What is Forn Sed?
As an active member of the organisation Forn Sed Sweden I often get asked about Forn Sed, what it is and why our organisation use this name for our religion over other names. I’m going to try my hand at explaining how I see this, but first I need to be clear about something: This is my view, it’s not officially sanctioned by FSS, and it may or may not to a greater or smaller degree overlap the views of others. I really dislike these kinds of disclaimers, but as anything one writes can travel far beyond what one expected and be taken out of context, thus I feel the need to point this out.
The name Forn Sed, Old Norse “forn siðr”, appears in Snorri’s Heimskringla: “Í Svíþjóð var þat forn siðr” which translates to “in Sweden there were the old ways”. Forn meaning old – in contrast to new way of Christianity – and siðr meaning custom, tradition, practice, moral, way. I’ve come across people who have claimed that this name was a slur, christians mocking the people stuck in the past. It’s possible that was so, but today the name carries no such connotations. Forn Sed Sweden was founded back in 1994 as Sveriges Asatrosamfund (Sweden’s Asatru Association), but elected to change the name to the one we presently have about 10 years ago to better reflect what we do. We do not exclusively focus on the Æsir or even the gods in general, some members in their own practice choose to give their offerings only to the wights, elves and rådare/”keepers”, and what we do, our sed/siðr, is far more important to us than than exactly what and how people believe.
“Forn Sed” is also similar to names of other pluralist religions. The name of the indigenous Japanese religion is Shinto or Kami-no-michi, both of which mean “way of the gods” in Chinese and Japanese respectively, and Hinduism is sometimes called Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Dharma, or Hindu Dharma (on contrast with “Turaka Dharma”, Islam). Both the concepts of Dharma and Dao are in some ways quite similar to that of Siðr in some ways. They all refer to the practical side of religion rather than belief and refers to a continuing process rather than something fixed – way, path or order. I don’t want to push the comparison too far, but I do think they are all pointing to a similar underlying idea.
While we know that the worship of the high gods was more or less completely surpressed by the time Snorri wrote his Edda, other aspects survived. Some survived because they were not seen to threaten the Christian hegemony, others because they represented something that was too important to for people to give up. The offerings to various local beings, spirits, wights and the like continued, as did horse races at certain holidays, and people celebrating the changing seasons and the processes of life and death. Over time these traditions and practices changed; some disappeared and new traditions and practices developed. To me these new traditions, even though they developed long after “official” Heathenry were gone, are often just as heathen since they have little or nothing to do with Christian belief. There is for example a tradition where I grew up that says that if one wants to gain supernatural knowledge one has to find a white snake and ingest it. It’s a late tradition, and while it could have ancient roots, it’s far likelier that it developed after Christianity had come to dominate. It has, however, nothing to do with Christianity, and seems far closer to Heathenry.
And this is essential to my take on Heathenry and Forn Sed: The never ending revelation of the divine, the spiritual, in new forms that fit into the world that is now. I see Forn Sed as a chain that reaches back into the past, far beyond what we can ever know and into the future, and all of us are the links that it’s made of. Forn Sed is like the ship of Theseus, even though bits and pieces are changed, replaced with new things, it is still the same ship of Theseus, it is still the same Sed. Or maybe it is more like a living thing, it grows, changes, takes in what it needs and replaces that which is worn out. But it remains the same.
So it is with our practices too. We celebrate Jul/Yule at or around the winter solstice. The name is the same, or nearly the same, as 1000 years ago, and while I’m sure the many pieces of the celebration has changed – the exact time, the food we eat, the stories we tell – it is still Jul. And that never died. While we are surrounded by the stories of the birth of a god the story people really celebrate is that of the deep of winter, of eating and drinking to celebrate life in the face of the all-encompassing darkness and cold. It’s the same with Easter and definitely the same with Midsummer. (Though not the part about winter, obviously…)
What we do must fit into our lives, or we will never be able to truly live our religion. We do what works, not was we think is supposed to work. That means, among other things, that I (and most of the FSS) celebrate blóts that fall suspiciously close to the wiccan/pagan eight-spoked Wheel of the Year. I don’t think all of those correspond to ancient celebrations (though some certainly do), but – at least in Sweden – they are what works today. That works here. That also means that the Siðr/Heathenry that works here, won’t work as well somewhere else. Again, very much like Hinduism, a vast religion where practices vary very much from one place to another, a religion of pluralism, of diversity, but still one religion in the eyes of it’s adherents.