In this, my inaugural column for Polytheist.com, I want to talk for a bit about why I became Heathen. There were many reasons at the time, twenty plus years ago, that I did not wish to make that leap. I love my Gods more than anything else in my world. I am especially bound in service and devotion to Odin and that happened quite a bit before I became Heathen. It may seem overly facile to say that it’s all Odin’s fault but well, readers, it really is all His doing! He called and I answered. He’s got a very seductive ‘voice,’ after all, and I’ve never regretted my devotion to Him. When He directed me to Heathenry I balked quite a bit, but in the end I went where He bade. It’s been, over the years, a rather interesting journey. Looking back, Heathenry has changed quite a bit (in many ways for the better) since I first entered the religion, and in many ways it remains sadly much the same.
When I first became Heathen, it was all but taboo to discuss or give any personal credence to what was (then as now) termed “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis). In good Protestant fashion, anything remotely smacking of mysticism, experience, or messy, messy emotional engagement was frowned upon, strongly. As a religious studies scholar, I find this not particularly surprising but ironic and very, very amusing given that all religion is, at its heart, UPG, but I digress. All emphasis was placed on a body of non-religious texts termed “the lore.” This included the “Poetic Edda,” “Prose Edda,” Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon medical charms, historical and legal accounts as well as contemporary scholarship. The idea was to reconstruct the religion of our ancestors as accurately as possible and to that end, Heathens would comb through the extant sources looking for evidence of how rites and rituals were performed. Validity of an approach or practice rested on its presence in the lore. The Gods were, by and large, an afterthought. Certainly there was very little sense of the terrifying immediacy of devotional engagement, and rituals were largely constructed to keep the actual rawness of the sacred at a distance.
The reasons for this textual focus were many: the majority of our converts come from Protestantism, quite often fundamentalist Protestantisms in which the written word is given tremendous credence; there was a strong desire to do things right — and this I fully understand. We should want to do things the proper way for our Gods; there was a desire to separate oneself from Wicca and other non-historical forms of Paganism; and from its beginning in the States, Heathenry has attracted a doggedly blue collar demographic, with a powerful work ethic but an ingrained aversion to contemplation of that which wasn’t immediately apparent or immediately accessible to a community. Moreover, Heathenry attracted a majority of people who were fairly conservative in their views and who had a keen interest in their forebears, their ancestry, the “old world.” It rarely attracted those called by the Gods (not surprising given the extreme hostility toward devotion in those early years).
Then something happened. I actually think a confluence of things happened over the better part of two decades. A group in CA (now y’all know I’m no fan of CA anything, but I have to give credit where credit is due) began practicing a reconstructed version of a spae-rite, a ritual centered around a seeress who plumbs the other worlds for knowledge. Despite criticism of their approach, the practice itself was clearly grounded in lore. This led to a greater awareness of the more esoteric aspects of practice, including Deity possession. While deeply controversial, ever so slowly more and more people started speaking up about experiences that they had. Early on several writers (Edred Thorsson, Freya Aswynn et al) shared their knowledge of rune lore further laying the foundation for an alternative way of approaching the religion. The spae-group, of course, had already been working for years when I became Heathen, and while I disagree with many, many aspects of their practice, I think they laid some very useful groundwork for what was to follow after 2000. In the early two thousands, Raven Kaldera started his work publicly as a Northern Tradition shaman and at the same time there was a growing interest in the Jotnar, what some groups call the Rokkr–Deities like Loki and His family. This highlighted a serious fault line within Orthodox or mainstream Heathenry and a growing awareness of how different various “denominations” might function. More and more people began getting actively called by the Gods and having that as one’s driving force for coming to a religion, is a far, far different thing from wanting to engage in what many of us dismissed as little more than historically oriented role play. Those more gods-focused also became more vocal.
Now obviously, I’m glossing over quite a bit and the community was and remains intensely polarized. What happened though over the last decade is something that has, I believe, been happening in polytheism and paganism in general: a chasm has been highlighted between those who are Gods-focused and Gods-motivated, and those who would put the community and other people over any sense of piety or devotional obligations (rather than seeking to build a community rooted in those latter values). All of these slow, incremental changes, despite the ensuing suspicion and hostility (sometimes intense hostility) created a fissure in the lore-based fundament. It created space through which our Gods might slip.
For all its faults — and in my opinion, Heathenry still has many (I haven’t even touched on its insularity)–now it is a community where to varying degrees people will talk about their devotion, about the ways they honor the Gods, where direct experience isn’t quite so objectionable. Now there are models, very vocal models throughout the various community denominations clearly showing an alternative to staunchly lore-based methodology and more importantly, that it’s not an either-or. Lore can be a useful tool *and* one can be deeply, experientially devout. Now there are those working and teaching and praying and living their faith in ways that clearly show how to do this restoration in a way that emphasizes our devotion to the Gods. Moreover, across denominations (and despite disagreements) I’ve seen a growing awareness of the importance of ancestor work, of honoring our dead, and that fills me with joy. We’ve a very long way to go however.
Now I’m a polytheist and Heathenry is the flavor of polytheism that I practice and it’s been odd to see some of the same shifts and transitions happening in polytheism as a whole, that I’ve watched and participated in over the years within Heathenry. Looking at polytheism as a whole I can’t help but think about where I would like to see Heathenry in another twenty years. Part of me worries that in order to grow into a tradition that truly places Gods and ancestors first, that has an awareness of devotion and piety and that has eschewed the indoctrination of contemporary Protestantism, humanism, modernism, and any other ism diametrically opposed to the mindset of our ancestors, we may have to first tear down what foundation we’ve built. Ragnarok. I hope that isn’t the case. I hope that we are wise enough as a community to build the foundation of this restoration on devotion. I hope that we will as a group root out the intolerance and xenophobia, the insularity and deep suspicion not just of mysticism but of education as well (for all that Heathenry calls itself the religion with homework, there is a deeply ingrained, working class suspicion and disregard of intellectualism within the community).
A friend of mine recently told me about a state wide processional to a particular Goddess. The image of this Goddess was carried by people from one particular Heathen kindred all around the state, stopping wherever there were Heathen groups so that She could be venerated …except that’s not what actually happened. My friend was present at one of the stops. She wanted to pay her respects to this Goddess. She told me, disgusted, that the statue was put on a table. No prayers were given. No acknowledgement that the image of the Deity was present. It was placed on a table and then people socialized for an hour. For this, we might as well all be humanists. It betrays a remarkable lack of priorities. I can’t help but think that the purpose of the processional was to improve the status of the kindred and people doing the procession and not in fact to venerate the Goddess and that has to stop.
We as devotees of the Gods are better than that. We have on our shoulders a heavy, heavy weight, that of restoring the threads of our traditions, threads that were sundered often violently with the spread of christianity across Europe. We have an obligation to our Gods and our dead. We have an obligation to those who will come after us in this tradition to get our shit together and do this restoration thing well; and we can. It is something that is well within our means. All it requires is a shift in mindset. Why are we doing this? For Whom? Tradition building includes community building but that latter should never be done at the expense of proper veneration. Durkheim be damned, religion is not socialization. It’s about a shared experience of the holy. I think if we keep that in mind, if we school ourselves to think first of what is right by the Gods and the dead, and do that instead of worrying what others will think, or jockeying for position, or a thousand other human-centric foibles we’ll be ok. Certainly the one thing that we can all agree on, regardless of our denomination or position, is that we want to see our traditions restored.
And that, my readers, is what this column is about. Over the next few months I’m going to be talking about Heathenry: what we do well, where I think we should improve, and what the way certain religious structures have been allowed to develop means for us as a global community. Moreover, what does it mean to be doing this restoration work in a world so different from that of our ancestors, a world poisoned for two thousand years by monotheistic oppression? What does it mean to be breaking free into the traditions of our ancestors and into a sense of our own indigeny? How do we do this well, respectfully, sustainably?
I don’t have answers to all or even most of these questions but I know they need to be asked and I’ve seen enough transformation over the past two decades in Heathenry to have hope that by working together, intra-faith as well as interfaith with other polytheists, we can figure it out.