Friday, February 17, 2012

D is for Dísir

A Heathen-specific entry this week. For next week I'm musing over perhaps "death" or "drinking". But this week, a discussion on the Dísir.

The Dísir are female spirits worshipped in Heathenry. It's a very general term - the Norns are referred to as Dísir, and one of the names of Freyja is "Vanadís" (or Lady of the Vanir). It may have originally been another term for the Valkyries, and it's a common name element (For example, Freydís). But the term as it is used now most often refers to female ancestral spirits who watch over the family. Our Troth vol I mentions that "in Skaldic kennings, someone's dís is their kinswoman, living or dead" so perhaps that accounts for the variety of entities to whom the word applies; a term of affection for goddesses perhaps, or acknowledgement that they are our kin?

The Dísir are honoured at a Dísablót. (Check me out with all my accents on my letters. I am trying hard.) When you hold your Dísablót is rather up to you, but there's evidence historically from the sagas of people holding them at the beginning of winter (along with Álfablót, another holiday with possible ancestral elements), as well as at Dísting (or Idís-thing) in early spring. The Dísir may also be honoured during Mother Night as a part of Yuletide. Really, now I think about it, they tend to get honoured quite a bit. 

As family ancestor spirits, they are guardians of hamingja (familial fortune, luck) and related to fylgia (sort of, like, inherited animal spirits and totems). They're not land spirits, and they and their protection will follow a family, and individuals who go across the seas. As spirits of worship, they're asked particularly for help in magic and childbirth:
Learn help runes eke, if help thou wilt
a woman to bring forth her babe;
on they palms wear them and grasp her wrists,
and ask the dísir's aid.
 - Sigrdrífumál, 11

But, these being Teutonic entities, some of that magic is in defense and warfare. In Road to Hel, H.E. Davidson talks about various female spirits, such as the personification of hamingja (metaphorically? or literally?) fighting alongside warriors in battle, and links them to the Dísir (p 135):
The evidence certainly seems to suggest that the guardian Valkyries, the guardian hamingjur of the family and the guardian dísir are one and the same conception.

As I write this, Twitter is going berserk over the recent comments and so on made by Republican politicians in the USA. (Probably some Democrats too.) Not only is it suddenly apparent to me how much apathy there is towards women's healthcare, but - and I was shocked - there was a panel on contraceptive pills and women's health from which women were excluded. Was this just an oversight? Quite possibly, but that reflects the undercurrent of quiet, subtle sexism: no one looked at the line-up of experts and wondered why none of them were women.

You know what's funny? When I was a kid, I was a conscientious objector. More or less still am. But the point is, I had discussions with my father (he and my grandfather were both in the army) about what would happen if there was a draft and I was called up to war. Perfectly naturally, to the extent that now, as an adult, I find out that if there was a draft women probably wouldn't be called up, and I am quite perplexed. Really? I mean... really? I love, actually, that I was raised just taking it for granted that I'd be drafted, were it to come to that. (I was adamant that I would refuse to go to war and go to jail instead, because I was practically Lisa Simpson, but my point stands.) Turns out, were I am American, I wouldn't be drafted and if I dared to join the army I'd probably be raped too much, and I'd deserve it for wanting equality. ("Are you not horrortained?!") I am glad I live here, not there. But of course, my country is not exempt. I'm looking at you, Alasdair Thompson.

For the Germanic and Scandinavian palaeo-Pagans, women were respected. Qualities in the sagas that women of note possess are often the same as those possessed by men: courage, strength, honour. I'm not going to suggest women then had the same freedoms we do now, because there were definitely particular gender roles - for both men and women - and so on. There were those little facetious comments in the Havamal and so on. But the way women were viewed back then makes that situations like what is going on in America right now seem... I mean, why is this happening? What happened, somewhere along the line, to turn women from honoured members of the community into whores on the one side and uppity lesbians on the other? 

I didn't mean to turn an entry on the Dísir into a diatribe on women's rights in another country, it just sort of turned out that way. Here I am writing about female spirits and ancestors, honoured well, and there are tweets and retweets popping up with the most unbelievable anti-woman rhetoric. We've come from a situation where female ancestors and spirits were honoured several times a year in festivals, were asked for help, wisdom and protection, were thought to guard and watch over the family. Women were once just as holy as men. I can only hope that the Dísir still watch over our menfolk regardless of the hate and apathy of some, or at least, that when the worship for them strengthens, they will return. I can only hope that our cultures will remember the female spirits that are in some ways still such a part of our lives, and that in remembering, this sort of action against women will be looked back on and viewed with horror by the sons and daughters of all those people currently trying to cripple the rights of women.

For more on the Dísir, see Our Troth vol I, which has a chapter devoted to them.


  1. A great post. I think about my relationship to warrior gods and goddesses a lot, in particular because my sister is in the navy. She puts up with a lot of incidental sexist bullsh*t from her training as a female officer- stuff that's part of the culture in the military in Australia (and probably everywhere) that I would never put up with. She holds her own I think by letting it wash over, but I know I wouldn't last long because I couldn't put up with even commentary that would be seen as harmless in such a culture. Looking at what's going on in the world and the horrifying attitude towards women's bodies in US politics reminds me of just how much farther we need to go to get things right- if we ever do.

    1. Yeah, I couldn't do it either. One of my reasons for not having an interest in joining the armed forces is that I don't like being told what to do. The whole culture in that area is something I don't jive with and find a bit disturbing, and I'd probably haul off and shoot my CO one day or something xD