The Problem of Ritual Within Heathenry
Today I saw an article by Scott Mohnkern on Heathenry, one that touched on the typical aesthetic of Heathen rituals and why they are so often devoid of beauty or power. First and foremost, go and read it now. The issues that Scott wrestles with in this article are ones that any ritualist, any Heathen, any Northern Tradition practitioner will at some point have to face. The article is a thoughtful read and i’m really grateful to Scott for jump-starting this conversation. That being said, I’m afraid I must disagree with Scott’s conclusions, or at least I want to add a few more points to the discussion.
Midway through, Scott makes the following comment:
“I’ve always described heathenism as a religion that focuses on three core concepts:
3 The Gods and Goddesses of Northern Europe”
He goes on to posit that the cause for the lack of beauty and magic in Heathen rituals lies with the first point, the focus on efficiency. I’m really, really glad to see other Heathens discussing this and Scott brings up some very good points; however, I think there may be a more nuanced cause and effect at play.
I don’t think that the anti-religious attitudes that have come to define contemporary Northern Tradition and Heathenry, bear any resemblance whatsoever to what our polytheistic ancestors actually believed and practiced, or to how they approached their world. I think what we have is Heathenry viewed through a very skewed lens of modernity, with all the anti-devotional, anti-piety veneer inherent in an approach born of the post scientific age. I think that we are seeing in Heathenry a failure to examine our own contemporary conditioning. (More on this in a moment). We have accounts attesting to Heathen piety, and their reverence for Mystery. As but one example, Tacitus compares Germanic piety to that of his own people and finds Rome lacking. We have accounts of Mystery, Deity possession, god-spouses, magic, shamanism, and a profound reverence for the dead. If one wants to look only at lore, we have plenty of it, we just choose to interpret the mystery out, a choice we often make without consciously realizing it. This says more about us and the paucity of our own devotional consciousness than it does Heathen religion. Nothing in the modern world teaches us to approach the Gods the way our ancestors did and so we’re reduced to cobbling the guideposts of piety and reverence together as best we can – something I’ve discussed in the past, most recently here and here.
Insofar as ‘efficiency’ goes, I don’t think the ritual attitudes so common in Heathenry are particularly efficient. One must look to the purpose of ritual. Now, if it’s just to create a sense of common community, excluding the Gods, excluding the ancestors, excluding any sense of mystery, then sure, fine. But if one looks at the purpose of ritual as something more, as a means of communicating and engaging with the Holy Powers, then we today fail miserably. As a ritualist, as someone who studied ritual both as a priest and an academic, I would have to say that ritual is a process of which the community is only one part. The most pronounced shortcoming of many Heathen rituals lies in its structure: that three-fold list Scott provides where the Gods and Goddesses come last represents an agenda to which we adhere to our deficit. Simply put, we do not give the Gods the priority they are due.
I don’t think this is an intentional exclusion. I think that restoration is a terrifying process and when we are stressed, as human beings, we cling to what we know. We do not know how to venerate the Gods well. We’re trying, but there’s a learning curve involved as we must first un-teach ourselves all that we have imbibed as a result of being raised in a world dominated by monotheism. Pop culture is no help either. Our movies, our television, our literature and art, when they even touch upon the Gods do so in a dismissive manner. Entertainment such as comic book-inspired movies or tv shows like Supernatural (which I mention because I recently watched an episode where this egregiously stood out) foster an attitude of familiarity (at best) and disrespect (at worst) toward anything supernatural. The sacred is reduced to amusement. Were we living in a culture centered in polytheistic reverence, I don’t think shows like this would be an issue. We are not, however, living in such a culture and small things like this are further signs of how we are entrained from the ground up to dismiss Mystery, engagement, devotion and anything other than the most trivial and mundane. How do we recognize that which we have never before experienced? How do we know to seek it out? How do we know its value, that it’s something worth seeking out, worth protecting, worth nurturing above all else? That’s a leap of faith that is very, very hard to take.
This is a problem that goes much deeper. There are three points that I want to parse out briefly. I’ve written about these quite a bit over the past few years so I’m not going to belabor them here other than to note them (also, I just returned from a wonderful but grueling residency in NM where unfortunately I got hit hard and fast with altitude sickness and I’m still quite exhausted, so I’m keeping it brief for that reason too). To begin with, we have a very working class demographic within Heathenry. In and of itself that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing; but there’s a certain dogged materialism that goes along with that, one that eschews emphasis on both beauty and mystery. The dominant ethos has become a stubborn focus on what one can see and hear and touch, that which immediately benefits people in the basest most practical way. Hand in hand with this comes a suspicion surrounding anything that is not human-centric, a suspicion around the mystical, around the emotional, around the spiritual. One of the attendant paradoxes of these attitudes is an affectation toward scholarship while at the same time, a deep antagonism toward anything approaching elitism, especially intellectual elitism. It’s the paradox of the lore-thumper, or the baptist bible scholar! As a community we’re comfortable with the unchanging prosaic reality of lore: what one can quote, or study, but not so comfortable with the abstract thought experiment that would allow one to move beyond the words on a page, into abstract theological examination. Think about it: we put more stock in academics who are either atheists or at best contemptuous of our religions, who barely grant that our ancestors had religions than we do in those specialists who are working within our faiths today. Academics – and I say this being one—all too often miss the point when examining any non-Christian religion. There’s too much egotism and baggage: from monotheism, modernity, you name it. Absent is any kind of respect for the subject of their study, respect for our religions. Yet these are the voices we heed in crafting our restoration and it begs the question why.
We also shit on our specialists. In any other field, those who have dedicated time and energy to developing excellence, who have studied and trained, who have acquired skill beyond the norm are recognized and respected as specialists. Within indigenous religions, including Heathenry that would be your shamans, spirit workers, vitkar, mystics, and priests. What do we do with those in our community? We attack them. We harass them. We do anything but acknowledge them as specialists. Is it any wonder our religion is in questionable straits, that we never seem to be making significant and enduring progress? Now I will admit, one should not just blindly accept any and all UPG. But it’s equally ill thought out to dismiss it simply because it causes one discomfort, or because one isn’t having the same experiences oneself. We shoot ourselves in the foot spiritually as a community and then wonder why we’re bleeding. This isn’t just a Heathen problem, by the way. It’s a problem that I’ve seen in many polytheisms and paganisms, one that goes back to lack of comprehension of the role of elders, and the importance of lineage within a tradition (and again, having been severed for two thousand years from an ingrained, inter-generational sense of what it means to practice an indigenous, ancestral tradition, how could we not struggle with this? I’ve been writing about this for the better part of thirty years and even I, when I was initiated into one of the ATR found it a great shock to suddenly be part of a living lineage. It really hit home what that meant, and how precious a thing it was, but I struggled. It was beyond my living experience and nothing in my world had prepared me for it).
How could it be otherwise? We’re all patterned by our society and culture and we grew up in a culture that for generations has doggedly removed any trace of enchantment, any trace of the sacred, any trace of Mystery from its edifices. This is why I often talk about the need for re-sacralizing and re-enchanting our world (ironically, as I typed this, auto-correct changed “re-sacralizing” to “Desacralizing”….). How are we to know to seek out and embrace Mystery, when everything in our world has taught us to dismiss it? This is why over and above anything else, even above the restoration of our individual traditions themselves, I think we are tasked with re-sacralizing our world in every way we can, large and small, because it is this lack more than any other that affects how we approach our faith.
Finally, insofar as ritual goes, there’s a deep distrust of anything involving the sensorium or anything touching however remotely on Mystery. There’s an antagonism toward that which is not easily available to all, and that which might shake us out of our narrow, mediocre worlds. This comes, I believe, from the very Protestant mindset of so many of our converts. We are still a religion of converts practicing a Diaspora religion. Informal surveys of our community point to upwards of 85% of our converts coming from Protestantisms, primarily fundamentalist Protestantisms. There is a whole body of attitudes toward spirituality and religion that comes with such a religious upbringing. To go into any restoration clean, we must examine all the ways our birth religions entrained us to approach religion, ritual, the Gods, Weltanschauung, all of it.
We Heathens can do better than this. We owe it to ourselves, to our Gods, to the traditions that have been handed down to us, however tattered they may be, and to all those who will come after us to resist diffusion, homogenization and desacralization. Let us dream of a better Heathenry and work together to make it a reality.