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.
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I don’t think it’s missing a thing but a training system that focuses on the wyrd and orlog and virtuous living and right relationships other than the ADF Norse training system, but Heathens don’t want to see through the tree hugging persona of a druid to look at it. So I’d say those heathens need to build their religion around a tribal center, their right place in the cosmos (now and in the future), and borrow from other Indo-European religions, like Zoroastrianism, but then develop that wisdom in a Heathen context recognizable by the ancestors.
Everyone has their own ideas of what should be central in a Heathen context, of course. You and the ADF obviously place “wyrd and orlog and virtuous living and right relationships” there. Others would put a personal 1:1 relationship with a deity or deities. Others put membership in a tribal group. Others put a relationship with the land-wights, elves, and house-wights. Others put a mystical and initiatory understanding of the myths. Others put the practice of seidr, or rune-magic. And on and on and on. I personally think there’s no single “magic bullet”, and Heathenry will finally reach a level of maturity when we have groups and individuals that can entertain the idea that there can be many such centers for many different people, and the existence of other such centers is not a threat to one’s own. That’s a picture of a real Heathen community I’d love to see.
What do you think about Týr?
I agree, Dagulf. How much tradition do the Slavs and Baltics have? How much could we reasonably learn from them? Ditto with the Sami, although I understand they are not Indo-European.
From one Santera Heathen to another, thank you for writing this. I couldn’t agree more. And I have found, in my own Heathen practices, that when I do scrape together, rework and reinvent folk practices, in partnership with my Gods and spirits, and informed by my unbroken lineage ritual tech, I do get powerful and beautiful results. This is how I crafted the Furious Revels, a community cleansing and protection parade, based on similar parades found throughout Europe (and, it is worth noting, the parades themselves are often unbroken traditions, even if the religions in which they were originally embedded are no longer being practiced). I have led and helped put on modern devotional rituals similarly informed by unbroken spirit tech while trying to stay in the spirit of the traditions from which those gods originated, and in dialogue with those gods. So, yes to all of this, and thank you for saying it.
Excellent post! I agree with your thoughts. I love the runes as a mysticism within a Heathen framework. I love exploring and learning from other traditions. I feel like it brings valuable treasure and wisdom back to benefit the tribe. It’s in the true spirit of our Northern ancestors. Explore, grow, innovate, learn, share, and live. You’ll be happy to know that I and the others at elhazablaze.com have been working on a Chaos Heathen Anthology for the last couple years. I suspect you’ll enjoy our work. You’re so right when you say Heathenry is suffering from a lack of depth. It’s there, but the tech is gone. We can track the spirit through to the well, drink deep of the mead of inspiration, and build / rebuild Heathenry. Another commenter mentioned the ADF. The ADF has built a framework that makes sense, and it allows the freedom to build upon what’s there. Great topic for discussion!
Wonderful article. I disagree with a few points here and there (quibbles, really), but your central points couldn’t be more right. I wrote something of a response (more praise and expansion) on my own blog.
This is precisely how I have felt for the past 18 years.
What an interesting article. You are absolutely correct in that we have no firm, unbroken foundation to work from. The thing I find disconcerting is that the Deities to which we are drawn and whom have chosen us definitely have some ideas of their own as to what they “want”.
Please allow me to give you a “for instance”. Lately, after a long hiatus from practice (and my practice, when I did practice was eclectic, disorganized and haphazard over the years) I have discovered what I have yearned for all my life. A deep, personal relationship with my Goddess. However, much to my surprise it was not what I thought it might be.
After My lady practically knocking me on my head, I sought out a very serious and well known Bay Area practitioner (actually, my Lady thrust me at her) to explore some devotional-rededication tattoo work. In the course of this we did a couple of divination sessions. Well here are my surprises:
1) My lady Goddess is a “being”. She is not an “archetype”. She has wants, needs and an agenda.
2) She is ancient, neolithic, European, possibly Gaullic and attached to my “clan” as a personal patron. She comes down to me thru my bloodline.
3) The divination made it clear that her name is lost to history.
4) Another divination made is abundantly clear that:
– She is displeased with my morning devotional.
– She wants me to practice ritual.
– She wants me to practice “Magick”.
– She does not want me to obtain a teacher (though it is open to interpretation as to whether I can have one in the future).
– She has aspects of Bear and Raven. However she is NOT Artio but MIGHT have some relation.
So, I find myself bound to a being who wants my worship, can’t tell me how, doesn’t have a name, there is no recorded practices to work from and, not surprisingly, given my lackadaisical way, is not speaking out loud (though she sure as hell was knocking loud a few weeks ago.
All I know is casting a circle. All I know is she likes bee’s. I offer honey, have an altar and have my artist working on a visual of My Lady that she scryed during a session.
I literally have nothing to go on. No structure, no lore… no damn name.
I’ll commit heresy and say that there are times I yearn for the structure of the old Catholic Church. Hated it though I did, I still knew what to do, where to go and who to pray to (Saint Jude being a favorite).
I try to NOT ever bring those practices into this “thing” I am cobbling together but I lack even the most basic of sources. My only recourse is to relearn how to meditate (at 54, not so easy) and see if she speaks to me in the silence.
I don’t want to “fake it till I make it”. I yearn for structure, ritual, song, chants, prayers… hell, a f*cking name for Her.
Nevertheless… she is as real as the earth we walk on and the air that we breathe. It is…. frustrating and I understand why people move onto other, more established traditions. I am committed, fully and wholly to My Lady. So much so that I have a devotional tattoo to remind me… but I am going to have to make it up as I go along.
I just wish she hadn’t said she didn’t like what I started with. At least she’s telling me something.
San Leandro, CA
I have seen a few people mentioning that there are sources (like the Gesta Danorum) that do go into more detail about certain sacrifices that were made, certain practices people had, etc. Just so there is no confusion about my meaning, I do know that these sources exist and I have read many of them. But while those sources often briefly mention a practice, they never describe how the practices were performed, the philosophical meanings behind the practices, or what prayers went with them in detail. For example, we have mention of a divination system in the Gesta Danorum used by the Rugii that uses three slips of wood, black on one side, white on the other. That’s all we are told. How to interpret how the wood slips fall, any prayers that were said before, during, or after using these slips, what gods or spirits were associated with them, where they were kept when they weren’t being used, what kind of wood was used, or any other context is missing. Those are the kinds of things we may need to turn to similar, outside, unbroken sources to see what steps and elements are often necessary when divining to create a more complete picture.
Not sure if that’s directed at me at all (but what the heck – everything’s about me if I want it to be!), but I explicitly said in my response: “if there are still gaps once all that material has been incorporated and embraced, if there are still gaps (and there absolutely will be, especially in the specifics), then we apply the bulls-eye approach and fill them in.”
So count me as another person agreeing with you on that point. I don’t deny there are gaps that will need to be filled in (like the details of words used in prayers, etc.), I just think there are fewer gaps than people might realize.
I actually wrote that comment before your comment was posted Jon! Sorry if it seemed antagonistic!
I just read your article. Firstly, thank you for the kind words. Secondly, it sounds like you have been doing some very interesting research. I’m not very familiar with your blog (yet), but I’d love to hear more about some of the sources you were describing and pieces from early Christianity that can stem back to Heathen belief. I agree that many people feel content to leave their understanding of Heathen belief with the Eddas, and later folklore sometimes is dismissed or passed by. That is certainly a viable place to find more information and fill in some more holes.
I totally agree with this article. As a Heathen, I have lately found that what I have learned is not enough. I got back to my Gaelic roots and find the more information on how my ancestors worshiped. I also find it stifling when other groups or individuals state you have to this ritual or believe something a certain way because some one wrote it down. I now tend to use what feels right. I try to be original. Not always succeeding. But hey! I’m human.
I read this with a bit of ignorance about Heathenry. I know some degree about Germanic Polytheism and as a Hellenic Polytheist I can draw parallels. As a Hellenic Polytheist I am always amazed about how much is left by my spiritual ancestors even after all the violence towards it. Yet I can draw amazing parallels between the two faiths. Largely the Hearth, fire sacrifice seems to be a key element in many European Polytheistic traditions. I also see the power of spilled wine, I would not be outside the possibility that the libation was part of the ancient spiritual ritual either. I find that the more we look to helping each other out the more we learn more about our own paths.
That was a very interesting read and very relevant too ! Thank for the input!
I would also personally stress the fact that a good way to reconstruct the religion is also to look for the old Heathens way of life and worldview, which weren’t solely contained in religious practices and beliefs per se. I think we could get closer to them by essentially, living like them, closer to the land, locally and simply wait a bit. This could take a few generations, but I’m sure that such a way of life would strengthen the resolve of the Heathens and the practice of the Religion in no small ways.
It seems to me that there is SO MUCH out there that one can never be sure as to what might be “right”. Even with the traditions that have some, albeit, small, Christian filtered sources of information. In my case I am not even sure who the particular ancestors were. For all I know, my clan Goddess might have been the same as Otzi The Iceman’s. I think (and I stress it is just my present, personal thought) that I have four things that I must do, 1) Read as much as I can about the period. 2) Have further divinations done with more precise questions. 3) Go to PCon and observe and take part in as much different ritual as I can and see what “feels” right. 4) Learn to listen. I am sure that in the silence of my heart and mind (if I ever get there *sigh*) She will speak to me. Let’s remember that no religion was static. The Romans were famous for adopting “foreign” Gods into their own pantheons. Vatican 2 changed the face of Catholicism. All things change with time. Perhaps if we hit on what seems and FEELS right, we can allow for the change that comes from the passage of time. All things change… Mountain ranges rise and fall, rivers change course, Rome rose and fell, Humans went from a small people to a robust and tall people… why then should we assume the Gods are immutable? They are a part of us. Change must come to them as well. Personally, I am running with the sources here, my initial plan and the assumption that My Lady will understand if takes me the rest of my life to learn enough about to her to bring her fully forth into the world… I just hope I am not the only one.
Thank you for writing this. As someone who has been brought through initiations in BTW and several ADRs, but who also feels strongly pulled to honor my Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestors in some way, I couldn’t agree more with this.
One question for the author…
I have seen, increasingly, the use of the word Heathen and Heathenry as opposed to Pagan. Being newly returned to “the fold” and to true Polytheism; and having been brought up as a “Self initiated, solitary practitioner of a Buckland style, watered down Gardnerian Wicca” I am wondering about the use of each and if they are interchangeable.
If this is too much meandering from the path of the discussion and if you have the time, I
will take my answer off-line.
Moderator and site director here, rather than the column’s author, but I figured I’d chime in. I have written a lot about this subject at my personal blog (thracianexodus.wordpress.com) and in a guest post at the Wild Hunt (http://wildhunt.org/2015/05/guest-post-a-polytheist-primer.html). A summary follows:
“Paganism” in the context meant in these discussions refers most generally to the Neo-Pagan movement(s) of the mid->late 20th century, centering in and around the US and UK, and rippling out from there. These movements are not exclusively polytheistic, or theistic at all; they are not any more polytheistic than they are monotheistic, dualistic, non-theistic, or atheistic. Further, Neo-Paganism is often not at all religious, and is at least as “social/cultural” as it is “magical” in this regard. In other words, it is a descriptor which holds very little religious and theistic meaning or value, certainly so for the context of religious cultural developments and theological discourses. Not everyone is on agreement with this, and that’s fine; they’re wrong, though. To claim otherwise would be to try and assert a certain ownership over the Neo-Pagan identifier which would by necessity and practice exclude others from consideration; in other words, the attempt to define Neo-Paganism as, or equate it with, polytheistic considerations would exclude Pagan magicians drawing primarily from Abrahamic or Hermetic esotericism, or those who engage strictly animistically (and do not acknowledge gods), or those who are ultimately cultural/social Pagans. A huge chunk of Neo-Paganism is staunchly anti-theistic and anti-religious, which puts it at odds with discussions geared toward the promotion and development of theistic and religious matters of any variety.
“Polytheism” meanwhile describes an approach and paradigm — by “paradigm” I mean “total world view” and lens of consideration through which all things are processed — which is strictly speaking religious and, if we’re really getting down to it, devotional in nature. It refers not to one religion, or even to a group of them, but rather, to a TYPE of religion, a CATEGORY of religions. The definition of polytheism is, in strictest and fundamental terms, “the affirmation with religious regard of many gods”. (It is not, in other words, sufficient to acknowledge that the gods exist, for Mormons acknowledge this; they simply call them demons. Similar with many branches of esotericism, which seek to promote a humanistic ascension above/beyond the gods, and the command of them, rather than their worship.)
“Polytheist” (as I have pioneered the definition) refers to an individual (not a religion or group) who holds DEEPLY at the personal identity level to the above definition — the affirmation with religious regard of the reality of the many gods, as external to and separate from humans and human design — such that it flavors and functionally defines their personal identity, rather than acting as accompaniment to it. (“Identity” is one of the core concepts of Self in both psychology and philosophy; it is one’s identity, or shifting identities, which define who they are in the world and what their place within it is, in short.)
“Polytheistic religious tradition” and related terms refer to groups or organizations or lineages which affirm with religious regard the many gods, but may or may not be made up exclusively of Polytheist identified persons. (By way of example: not all Catholic churches are made up exclusively of persons whose religious views and practices can be summarized as “canonically Catholic”; the definitions of the group and religious organization and tradition at large CANNOT be defined in limitation to the sum of its members, else it would include (canonically?) those who also practice Wicca or Satanism or Buddhism or Lakota Sundance ceremonies, none of which can be assumed “part of the Catholic organization and tradition”. However, similarly, an individual church may or may not choose to excommunicate parishioners who step outside the confines of that canonical statement of faith.) In other words, not all members of, say, a Heathen polytheistic Kindred are going to be super hardcore personally identified Polytheist devotees; or, maybe, they are. But the group itself is not “less” of a polytheistic organization if some of its members are still figuring out their theistic stances at a personal level, so long as the group’s practical approach and theologies are indeed such that “affirm with religious regard the existence of many gods” who are separate from humans, and so on and so forth.
This set of terms and ideas, while misinterpreted by some as dogmatic or limiting, are in fact, exponentially inclusive: they allow for individuals identified (through strongly held beliefs or rigorous disciplined practices or profound mystical experiences and communional knowledge of the divine, etc) as Polytheists to have terms and protections to explore and define themselves, without forcing those who are less personally defined in that manner “out” by way of exclusionary definitions, and so forth. Similarly there is nothing in these definitions which prohibits dual identification with or practice in other things, such as Wicca (there are Polytheists Wiccans, of course, though Wicca is not itself polytheistic by design) or Feri or Haitian Vodou, etc.
Heathenry, as a movement, has roots as deep and old in America as the Neo-Pagan movement, and can be understood as a development parallel and often intersecting with this other track. It’s not always a polytheistic entity, exclusively, however: many Heathens are not terribly theistic, and are more interested or called to cultural restorations, social gathering/lifestyle considerations, or academic discourse and study. There are loads of disagreements within Heathenry in terms of how Heathenry is defined, and by above definitions (re: polytheistic organizations, vs Polytheist identity) are not at all an attempt to “redefine” any expression of Heathenry, but rather, to offer a foundational categorical starting point for the discussion overall (and especially at the interfaith polytheistic levels, the starting paradigmic levels, and the educational/outreach levels which make up the majority of the informally organized Polytheist Movement, which seeks to develop “the polytheistic discussion and developments” necessary to ensure safe and ongoing process for those who identify or relate in any way to the above.
At the risk of replying to something our good site director has already replied to (and quite thoroughly), I might have a slightly more concise answer.
Many people use the word “Heathen” to consciously distance themselves from those who use the word “Pagan”, for two reasons. First, “Heathen” is a word of Germanic origin (related to the Old Norse word heiðinn), and those who use it generally follow Germanic-based religions. Second, there is a lot of social, political, and other baggage associated with those who use the term “Pagan” to describe themselves, that those who identify as Heathens would rather not be associated with.
Hope that helps.
Jon, thank you for this. I wasn’t trying to silence other responses, or (and I hope I didn’t misrepresent intent on this next bit) speak “for Heathens on Heathenry as an identifier”; rather, my primary goal was in speaking to the Polytheist/polytheism lingo, in the hopes of establishing continuity of meaning (and summarizing the reason and recent histories for that particular and necessary distinction).
I can’t speak for everyone — and in fact, I speak for nobody but myself! — here or anywhere else. For what it’s worth, there’s a reason I VERY infrequently write at this site myself: this place is my vision, but not my voice; part of the vision is for empowering the voices of the MANY folks who make up the “rank and file” of Polytheists, polytheistic traditions and developments, and the Polytheist Movement outreach/education dialog more generally.
It was so much simpler back in the 80’s in NYC when I first began my practice. Coming back, I find things dizzying… fractured… without clear direction. I suppose all those years I left my practice I fell under the umbrella for a social/cultural pagan/heathen. Coming back, I am finding that the best proof source will be what I feel in my heart. I wish I had others who were attached to my particular Deity but I fear I am (as I started) alone. What I want to find within the greater community is a sense that, while we all may wear coats of different colors, we all sit under the same tent.
One other question… What was/is the “social, political and “other” baggage” associated with the term Pagan? I know those who believe in Polytheism, Wiccan and well, I guess, Pagans who hold strong, progressive political beliefs and those who are strictly spiritual; in nature. In your opinion… what makes Paga an almost pejorative term and Heathen more acceptable?
Love and Huggs,
Bernie, The Confused and Reluctant Pagan/Heathen, Rizzo
For many, this current era actually represents the first time in their religious lives that “clear direction” is actually present. The problem with the Neo-Pagan movement, with respect to religious developments, is that it is not a religious movement and never has been. There are at least as many anti-religious elements in Paganism as there are religious elements, and that frankly is a REALLY bad way to set up a collective or individual identifier for religious considerations.
It isn’t so much, in my view, that it is a pejorative; rather, that it is an entirely different thing. Neo-Paganism was never exclusively about religion, polytheistic or otherwise, and many the “essential things” in it are directly antithetical to serious polytheistic developments.
One can be both. (John Beckett and Raven Kaldera are two examples of “Pagan Polytheists”: they are BOTH Neo-Pagan -and- Polytheist. But “Polytheism” is not limited to American or Western social movements and sub-cultures: it includes indigenous polytheisms, or those who find their gods or are found by their gods COMPLETELY independent of such movements (as I did, or as a combat veteran might while overseas and engaged in lethal, terrifying service). Linking Polytheist identity and Polytheistic religions intrinsically to Western Neo-Paganism of the later 20th Century is both inaccurate and offensive since it carries a requisite assumption that it is through Neo-Paganism that people will find (or express) their religions and devotions; this just isn’t the case in terms of global polytheistic religious considerations.
We need, in developing our polytheistic discourses and platforms, to continue to draw necessary (and honoring, respectful) distinctions between “polytheistic religions” and “other things”, such as witchcraft, Wicca, Neo-Paganism, mythology studies, or drinking mead; all of these may be linked to SOME people’s expressions or practices, but are by no means intrinsic to religious practice of a polytheistic nature. By proceeding with these assumptions in place, rather than clear distinctions made, the masses wind up disrespecting and dishonoring EVERYTHING, not just the religious underpinnings: it does no good for Wicca to be conflated with polytheistic devotional religion when it is much more geared toward magical practices derived from ceremonial magical/esoteric concepts, and defaults to a dualistic theology. That there are certain Polytheist Wiccans does not change the fact that the tradition(s) more generally are NOT strictly speaking defined as such. (Just as the presence of Buddhist Catholics doesn’t make the Roman Catholic religion Buddhist in nature.)
By failing to make critical distinctions, and instead telescopically collapsing everything down into increasingly reduced and simplified forms, we shave meaning and value off of things for the convenience of a complacent and unengaged (or unengagable) mush of modernity and consumerist triviality. Instead, separate the things in your mind, draw the distinctions, and from there, explore meaning, such that it can be understood where they intersect (or don’t) in your own practices or views.
Just wanted to add a small bit of my own experience as a polytheist if I may:
1) I actually know quite a few contemporary Pagans, Wiccans, and Druids leaving their own religions for more longstanding “unbroken” religions too (often Abrahamic ones — Teo Bishop was just the tip of the iceberg). Although I completely acknowledge and agree with the theme of this essay, that we have much to learn from other religions, I believe the reason we cannot maintain our numbers is actually rather more complex.
2) I came to Heathenism FROM long twisty winding paths of “unbroken” traditions and was never happy or comfortable UNTIL I started practicing Heathenism (and yes, I do use my background in those religions to help me construct a daily polytheist practice). 🙂
3) The apparent “unbrokeness” of those other “more established” religions is actually an illusion. I am convinced our Gods want us to learn that fact for ourselves. For political reasons many of the adherents to such “unbroken” traditions who know better SAY they are unbroken, but they are not. The rest of their adherents aren’t educated enough to know otherwise so they repeat what their more educated leaders say. As you study the history of any of them (including Hinduism and Zoroastrianism) you will discover what I mean. That’s not at all to say that they do not have useful information to offer. They just aren’t unbroken. They are constantly being remade and transformed, sometimes into something pretty much unrecognizable to what had gone on before. Much, very very much, has been lost, and that which remains is typically ignored. You will see for yourself. 😉
Just wanted to throw that out there as food for thought. 😉
An interesting statement… “Cannot maintain our numbers”. Perhaps that is because we are all seekers and, at the same time, people who want to “belong”. My spiritual path has been a lonely one (not my life mind you). People may leave as find a greater fellowship that is established and self maintaining. What we are doing take work and a lot of it. I find the position I am in to be daunting to say the least. To be devoted to an essentially, “Lost and Nameless Goddess” feels a little bit sad and lonely. If I can find other paths within the Polytheistic community that will give me a framework to work from and other Deities to add to MY pantheon then I will find community. Is that not what we all crave at times? Community?
What is lost is lost. We have the hard work of creating our own traditions, rituals and beliefs. We have all chosen the harder path. We should be proud of ourselves for it. As well, we should be understanding of those who lose sight, lose faith and move on to other systems.
I want to make one other observation… back in the day, when I started down this path, over 30 years ago, things were simpler then. I am proud that this community has grown to a point where the level of scholarship is so high as to boggle the mind. I can see the difference because of where I came and just now, jumping back in. Be proud of yourselves. You are a well educated, informed bunch of beautifully souled Heathen/Pagan/Wiccan whatevers… I smile as I write this. You have all made me proud of my faith.
San Leandro, CA
This makes absolute sense.
Imagine you were a deity and you realized that a lot of your original religion had a whole lot of holes in it due to things getting lost over the centuries.
Now, imagine further that, for whatever reason, you had a hard time being listened to by most of your followers.
Wouldn’t it make sense for you to get some of your followers to go out and get the various and sundry bits of lore that ended up elsewhere and bring it back to get your religion working right?
Interesting article! I would argue that there are many (almost) unbroken Scandinavian traditions though! Remnants of the old ways are to be found everywhere here in Sweden, if you know where to look. Unfortunately it can be a bit hard if you don’t live here or speak the language since a lot of the evidence to be found is written in dialect and hidden away in ethnological archives and such.
I think that most Scandinavians who have actually listened to what their older relatives have told them, know for a fact that the old traditions lived alongside christianity for a thousand years and only started to die with the heavy urbanization we experienced in the late 1800:s and the advent of radio and television over the last few generations. Before that, people were still singing the song about Thor getting his hammer back. They would still thank the great Lady when picking elder flowers, would still leave some barley in the field for the god of the harvest and young girls would still go to sacred springs and sacrifice jewelry to see the reflection of their future husband in the water…
I’m curious to know if your experiences with other heathens include members of the Troth. I don’t know much about them, but from their website, blog, etc. they seem very open to diverse groups of people. That may or may not extend to how members practice their faith. I mention them because they seem to be a relatively large and significant group.
Not everyone wants a god as a personal friend.Not everyone wants magic.
The gods aren’t our friends or even care they have bigger things to do leave that crap to other religions.I prefer a more animistic approach with ancestors and land weights being much closer to humans than the gods.Over gifting to the powers isn’t a good thing and I don’t necessarily want their undivided attention.
Theodish and ASH have songs and ritual that aren’t taken from other sources the come frome inspiration and poetry and are done in the old English language.
Thanks for writing this. I came to deity through shaman practices and Norse through Runic work. In exploring the Heathen community, I have always felt disconnected as I have seen so much division between study, worship, ritual and magick. I tend to connect with those who have found a.connection with all those elements in Heathensim but they do not seem to represent the community as a whole. For a faith whose AllFather God is a wanderer, amongst all peoples, whose thirst is for connection and wisdom , there is a pedantic and isolationist framework that is very limiting. Thanks for digging deeper and offering your insights. – SW
You’ve addressed so many of my concerns regarding Heathenry: issues I’ve been grappling with for years. I agree wholeheartedly, and I’m so glad you articulated the matter of the ‘big empty space’ so well.
The author mentions how some religions take on aspects of the religion that the members were brought up in. Before I embraced Heathenry I was a Buddhist, and seriously considered becoming a monk. At one of the monasteries I looked at and spent some time checking out (Shasta Abbey in northen California), they had modified the traditional Buddhist chants into a more Gregorian style so as to help those with a western mindset feel more comfortable.
Being raised in a Christian environment this did not sit well with me. Now, I admittedly have a chip on my shoulder against Christianity because of that religions long history of corrupting and subverting the cultures and religions that the followers of Christ encountered.
One of the major things about Heathenry (and paganism in general) that attracted me is that it IS the religion of my ancestors. Though I respect the teachings of the Buddha (even some of Christ), I would rather be a part and partial of my heritage’s history. Yet, sadly, as the author of the article mentions, the vast majority of which has been lost to the sands of time.
Imho, we, as heathens and pagans, whether as solitary practitioners or as part of a larger group, have an exciting opportunity to reestablish contact with the Old Gods, even if the creation of new traditions are the products of our imaginations. The Old Gods still exist, and I would posit that they’ll be more than happy to help guide us in the direction of building a new “house” upon the very few remaining foundations of the old ways, as long as we do that reconstruction with love, honor, integrity, and humility.