Oromë and Atani Religion
Companion piece to this post. I got to thinking about who the most recognizable Vala would be to Middle-earth’s Men, and came to the conclusion that it’s probably Oromë.
Of all the Valar, Oromë most loved the lands outside Valinor. It’s said that he left them unwillingly and was the last to come west, and that he often returned with his host to the East to hunt monsters and beasts, and the shadows fled for a while when they hunted. When he did remain in Valinor Oromë would train his folk and beasts for the pursuit of Melkor’s evil creatures.
Oromë is also the one who finds the elves at Cuiviénen, which essentially rescues them from extinction or worse at Morgoth’s hands. He is filled with wonder at these new beings and stays for a while to teach them. After the first war against Morgoth, the elves are afraid of all the Ainur except for Oromë, having seen the rest only in their wrath. He then shepherded the three elf representatives to Valinor and back, and then accompanies all of the Eldar from Cuiviénen to Beleriand and leads them with great care to assure their safety.
And when the humans wake up many years later, their first teachers are the elves who remained behind and who would have told them stories about the Valar and Morgoth. But these elves probably know very little about the Valar who remained in Aman, enough just to say that there are good powers off in the West. Except for Oromë. About him, the elves can say that they personally met a living, physical near-god, who walked the same forests where humanity’s feet now step,and that he taught them, protected them and wanted the best for them.
So you have this one Vala who is differentiated from the others by his love for mortal lands, who doesn’t abandon Middle-earth and goes back and makes conditions better there, and spends all his time in paradise training to do it again. He’s physically present, he’s active. He is defined by a very human set of activities (hunting, riding, fighting), emotions (love, longing, wrath) and objects of those emotions (horses, hounds, trees, eastern lands, evil). In comparison to many of the other Valar who are distant and less human, Oromë is a much more approachable, understandable figure.
For a human in Middle-earth, it would be these detailed stories of a human-like mentoring power that would seem reasonable, memorable and appealing. Such a power might cast his thought back toward Middle-earth (and thus humans) more often than his fellows and be more likely to hear and act if called upon. Then you have stories of him conquering evil, and
becomes even more attractive as a heroic figure. He is so eager, in fact, to fight evil that when he’s in Valinor
spends all his time training to go back. It is a very short step to believing that he might be eager and willing to help a human proxy do the same. Apply a kind of transitive logic and Oromë can be cast as a patron of humanity.
Oromë is also very geographically grounded in Middle-earth, which increases his appeal for us tactile human adherents; there are scattered signs of his physical presence even into the Third Age. The Misty Mountains, for example, were according to lore raised by Melkor to hinder Oromë’s hunts for evil creatures. The Horn of Gondor (used most famously by Boromir) was made from the horn of a Kine of Araw, which were cattle found near the Sea of Rhun and said in legend to be descended from ancestors brought by Oromë from Valinor. The ancestors of the Mearas were also, according to Rohirric tradition, originally brought to Middle Earth from Valinor by Oromë.
Whatever lies Morgoth taught Men later, all of this is a very compelling narrative. And stories about Oromë had plenty of opportunity to spread thanks to early Avari-human contact, and are renewed by the reentry of the Noldor into Beleriand, who would have passed those stories east through their kin, by human refugees from the west during the wars and after Beleriand’s destruction, by the Numenoreans as they sailed east and colonized Middle-earth, and perhaps even by the Istari.
And this mythic persistence is largely supported by our evidence. He appears in the language of the Rohirrim as ”Bema”, where he seems deeply embedded in their mythic culture (Theoden on Snowmane is compared to Orome atop Nahar, for example, and their heraldry symbol is the white Mearas, which is one of Nahar’s kin) and in the geographic legends I mentioned earlier. Since the Rohirrim are closely related to other peoples descended from the Northmen, it seems likely that the Men of Dale, Beornings, Woodsmen, and various other peoples of northern Rhovanion also had similar traditions. If we extend that influence a little further into space and time, the Variags probably included Oromë in their mythology because of their origin with the ancestors of the Rohirrim, and perhaps also the Dunlendings, who mixed frequently with the Rohirrim, and the Hobbits, whose ancestors lived nearby and whose language still carries traces of contact.
Because of their location at the very edge of elven and Edain influence, the Northmen are not as religiously orthodox as the Numenoreans. They acknowledge Eru as the creator but he figures very little into their beliefs; the Ainur have greater importance and religious influence. Some of the northern peoples, like the Beornings and the Woodsmen, are teetering right on the edge of ‘paganism’ and the Variags in the Third Age have fully embraced polytheism.
Besides Oromë, the Northmen are naturally drawn to Valar who are closely connected to him. Vána, his wife, is associated with spring, fertility, beauty, romantic love, the growth of plants and agriculture, and is the protector of young people. To his sister Nessa is attributed power over untouched nature, wild animals, sports, dance, childbirth, and the protection of children. The two are usually conceived as the opposite ends of a natural continuum, with Vána at one end as the gentle, domesticated natural world controlled by humans and Nessa on the other as embodying the untamed, instinctive, dangerous aspects of wilderness. Oromë unites them as the patron of domestic animals, forests, human activities, crafts, culture, war, justice and good.
Some universal observances and traditions exist. According to legend, Oromë and his maiar can sometimes sneak out of Valinor, and they ride Middle-earth like they did when the world was young and hunt evil disguised as spirits. The Northmen call this the Wild Hunt and believe they only appear on moonless or stormy nights. You are supposed to leave a threefold libation outside your door to offer them refreshment when they pause to rest: offal for the hounds, grain for the horses, and mead (Rohirrim, Variags), milk (Beornings), ale (Woodsmen) or wine (Dale) for the huntsmen.
Vána is honored foremost during a spring festival, situated sometime after the first flowers of spring and planting the spring crops, but there is a companion holiday in the fall for planting winter wheat and other winter crops. Vána can always be identified in art by her crown of flowers. Nessa also has two corresponding observances. The main one is in early to mid-fall, during the rut, while the matching holiday is in late spring to early summer, when the deer give birth to fawns. Nessa always wears a crown of antlers in their iconography. The purpose of all these observances is to ensure the productivity of both plants and animals to nourish the people.
The Northmen believe the blowing of a horn is the surest way to dispel enchantment and evil magic, and to drive out bad spirits, who flee in fear at the echo of the Valaróma. Horses and hounds are said to have special powers to sense evil and ill intent, and the greatest capacity for loyalty and love of humans. Mistreatment and cruelty to animals is the surest way to draw Oromë and Nessa’s anger and will lead to misfortune, as will disrespect for the animals you hunt and the unneeded felling of trees. You offer a prayer to Oromë before every hunt for his favor, and when you make a kill you dedicate it to the Huntsman, so his sister doesn’t become offended at the death of her creatures. Hunting deer has extra customs - killing a doe with an unweaned fawn is forbidden by Nessa, as is killing white, spotted or other unusual colored animals, since they are ‘marked’ by the two Valar as their own. Hunting in the sacred groves dedicated to Nessa is also strictly forbidden.
While there is a pretty consistent mythology, each of the different groups have their own unique traditions. The Rohirrim and the Variags, of course, favor Oromë’s aspect as ‘The Great Rider’ and most of their art shows him mounted on Nahar. You can always tell it’s him because Nahar has six legs, representing his ability to carry Oromë over the land and sea. They also have a truly staggering number of native horse related traditions, not all of which are the same. The Rohirrim have a strict taboo against eating horseflesh, for example, while the Variags think that horsemeat is the only appropriate food for celebrations and significant events, though both justify this custom because Oromë favors horses. The Rohirrim also honor a unique warrior aspect of Nessa, who is the patron of shieldmaidens, and equivalent to Oromë as a war god. The Men of Dale prefer to honor Oromë as the Huntinglord, while the Beornings and the Woodmen of Mirkwood invoke him as the Lord of Forests and the Huntsman.
I like to think that scraps of Oromë’s myth survived even in the Uttermost East. The Avari told Men stories of the world trees of the West, and of a demigod who walked among them and who hunts the leaping stag in the forest, and sometimes if Men tell the story enough times the three become the same - the stag-god with the world tree as his horns.