Washed in the Water
by Prudence Priest
Prudence Priest leads Freya’s Folk, a coven with a Norse focus that has been together for more than 20 years.
Although baptism is most often considered a Christian custom, the use of water as a purification is much more ancient. The Greeks, Romans, Aryans, Ugro-Finnics and the Teutons associated it with some form of initiation as well.
Ceremonial use of water can be both simple and complex. Children are born of the water of the mother; a parallel of washing away the old and beginning fresh becomes evident. Why do people wash their hands? This simple ritual cleans them from contact with dirt, and by extension, disease, death, even guilt. And as this process of purification is built on, the simple act of cleansing assumes ever more complex symbolism and meaning, and even becomes associated with the giving of a name as civilization becomes more sophisticated.
The four elements of classical times, among those who believe they have a life of their own or who are animistic, have often been venerated in their own right. Sacred wells or springs and lakes with reputed healing powers have outlasted all attempts to Christianize them if not to co-opt them.
Superstitious Romans believed that water could purge them of all sins. Many Indians today believe that immersion in the Ganges will wash away all the past sins of a lifetime. If water can wash away dirt and contamination on a physical level, then it follows that it is possible that water can purify one on an emotional, spiritual, moral and even psychic level as well. Such was the current of thought of the ancients. It is still prevalent among some pagan peoples today.
Teutonic peoples had a custom of baptism observed by Roman writers as early as 200 B(efore) the C(onfusion). Among the Scandinavians, it was called an “ausa vatni” (water sprinkling), and signified acceptance into the family. Until the ausa vatni had been performed, a child had no legal rights or standing within the community and was not even considered a human being. Even in Christian times, the wergeld for killing an unbaptized child was half that paid for the death of a baptized one.
On the ninth day after birth, the baby was brought to the father (or closest male relative) for the public performance of the ausa vatni, and at that time was also given a name. The Norwegians, Lapps and Finns performed the ceremony on a Thorsday. It was often accompanied with a feast given by all the blood relatives. The name chosen was usually that of a parent or an ancestor, usually a deceased grandparent on the mother’s side, conferred so that the qualities of that person could live again in the child. Giving the parent’s name granted one immortality in one’s own lifetime.
When a child was born, it was first laid upon the ground to reverence the earth as the source of all life. The Scandinavian term for midwife, “jordemoder,” means earth mother. The midwife then lifted the child up and presented it to the father, who had the power of life or death over it. This power was nullified, however, if the child had partaken of milk or honey, or if it had been washed. If any of these had happened, a child was considered to have rights equal to those of any member of its family. If the father were unavailable, the mother had the right to acknowledge or expose the infant. Another important custom was the planting of a tree on the day of birth. This tree became the child’s tree of life, and they mirrored each other’s growth. This custom has a lot more going for it than passing out cigars.
As water is elemental in nature, an ausa vatni is a Vanic rite (that is, a rite having to do with the Vanir). The new member of the community was thrice sprinkled with water by the father: once in the name of Thor, again in the name of Freyr and lastly in the name of Njord. By sprinkling the babe with water, it was believed, the beneficial forces of water could be brought to bear in their various powers for good and healing for the newborn. This attunement of the child with the element of water was also thought to protect it from the harmful effects of water.
Among the Finns and Lapps, baptismal names were bestowed by the “wash mother” (laugo-edme). Then, according to E.J. Jessen in Afhandling om de norske Finners og Lappers Hedenske Religion, the following ceremony was performed: “Warm water was poured into a trough, and two birch twigs one in its natural condition, the other bent into a ring were laid in it. At the same time, the child was thus addressed: ‘Thou shalt be as fertile, sound and strong as the birch from which this twig was taken.’ Then a copper (or silver) talisman was cast into the water, with the words: ‘I cast the namba-skiello (talisman) into the water, to wash thee; be as melodious and fair as this brass (or silver).’ Then came the formula: ‘I baptize thee with a new name, N.N. Thou shalt thrive better from this water, of which we make thee a partaker, than from the water wherewith the priest baptized thee. I call thee up by baptism, deceased N.N. Thou shalt now rise again to life and health and receive new limbs. Thou, child, shalt have the same happiness and joy which the deceased enjoyed in this world.’ As she uttered these words, the baptizer poured water three times on the head of the child, and then washed its whole body. Finally she said: ‘Now art thou baptized adde-namba (underworld name), with the name of the deceased, and I will see that with this name thou wilt enjoy good health.'”
Specific legal rights were conferred at an ausa vatni as well. Both the Eddas and Heimskringla have reference to the custom. In the Havamal (Dasent’s translation), the master magician states: “This I can make sure when I suffuse a man-child with water he shall not fall when he fights in the host; no sword shall bring him low.” In the Heimskringla, we are told that at the birth of Harald Gráfeld, “Eirikr and Gunnhild had a son whom Haraldr Haarfager suffused with water, and to whom he gave the name, ordaining that he should be king after his father Eirik.”
By naming and claiming a child as his own, according to the Teutonic peoples, a father granted the child protection, provision and the right of inheritance and succession to his estate. An ausa vatni is an important rite of passage in Asatru. As many people have never had one, it is a custom in Freya’s Folk when a new member joins and takes a new name. Why not try the cleansing, healing and purging power of water for yourself?
May the gods direct you to the best.