely alpha top dog champion of the world. If you genuinely think that you are at the apex of everything, then religiously you’re probably better off practising something like LaVeyan Satanism, which is more than happy to tell its adherence that they are awesome and they don’t need to bow to anyone. If you don’t go along with that, and you are interested in honouring and showing respect to those you consider your betters, then looking down on someone for kneeling in order to show that exact same respect is kind of hypocritical.

    As for it being somehow “unmanly” to kneel or bow to a higher power, even an amateur non-expert like me knows that the one figure who most embodies the modern “fuck you all, I bow to no man!” attitude amongst the Aesir and Vanir is Loki… who is also the model for a whole range of “unmanly” behaviours.

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