“Hearth cult” is the phrase most commonly used to describe a Heathen’s home practice — the ritual actions a Heathen performs as part of the gifting cycle they hold with their ancestors, the wights, and the gods.
Before we begin: the sacred and the profane
The terms “sacred” and “profane” are frequently referenced when discussing ritual. Modern readers will assume that “sacred” is good and that “profane” is bad, but that is not the case for Heathens. Sacredness is a quality of space that enables and promotes the manifestation of the divine. Everything that doesn’t have this quality is profane. A shrine is sacred because it is where religious rituals are conducted; a bookshelf is profane simply because its purpose is to hold books. An offering is sacred when it is given to the divine, then made profane again when it is removed from the shrine for disposal.
How to start your hearth cult
Hearth cult is the most important, foundational practice in Heathenry. It provides practitioners a way of establishing the gifting cycle with their ancestors, the wights, and the gods regardless if they live alone or if they have a group that honors the gifting cycle together. Each person’s hearth cult is unique to them; no two practices will look the same. However, many new Heathens struggle with establishing their hearth cult in the first place. The following guide includes steps on how to establish hearth cult and perform hearth ritual, as well as the importance behind each step.
Step 1: Locate a place in your home to set up your shrine.
A shrine should not be located in a place where it could be easily jostled or knocked around, nor should it be so far out of the way that it becomes neglected. If you have enough room in your residence, consider a place that sees frequent traffic, such as the living room or the dining room. Near the entrances to rooms or in the corners where two walls meet are also good locations. Also, think about what surface you want to use for your shrine. Tables, shelves, and window sills are common surfaces. Whichever you choose, it should not be used for anything other than ritual activity once the shrine is set up on top of it.
If you do not have a lot of room for a shrine, consider a temporary one that you can disassemble after performing hearth cult rites. Containers as large as baskets and as small as Altoids tins can be used to hold shrine items.
Why do we do this? In ancient times, the hearth was the central location of the house where most social interaction and activity took place. Therefore, shrines should be centrally located, or at least be located in rooms frequently used by all of the people in a home. Additionally, shrines are concentrations of sacred space, so locations where two objects meet (entrances, corners, etc.) are better for shrines because of the transition they represent.
Because shrines are considered sacred space, we do not want to pollute them with profane acts, which is why shrines should only be used for ritual activity once they have been set up.
Step 2: Set up your shrine.
Choose the items you want to put on the shrine and arrange them to your liking. Depending on who you wish to honor/worship at the shrine, you might put framed photos of your deceased relatives, images of your god(s), and votive offerings. At the very minimum, a shrine must contain:
- An offering dish, such as a plate or bowl
- A candle, either electric or real
Individuals who like to burn incense as an offering will also include an incense burner on their shrines.
Why do we do this? In ancient times, the hearth was was where people performed domestic religious rites. Images of gods, offerings, and other decorations were kept near the hearth. In modern times, most homes do not have a hearth, and homes that do have them do not see them used in this manner. To make up for this, the candle on the shrine represents the hearth fire itself, and the dish or bowl next to it is where we place offerings. Heathens will further decorate their shrines as a way to appease the ancestors, wights, and/or gods, and to showcase their own aesthetic preferences.
Step 3: Decide when and how often you will perform hearth ritual.
Hearth rituals should be performed with regularity. Decide, based on your schedule and abilities, what sort of regularity is best for you. Some people perform hearth rite every weekend, while other people prefer to do it once a week on a weekday. Some people can only perform hearth rite twice a month or monthly. Whichever you decide, resolve to stick to the schedule as best as you can.
Why do we do this? A strong relationship between two people is not established in a single meeting, nor does it remain strong if they don’t regularly spend time together. In the context of hearth cult, each time a Heathen performs the ritual and makes offerings, they are strengthening and continuing their bonds with their ancestors, wights, and gods.
If a Heathen cannot perform hearth rite during a time when they normally would, the recommendation is to either do it early or make extra offerings the next time.
Step 4: Choose the offerings you plan to give during ritual.
Decide what kind of offerings you’ll be able to give on a regular basis, keeping in mind your financial situation and what’s accessible in your area. Standard modern offerings include food (especially meats, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits, bread, grains, seeds, and nuts), fire, alcohol, and votive offerings such as effigies of sacred animals. Some individuals make offerings of incense, too.
Why do we do this? Offerings are what we give the ancestors, wights, and gods in order to uphold our end of the gifting cycle. Historically, these offerings included animal sacrifices for their fresh blood (which some modern Heathens still do) and baked cakes.
Step 5: Decide when and how you will dispose of offerings after the ritual.
Depending on your housing situation, you can decide to dispose of offerings either by leaving them outside in nature or by throwing them into the trash or the kitchen sink. If you choose to leave offerings outside, be sure that they will not be harmful to wild animals that might eat them. If they are, the recommendation is to throw them into the trash.
When choosing when to dispose of offerings, consider what you plan to offer and how quickly they can rot (if at all). Also take into consideration if there are any young children or animals in your home that might eat them if they’re left out for a long time. There is no standard amount of time that has to pass before offerings can be removed from a shrine, so it is ultimately your preference.
Why do we do this? For practical and health reasons, food and drink should not be left on the shrine to rot. Moreover, it is better to make food profane again by removing it from the shrine than to leave it to rot in a sacred space. The trash bin and the sink are acceptable ways to dispose of offerings, too, since every mundane action can possess a religious aspect.
Step 6: Decide how you want to purify yourself before ritual.
Decide how you want to ritually purify yourself before giving offerings, depending on when and how often you plan to perform hearth ritual. Some options include: showering, taking a bath, washing the face, washing the hands, brushing the teeth, and using mouthwash. Modern Heathens will commonly perform a combination of purification methods, such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth, in lieu of a full shower or bath. They might also choose to take a full shower or bath on holidays and for more formal rituals, but not for the more regular hearth rituals.
Why do we do this? Humans are naturally impure creatures due to our lack of divine nature. In order to prepare our bodies for the exchange with the divine, we need to shed those impurities, if temporarily. Since water is a purifying agent by its very nature, washing our bodies (or parts of our bodies) is sufficient for this purpose.
Bodily fluids are considered especially impure. Spit, phlegm, pus, urine, sexual fluids, and feces are not allowed in ritual or in sacred spaces. For some Heathens, this includes blood. Some hearths and larger groups might allow menstruating people to participate in rituals, and some might not. When participating in another hearth’s or group’s rituals, respect for their rules is of utmost importance.
Step 7: Perform your first hearth ritual.
Finally, perform your hearth ritual. An easy and accessible format for the ritual is available on Lārhūs Fyrnsida. A quick run-through of the ritual format is available below, without the technical explanations provided on the Lārhūs website:
- Prepare your offerings.
- Purify yourself.
- Hallow the shrine space. If outdoors, walk clockwise around the sacred space with fire. If indoors, light a candle and move it in a clockwise, circular motion above/around the shrine.
- Petition the gatekeeper deity and make offerings.
- Petition the hearth deity and make offerings.
- Petition any other gods, ancestors, and wights and make offerings.
- Make closing statements and thanks, then request that the gatekeeper deity close the channel of communication, which ends the ritual.
This ritual can be used as it is, or it can be modified to suit your needs. For example, some Heathens do not petition a gatekeeper deity for informal rituals. However, the basic format of purification, hallowing, petitioning, and gifting should be followed.
Why do we do this? Heathenry is an orthopraxic religion, which means that the correct performance of right actions is more important than correct belief. By performing the ritual actions repetitively and with frequency, humans can deepen their relationships with their ancestors and household gods, and receive the benefits from those relationships.