When I think of the various contemporary Polytheisms actively engaged in reconstruction and restoration today, religions like Hellenismos, Kemetic Orthodoxy, Canaanite Polytheism, Romuva, and the like, it always seems to me as though contemporary Heathenry is a thing aside. I rarely see Heathen voices participating in pan-polytheistic dialogue, and by and large the mainstream Heathen community seems to hold itself aloof from engaging with other types of Polytheism. At times, for all that we have a multitude of Gods, I even question whether Heathenry is actually polytheistic or … theistic at all.
In no other polytheism are atheistic voices quite so loud or so accepted.1 In no other polytheism do we have a religion where one may gain accolades by reciting medieval literature i.e. the lore, but condemnation for expressing active piety.2 I long ago noted within Heathenry a deeply ingrained insularity, a desire to close the tradition off from external influences, cleaving instead to some imagined golden age of Viking prosperity. I also noted a deep discomfort with the idea of theological investigation. This came up as I was talking about my thesis recently, written in 2009, in which I examine various ideological currents within American Heathenry specifically with respect to ritual praxis, and I found myself contemplating over twenty years as a Heathen in a very divisive and divided Heathen community.3 For everything I say here (and admittedly I am speaking broadly based on my own experience and observed interactions), I’m sure there are Heathens who will staunchly argue that I am wrong and yet I maintain that thorough theological investigation is largely absent within this religion.4
Part of that is a deep discomfort with the Gods as Gods rather than fictional, literary, or cultural constructs.5 Over the years I have heard several reasons to avoid devotional practice or anything that prioritizes the Gods:
- The Gods weren’t an important part of pre-Christian Heathen worship. It was all about ancestors and then only at the holy days.
- The Gods exist but are far too immense to have anything to do with us.
- The Gods only interacted with Heroes from the Saga period. They don’t do that anymore.
- They don’t want us bothering them.
- It’s not a religion it’s a “folk-way.”
- Heathenry is all about the family and community. Only religious specialists bothered with the Gods (followed up by damning contemporary religious specialists I might add as being non-Heathen, perverted, insane, or all of the above. Really, make up your mind, folks).
- Devotion and prayer and piety are all just examples of Christian nonsense and a good Heathen doesn’t ever bow his head or bend his knee to the Powers (this, despite having clear examples from antiquity of our “Elder” Heathens doing just that. Again, make up your mind, folks. Is lore only relevant when you can cherry pick?).
What I see really being said here is “the Gods make me uncomfortable and I don’t want to have to deal with Them.”6 Well, if we are actually a religion, at some point we need to deal with actual Gods, in theory, in practice, and positioned as an essential part of the religious experience. Religion is a container for the sacred. It’s an expression of a mutual contract between a society, a culture, a tribe, a people, a community and their Gods. At some point, we need to stop being embarrassed to believe and we need to talk openly about what that means for the development of our traditions. In other words, how would we choose to engage in a Yule rite if, for instance, we made the choice to believe that Odin was real – not as a metaphor, not as a psychological construct, not as a force of nature, but as an immortal, terrifying, sentient Holy Power, and that the Hunt was afoot, that magic things, dangerous things, moved in the chilly darkness? What if we put aside our modern skepticism that finds lack of faith more rational than devotion, that in fact pathologizes devotion and instead chose to approach Heathenry with a desire for reverence?7 What would that change about our rituals? How would our community priorities change? If we acknowledged that the Gods were real and that They did in fact express Themselves to Their devotees what would that do to the construct that we now call “Heathenry?”
And if you dismiss the idea of that even being possible, why are you calling what you do religion?
We need to begin discussing Heathen theology, and not in the “oh look how much lore I can quote” way. Theological inquiry is a process that allows for pondering the presence of the Gods and Their impact on actual doctrine and practice. It takes the crumbs of religious insight scattered throughout the lore and synthesizes them into a framework upon which we are then able to build.8 Some will no doubt argue that this has been done, but it is not something that ever stops, not with a tradition that is living and growing and vitally engaged with the world. It is also not a process that should be done with a goal to exclude the Gods from the result.9
For the future of our religion, we need to start engaging with Heathenry as religion and by that, I don’t mean religion as a social construct, but religion as a language and protocol for maintaining right relationships with the Gods. We need to start stepping off the bank of lore into the abyss of the unknown and finding the courage to wrestle with ideas that may take us out of the clear-cut boundaries of inangarđ. We also really need to stop assuming that our ancestors were stupid. This is an idea born of colonization and conquest: first by Christianity and then by a rampantly white, middle class, Protestant pseudo-rational modernity. It’s something called a hierarchy of religions and one can find it in abundance in certain areas of the Humanities, namely the unspoken idea very deeply ingrained, that the most evolved and rational religions are those most like mainstream Protestant Christianity (or now sometimes agnosticism or atheism) and the more polytheistic one becomes on this scale, the more primitive and ignorant a society is. (I mean let’s face it, when engaging in colonization and conquest, as the European powers were during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which saw the rise of certain academic disciplines like religious studies, anthropology, and later sociology, one must give oneself a certain justification for erasing indigenous culture and religion. Adoration of modernity, progress, and the fairy tale that such cultures are primitive and can only benefit from Western interference are as good a mythology as any upon which to build an empire).
Until we deal directly with our discomfort with the very idea of faith, of Gods, of multiple Gods, and of being a minority religion with all that entails, we are going to get nowhere in the process of building an intergenerationally sustainable tradition. We need to stop assuming that religion didn’t play a vital role in the lives of our ancestors simply because it doesn’t play a vital role for us. If we do not see the traditions that we are attempting to salvage and restore as priceless, living treasures, as beyond price, as worth sacrificing for, and our Gods all the more so, we will never move beyond the embarrassment when the question of actual Gods arises.
Essentially, we can choose to look at religion from a modernist, Durkheimian perspective: it’s just culture, an expression of the cohesiveness of a people, a folk way to which the Gods are tangential metaphors and social constructs or we can look at it the way our ancestors actually did: as a necessary, god inspired protocol for engaging with the sacred and illuminating our daily lives. To do the latter requires theology and it requires stepping outside the box of our precious, precious ‘lore.’
Inevitably the question will arise: “how?” Well, firstly, I think we need to confront our own ingrained disbelief. Think of what we have been exposed to from the time we were children: Christians have God, the ancient pagans had “Idols”. That right there alone, for those raised in practicing Christian households has tremendous impact on our psyches and this is the narrative that academia has largely also followed, at least until recently.10 Language is important and we can’t escape the influence of ongoing micro-aggressions like this, attempts to erase an entire religious history. I think we need to acknowledge and address any shame or discomfort with the idea of having living Gods. It’s one thing to say that we are polytheist after all and quite another to be completely comfortable pouring out offerings and ordering our lives around that statement. Apples and proverbial oranges, I would warrant. We need to work to get to the point where that’s not the case11
Secondly, making a concerted effort to move from a position of belief doesn’t hurt. I think all too often we set up this false dichotomy between praxis and belief (the “ancient Polytheists didn’t really believe, it was all about praxis” argument). Praxis is meaningless without belief. To say that our ancestors had no belief is to say that they had no theology, which is to imply a shallowness of understanding and comprehension on their part that is, at best, hubristic on ours.12 Let us work from the assumption that praxis flowed as a logical extension from belief.
Then, I think it’s necessary to really think about what this changes. Perhaps we can indulge in a thought experiment of sorts. How would we engage with and conceptualize our religions if it really did revolve around and flow from our Gods? What would it mean? How would we then behave if we knew without a shadow of a doubt that the Gods were at the heart and soul of what we call religion and that all the praxis was a dialect, a language by which we could communicate with Them? What would that change?
Essentially, what would it mean for us as polytheists if none of this were conceptual? What would it mean to wake up one day with eyes and ears and senses attuned to the sacred? That’s what we’re working toward, at least in part and that shift in consciousness is not going to be found solely or even primarily in lore, not the way we use it. In the New Testament, Gospel of John, God is the word.13 The written form of the Bible may then be viewed as the actual embodiment of their divinity and thus authoritative if not consciously reified. Our Gods aren’t yoked to scripture. Odin for instance, is the breath, vital, living, flowing, ever-changing. I believe it was the Stoics who believed we all exist and unfold in the belly of Zeus, that we are actually inside our Gods. What does that mean for our religious lives and our praxis?
Ultimately, a good first start would involve ceasing to fixate on the praxis instead of on the Holy Powers behind or at the heart of that praxis. As Heathens, let us consider that once our religious forebears had so vital a religious culture that Tacitus used it as a model against which to compare Rome.14 The Gods were never an afterthought until we began picking up scraps of lore recorded by Christians with the misguided attitude that this represented the apex of our faith instead of its katabasis. There is a need for complete reorientation in our very conception of what our religion is. Over the next few articles, interspersed with updates on my analysis of our creation story, I will be exploring just this: how to accomplish it, and what it might mean if we do.
- A quick search of one of the foulest Heathen websites in existence, Asatru lore, turned up this gem: http://www.asatrulore.org/index.php?page=Thread&postID=75847&highlight=atheism#post75847. Note specifically Bil’s comment from Wednesday, February 25, 2009, 7:45pm wherein he states: “Belief among some folks is due to ignorance; among others it is due to ‘a wish for ignorance, i.e. a ‘simple life.’.” (You know, I didn’t want to come across and just state that atheism was accepted in large swaths of Heathenry, I wanted to provide a few examples and it took me less than thirty seconds of a websearch to find the aforementioned comment). Then there’s this blog discussing ‘Atheist Asatruar’ http://www.haxton.org/atheistAsatrurar.html, wherein the author finds it ‘perfectly ok’ and this forum which also has no problem with it: http://thevalley.ukpagan.com/topic/57864-atheist-heathen/. One surely must wonder if these folks really understand what these terms mean: atheist = no gods; Heathen = Norse Gods. It really underscores how ambivalent if not actively hostile American Heathenry is to the idea of Gods in general. I’ve maintained for years that the religion pays lip service to the idea of the sacred while really being far more interested in just about anything else. Total time spent looking for these references: less than three minutes. I found three times what I chose to post here, all of them speaking in positive terms about atheist Heathens. This is not religion, folks. In fact, I think for some Heathens that is precisely the point. The Gods are window dressing for a celebration of Norse culture. Take, for instance, this website: http://heathendailyliving.blogspot.com/2012/05/common-concern-those-interested-in.html, in which the author, declares staunchly that one cannot convert to Heathenry…and thus ignores and erases both two thousand years of Christian religious dominance and the very real psychological process involved in transitioning from one religion i.e. belief system to another. This website talks about the mentality of a true heathen and the need to reclaim the way our ancestors looked at the world but never addresses the way one might go about achieving that….which would actually be part of the conversion process. I’ve seen this quite a bit and it is part and parcel of that discomfort about which I speak: if we talk about conversion than we are using religious language and presupposing something more daunting and far more intimate than reclaiming the values of our non-Christian ancestors. Suddenly the Gods become real and there is commitment and piety and devotion and we are challenged to move beyond our certainty as modern devotees of progress. ↩
- This is actually changing quite a bit. The old guard Heathenry still has its panties in a twist about actual devotion, but more and more I see Heathens willing to express their love and devotion to their Gods and a willingness to allow that to be an active and important part of their religious lives. ↩
- I am discussing American Heathenry only. The issues and ideological fault lines are different in Europe. ↩
- Possibly simply because I am the one saying this rather than from any commitment to the issue at hand. We are that small -minded. ↩
- Many in the community were excited to learn of the Heathen temple currently under construction in Iceland but no less a figure than the head of the Ásatrúarfélagið dismissed the Gods with the words “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” and “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.” See http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/02/iceland-temple-norse-gods-1000-years. ↩
- I can find copious references in accepted “lore” refuting every single point on that list. It’s the same with attitudes toward anything edging toward mysticism: the references and examples are there in the lore, the majority of contemporary Heathens just choose to interpret them out, or rather interpret them in a way that denies the presence of a Deity behind them. (Take for example the Ögmundar þáttr dytts wherein a man impersonates Frey and impregnates his priestess. This is usually taken at face value: a man destroyed a statue of Frey and took its place during a sacred procession. The gullible people believed that the pregnancy of the priestess was evidence of Frey’s presence as God of fertility. This interpretation of course is deeply contemptuous of the very “elder Heathens” i.e. pre-Christian Heathens that modern Heathenry claims to honor. It presupposes that they were ignorant because they believed in the Gods. In reality there is an obvious aspect to this story that few think to question: neither the people nor the priestess find it unusual or odd that a human man would “impersonate” Frey. The description reads like an example of Deity possession (found in nearly every indigenous tradition in some form or another). It is significant that the people did not find the idea that Frey would be present corporeally unusual. See http://www.snerpa.is/net/isl/dytts.htm. ↩
- I don’t even have to work hard to find references for this. Start with “Sacred Pain” by Ariel Glucklich, or read humanist pagan blogs, or atheist pagan blogs when the subject of devotional polytheism arises. ↩
- The lore was not written down for the most part by actual polytheists. This is significant. We are dealing with documents that A) were never intended to serve a religious function by their authors and B) when they do present religious information do so in a highly translated fashion. ↩
- For those who wonder what type of engagement I’m talking about, here are two examples from my own work http://polytheist.com/wyrd-ways/2015/02/15/lectio-divina-heathen-style/ and http://polytheist.com/wyrd-ways/2015/03/11/in-the-beginning/. This is just scratching the surface. Think about what we could do if as a community we began valuing and fostering engagement at this level and beyond. I have seen others doing similar work but with one difference: it’s never Deity-centric. It becomes an exercise in pure sophistry which defeats and in many ways corrupts the point. We really need to get beyond works like “This is the Goddess Freya. Here’s all the ways She’s mentioned in lore. Here are quotes from people who honor Her” to something more substantial. For example: both Freya and Aphrodite in Their respective traditions have an attribute of power, a necklace/belt/girdle (translations are vague). Freya has brisingamen (sometimes referred to as a necklace sometimes as a girdle) and Aphrodite has Her kestas himas (a sash or girdle type adornment). In some way, these items represent and embody elements of the Goddesses’ powers (In the Iliad for instance, Hera borrows Aphrodite’s kestas himas, and with it the powers of sex, desire, lust, and persuasion). Both Goddesses have some of the same spheres of influence. Is it simply that this is a woman’s adornment and They are the embodiment of feminine sexual power? Or is there something deeper and more cosmologically significant here? And the average Heathen reading this will complain that I am going outside the tradition to make a comparison. Yes, and we need to be talking amongst ourselves. Polytheisms in the ancient world were relational. They interacted with each other. There was a spread and sharing of thoughts, ideas, and cultus. There was syncretism and international discourse. ↩
- Within academia there’s also the hierarchy of religions coming into play more than I think any of us would like to admit. This is the unspoken idea that the closer a religion is to mainstream Protestant Christianity or perhaps agnosticism or atheism now, the more “advanced” and “progressive” and “evolved” it is. This of course leaves most indigenous traditions, animistic and polytheistic as they are, at the bottom of the ladder and classes as backward, superstitious, and primitive. As an aside, the pressure on cultures to abandon their traditional polytheisms today is still tremendous after all, who wants to be thought of as backward and ignorant? See for instance https://manasataramgini.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/polycentrism-the-many-one-problem-and-the-roots-of-yoga/ and https://manasataramgini.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/some-thoughts-on-shridhar-ketkar-and-other-hindu-responders-to-abrahamism-in-the-past-two-centuries/. ↩
- Of course there are plenty of heathens who will say that their Heathenry is family focused and that is also a false dichotomy. No one said that venerating the Gods properly need include anything other than taking care of one’s family well. I’m never quite certain how those with this particular battle cry get from point A: honoring the Gods to that equaling point B: ignoring the family. Polytheism is deeply relational and piety in many parts of the ancient world included right relationship with your family and community as well as with the Gods. ↩
- It’s not that there weren’t ancient theologians or philosophers who were both devout and willing to engage with theological concepts. There were but when many of these philosophers were taken up by Christians, the polytheistic elements were expunged. After all, in our world to be polytheistic is to be ignorant and backward and we can’t call Thales, Plato, Sophocles, Heroclitus and their ilk backward. This was part of Christianity’s attempts at colonization of ancient ideas of the mind. See for example Edward Butler’s “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus.” (http://www.amazon.com/Essays-Metaphysics-Polytheism-Proclus-Edward/dp/1304767035). ↩
- See http://biblehub.com/interlinear/study/john/1.htm. ↩
- Part of his purpose in writing “Germania” was political. He was contrasting the decadence and moral decay of Rome with the vigor and piety of the Germanic tribes. ↩