The longer that I’ve been involved in modern Heathenry, the more I’ve noticed that many people who have worked this religion for a long time have ended up doing one of two things: either converting to a new religion entirely, or exploring other traditions on the side (often claiming that they were sent to X tradition by the Norse gods themselves). The other day I found a video on Youtube made by a man who had converted from Ásatrú to Zoroastrianism, and it was obvious that he had done so because he felt more rooted in a stable and organized philosophical system. I have a personal aquaintance who converted to Judaism from Heathenry after many years, explaining to me that she was tired of working in a religion that had no answers. I have met even more Heathens who, along with worshipping the Norse gods, have found themselves drawn to (or sent to) African Traditional Religions, Hinduism, Taoism, British Traditional Wicca, Feri Tradition, Roman Reconstructionism, Greek Reconstructionism, Buddhism, and other (often unbroken) polytheistic traditions. Though I’m sure that many Heathens would disagree with me, I actually see this as extrememly important step towards the reconstruction, and perhaps more importantly, the revitalization of the Germanic Traditions. In this article I’m going to try to explain why.
I find that Heathenry in general has a bit of a xenophobic streak when it comes to looking to other cultures for inspiration or practicing more than one tradition at once. In the abovementioned video of the converted Zoroastrian, there were numerous comments written by people essentially calling him a race traitor for turning his back on the traditions of his ancestors. Perhaps these reactions are based on the assumption that Heathenry isn’t missing anything and it would somehow become a less pure practice (or you aren’t a serious person) if you gained inspiration or insight from any other cultures. Others with a more Folkish bent may see seeking for wisdom outside of one’s roots as unnecessary and unnatural. Either viewpoint is rather ironic considering the wandering nature of Odin, who would go anywhere and do pretty much anything for wisdom. And in either viewpoint, there is a base assumption that Modern Heathenry is a complete, self-contained tradition that possesses all of the essential elements of how our ancestors practiced their traditions. However, I think the deeper one digs into modern Heathenry, the more one starts to realize that its waters are actually very shallow compared to the depth possessed by traditions with literally thousands of years of unbroken history.
I find more and more that the people who have been at this religion for a long time eventually will hit a plateau in their spiritual development and relationships with the gods. Not to say that the Holy Powers themselves are somehow shallow, but because the old religion was exterminated and we have lost the framework to carry people deeper into spiritual transformation. Some people do all right by themselves, but this is often a lonely and solitary journey, and you have to make it up as you go. I think that part of the reason that plateau exists is, whether or not many people recognize it, Heathenry possesses a huge empty space within it, creating a vacuum that has to be filled by something.
Modern Heathens have a few surviving poems and a few stories of the gods left from the conversions, maybe a few folk charms (most of which are highly Christianized) and a few brief descriptions of what certain rituals looked like (but who knows how trustworthy those accounts are). What we don’t have are everything that make a religion a religion: We have no surviving prayers to the gods, no ritual instructions, no sacred songs, no sacred dances, no description of what gods received what sacrifices, no protocol for how sacrifices should be made, no description of what kind of training priests underwent, no methods of divination. In other words, we have lost almost every shred of our spiritual technology, which I define as those practices which a culture developed through trial and error to produce a deep, wide-reaching spiritual (and sometimes physical) effect. I personally think it would be overly dismissive to assume because we have no record of a more extensive set of Germanic spiritual technology, they never existed in Northern Europe; especially when every unbroken polytheistic religion in the world possesses those basic elements. To me, that has always felt like a cop-out, inspired by fear that one will look silly be doing something that isn’t in “the lore”.
Because Heathenry possesses such a large vacuum when it comes to religious practice, I believe many modern Heathens have unconsciously filled it with the only kind of spiritual technology most post-conversion Europeans/European-descendants are familiar with: that of spontaneous, personal prayer and the study of holy scriptures (which Heathens have replaced with the surviving lore and the works of modern scholars). Incidentally, these are the only two pieces of spiritual technology one is likely to be introduced to in a Christian upbringing, and the two most prevalent practices in modern Heathenry. The only other forms of spiritual technology I see much in modern Heathenry are the act of standing (rather rigidly) in a circle to honor the gods, and sometimes using what is known as the Hammer Rite; the circle and the hallowing of four corners being directly derived from ceremonial magic. Not only is our spiritual technology missing, but with no lines of elders or philosophy in place, anyone can inject any kind of political or social philosophy they want into modern Heathenry, and there’s no one to refute whether it really belongs there or not.
That isn’t to say that these practices are by themselves bad or can’t do anything positive for worshippers, but I haven’t personally experienced the same power, complexity, structure, or philosophical thought that I have seen in unbroken polytheistic traditions, and ultimately as a spiritual seeker I found myself craving something more. There were many holes in Heathenry that I didn’t even realize were there until I started to look at how the spiritual technology of Hinduism and Santeria, and the Huna-derived Feri practices functioned. When I saw them working in action, my perspective of what religious practice is supposed to look like shifted drastically away from the Judeo-Christian model I hadn’t even realized I’d been indoctrinated with. I think that paradigm shift is something many (if not all) modern Heathens struggle with. If the structure of Abrahamic religions is the only thing you’ve ever seen, than of course whatever religion you’re attempting to create is going to contain (even if unintentionally) many of those elements. It’s not a badge of shame, it’s just the reality of our cultural upbringing.
For me, the only way to start looking at polytheistic religion in a more ancient way was to immerse myself in cultures that still possessed those ancient polytheistic ties and ways of thinking. If I hadn’t started to study Hinduism or had never been initiated into an ATR, I never would have even been able to see what major pieces of spiritual technology Heathenry was missing: sacred song, sacred dance, intense (and accurate) divination, sacrifice, a consciousness of tradition lineage, magic that actually works. These are all things that the lore and sagas make brief mention of, but things that we have lost the framework and knowledge to actually do effectively. Rather than diluting some imagined purity of my Heathen practice, my journey into Africa, India, and Hawaii actually brought me closer to the Norse Gods, and inspired me to take what I had learned and use it as a way to flesh out the “hows” and “whys” of the many “whats” our surviving scraps of lore have left us with.
I think my Heathen practice has primarily drawn inspiration from Hinduism, as it’s our closest living Indo-European relative (it’s the frog DNA in my dinosaur, for all the nerds out there). Even linguistically you can make many parallels that are similar across the two Indo-European cultures, which can even give hints as to how concepts shared by both traditions may have operated within a Northern European context. I think many Heathens are unaware that the Runic systems of philosophy and magic put forth by Guido von List and Edred Thorsson were both heavily inspired by the Vedic Tradition of mantra, and regardless of what people have to say about modern Rune magic, I find it to be a welcome little oasis of mysticism within the often very dry and scholarly reconstructionist desert.
This doesn’t mean I support cultural appropriation, nor does it necessarily mean sitting a statue of Shiva next to a statue of Odin (though if you’re learning from that culture, it might be more polite). What it has meant for me is looking at a piece of missing spiritual technology in Heathenry that we have evidence for (for example, fire sacrifice), looking at how fire sacrifice is performed in living polytheistic cultures, what kinds of prayers are said, what kinds of gods are associated with it, when and why is it used, what kinds of symbols both cultures share, and then using that as the building blocks of a practice that fits comfortably in a Northern European context. Perhaps most importantly, that practice will be also be carrying the time-proven methodology that we lost access to when our European traditions were destroyed.
Then comes the trial period: if you work with the spiritual technology you’ve recovered and retranslated and it gives you good results, you have the beginning of a new, valid tradition that can be passed on to your community. If nothing happens or it just doesn’t gel, reassess and go back to the drawing board. Divination is a valuable tool during this stage. In my opinion, you could learn absolutely everything there is to know about the lore, but unless you can actually use it and make it work, it’s nothing but an intellectual exercise. If you want to be a scholar, than be a scholar. Priests, priestesses, and devotees should be the ones caring about results.
I tend to look at my style of reconstructionism more like restoring a classic car than putting on a renaissance fair. Even if on the outside the car looks the same, if it doesn’t have all of the parts it needs to run, it’s not going to function to its full capacity. Just like the metaphorical car we’re restoring, some of those pieces may be missing or aren’t being manufactured by the same companies in the same way. You then may have to somewhere else find the closest equivalent to make the car run.
Some people may read this and argue that if you start looking outside of Northern Europe to rebuild our traditions, then the traditions of our ancestors will lose their integrity. But the sad truth is, there are no ancient Heathen traditions left to defend. We have no continuity in our “traditions”. They were exterminated to the point where scholars are still debating about nearly every point of Heathen religion to this day, because in reality we just have no clue what it really looked like. Modern Heathenry IS a new religion in every sense, and has only been practiced since around the 1960’s. Every Heathen “tradition” used today was created only around sixty years ago by cobbling together pieces of ritual based on the scant evidence we have in the lore and whatever other knowledge was available at the time. The idea that Heathenry is the result of an unbroken, pure line to our ancestors is an illusion, and yet it has become nearly taboo within Heathenry to practice or learn from any other unbroken polytheistic traditions. However, I don’t see any other way to learn how to start thinking like a polytheist other than spending time with people with an uninterrupted polytheistic mindset, which is why I believe so many Heathens have felt the call from the Gods to explore foreign lands. It may be the only way to re-learn and bring back the practices that our gods and people have lost. Like Odin traveling into Jotunhiem to bring back the mead of poetry, I think many people will continue to feel this call.
While I don’t think it needs to be everyone’s calling, I am always very pleased when I find people who are experiencing the power of unbroken tradition, and using the tools they are learning to rebuild Heathenry as a more powerful, functional religion. Because I think it is so needed, I would like to see more Heathens in the future being less quick to police each other away from exploring other cultures, or shame each other for trying to do powerful work outside of what a few Christian men were able to record. If we want our spiritual technology to be more than just for show, we need people to explore and bring back the wisdom to recreate the pieces we’re missing. Instead of writing yet another blot where we talk about a piece of the lore and stand rigidly in a circle, I’d love to see more people creating sacred songs, devotional practices, initiations, parades and processions, philosophies, schools of thought, and even mystery schools: anything to put the life back into our religion and give it that depth that it’s missing. Debating the lore like a Bible Study Group unpacking Corinthians just isn’t enough for me anymore, and I know I’m not the only one.