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:
1 Efficiency
2 Community
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.

About ganglerisgrove

Free-range tribalist Heathen, Galina Krasskova, has been a priest of Odin and Loki since the early nineties. Originally ordained in the Fellowship of Isis in 1995, Ms. Krasskova also attended the oldest interfaith seminary in the U.S.- the New Seminary where she was ordained in 2000 and where she later worked as Dean of Second Year Students for the Academic year of 2011-2012. She has even given the opening prayer at the United Nations Conference “Women and Indigeny”. Beyond this, she took vows as a Heathen gythia in 1996 and again in 2004, She is the head of Comitatus pilae cruentae and a member of the Starry Bull tradition. She has been a member of numerous groups through the years including the American Academy of Religion. She has also served previously as a state government contracted expert on the Asatru faith, and been a regular contributor to various print and online publications geared towards modern pagans and polytheists, and for a time had her own radio program: Wyrd Ways Radio Live. Ms. Krasskova holds diplomas from The New Seminary (2000), a B.A. in Cultural Studies with a concentration in Religious Studies from Empire State College (2007), and an M.A. in Religious Studies from New York University (2009). She has completed extensive graduate coursework in Classics (2010-2016) and is pursuing a Masters in Medieval Studies at Fordham University (expected graduation 2019) with the intention of eventually doing a PhD in theology. She has also been teaching University classes in Greek and Latin. As part of her academic career Ms. Krasskova has written a number of academic articles, and also presented at various academic conferences including Harvard University, Claremont University, Fordham University, Ohio State University, Western Michigan University, Villanova University, and the City University of New York. An experienced diviner and ordeal master, her primary interest is in devotional work and the reconstruction of Northern Tradition shamanism. Her very first book, The Whisperings of Woden was the landmark first devotional text to be written in modern Heathenry. Ms. Krasskova has a variety of published books available running the gamut from introductory texts on the Northern Tradition, as well as books on shamanism, runes, prayer, and devotional practices. She is also the managing editor of “Walking the Worlds,” a peer-reviewed academic style journal focusing on contemporary polytheism and spirit work and the first journal of polytheology. While very busy with teaching and school, she does also occasionally lecture around the country on topics of interest to contemporary Heathenry and polytheisms. A passionate supporter of the arts Ms. Krasskova enjoys going to the opera, theater, and ballet. Her affection for the arts began early as she discovered dance, which she pursued professionally becoming a ballet dancer: first with a regional company in Maryland, then in New York City. After suffering career ending injuries, she would find new forms of expression in the visual arts. For a few years Ms. Krasskova co-owned an art gallery in the Hudson River Valley of New York, and over a course of numerous years she has studied a multitude of art mediums: glassblowing, watercolor, acrylic, photography and more! She is now an avid collage artist, acrylic painter and watercolorist and has even enjoyed placement in international artist-in-residencies programs in New York, New Mexico, and Poland. Her work has been exhibited globally from New York to Paris. She has taken her passion for the arts and polytheistic devotion, to create the Prayer Card Project. Since so much religious iconography has been destroyed, or defaced in the course of human history, she is actively making new religious prayers and iconography available to the various modern polytheistic communities to support those who are building their religious communities, building their devotional practices, and hungering for art that represents their religious faith. All while also supporting the artists within these burgeoning communities.

Posted on May 22, 2015, in Heathenry, Polytheism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Did not a wise sage once proclaim: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”?

    The problem seems to lie in the fact that most modern pagan praxis is conducted without relevance to activities of daily living, in exceptional ‘sacred spaces’. Like you say, its a throwback to the habits of a monotheist protestant ‘go to church’ cultural conditioning, and is reinforced by a general failure to comprehend the continuum of our religions beyond what we can find in the written word. People feel safer with an altar, a picture, a crystal and some candles in a room in their dwelling because they cannot generally feel attached to the continuum anywhere except there.

    Just as an example of contrast – go walk around an Indian city such as Varanasi and watch the working people connecting with their gods as they go about their daily business – casually touching little statues of Ganapati when they sell you something in a shop, or stopping off on an errand to buy and throw a handful of rice into the shrine to Durga. Religious ceremony just isnt the same to them – it is part of the flow.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think this point is worth pondering, especially as what separates the Indian city of Varanasi from one such as Detroit, New York, etc., is that the Gods of the Indian people are quite welcome in their city. Our Gods are hardly welcome in our own homes, let alone our back yards without being targeted.

      Part of the power of bringing polytheism into the home is that it resacralizes that home. For instance, we have a shrine within the home set up for the housevaettir, the house spirits. Our compost pile is dedicated to Hela and Nidhogg, and I make prayers every time I add to it, or use it. When we harvest asparagus we make prayers to Freyr and the landvaettir. This enculturation of the sacred into worldviews is something taking place right now. Every time someone feels the touch of the Gods in a grove, or the landvaettir in a park, or the Ancestors as they cook, all the world becomes full of touchstones to know the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It takes time and mindfulness to develop this, and even more patience to enculturate it in others.

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      • You must then see your faucets/taps as sacred too!? Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. It starts, in terms of our basic empirical spiritual survival/production needs, at our hearthside, the water source and the midden. These are the core domestic sacralities that connect to our ancestors and genii.
        However, we shouldn’t be afraid to see and understand those gods and spirits around us as we venture outside of our homes. I always feel I ought to endeavour to ‘paint’ the invisible world with the gods and spirits everywhere I go, recognising them in the environment, in the land. This makes the sacral structure of the home less important, in a way. It de-emphasises the slightly egotistical nature of domestic shrine-oriented devotion and makes just going for a walk an act of religious observance… However, time and mindfulness are just one way to better understand this. There are also a few principles which are the key to ‘opening’ this world, as well. These aren’t ‘secrets’ but rather old worldviews with which we need to reconnect once we shed the ‘baggage’. Researching and understanding these makes you a heathen without any confession or worship – the gods will just ‘pop into being’ and your understandings will re-adjust and fall into place.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Given I am an animist and polytheist I see many things as potentially sacred tools, shrine spaces, etc. For instance, I have a shrine to unknown Ancestors next to the well, which has several large rocks, which I blow smoke on as offerings, and occasionally leave herbal offerings at as well.

        I look at this kind of resacralizing of the world (not merely the home) as a powerful antidote to something Galina has hit on time and again:

        “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.”

        If the relationships we have with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are to live and breathe, then they must be given space to do so. I have a vé to Odin-as-Runatýr and the Runevaettir, and a space for Odin on the Gods’ altar inside our home. He also has space in our sacred grove outside, a small godpole I carved for Him. Sometimes, depending on the storm, I may feel Him in it.

        Your point about the sacred being without the home, and my own practices outside the home, I think, speaks to this point Galina made:

        “Finally, insofar as ritual goes, there’s a deep distrust of anything involving the sensorium or anything touching however remotely on Mystery.”

        It would be harder, in my view, to connect with Freyr and Gerda if I did not garden, or otherwise seek Them outside the home.

        I will be honest, you last line kind of throws me:
        “Researching and understanding these makes you a heathen without any confession or worship – the gods will just ‘pop into being’ and your understandings will re-adjust and fall into place.”

        If a Heathen is not worshiping the Gods what, then, makes them Heathen?
        If the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are not a vital part of one’s life, I am not sure how one can honestly call oneself a Heathen. It is one thing to recognize the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in the world, and quite another to build relationship with Them. That, to my understanding, requires cultivation. Part of that cultivation is worship, offerings, and may include seeking Their Mystery(ies) wherever they may be found and/or one is led.

        Liked by 3 people

      • The garden is a beautiful analogy for cultivating a relationship with the gods. There is a place near me named after Freyr at which there is a stone pillar with a stone phallus mounted on it that has been kept whitewashed for centuries. I went to the local museum to find out more about it, and to my surprise the fields adjacent to the phallus-stone used to be known as ‘the devil’s fields’ and ‘the devil’s garden’, and there was a legend that they were cursed by Saint Patrick never to grow barley for ale. The land has been church property since the middle ages when the Viking kings ruled here. It seems that gardening and the Ve are indeed an ancient heathen association. I presume in the case of this place that it was a sacred precinct with a field used to cultivate barley for holy ales. The gods are still palpably numinous when you go and visit – not a sniff of Odin, however: this is a place of Vanir and Vaettir.
        Keep on gardening!

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve heard Heathens claim that the Gods should not be worshipped or honored, that they are troublemakers and do not care about humankind and only the Ancestors and Vaettir should be honored and offered to, and that was how it truly was back in the day.

        I think it’s bullshit, frankly, but there are Heathens who will not associate with the Gods, and for many of them it’s another “This i not a religion but a cultural reconstruction.” thing. The sad part is we had a couple of youngsters come to our Heathen group expressing shock and dismay that we worshipped the Gods, because they had been taught not to for the above reasons, so I’ve seen this attitude both online and in person. Which is another reason that I won’t call myself a Heathen – I don’t know where the doctrinal lines lie, and for a lot of folks it’s not a religion but a chance to play act Vikings (often based on bad scholarship).

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Quick question: ATR = Ancestral Tradition Religion?

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  3. Reblogged this on Moon of the Wolf and commented:
    I very strongly recommend reading the article that is linked in this post.

    Personally I don’t see much of this beyond people on the internet. Heathens where I live are very few and far between. 99.9% of pagans you find here are Wiccan, and most of them are very young ( like my brother in high school and his friends), and those are even few in number, though increasing as of late. So, obviously I’m not a part of any kindred (as much as I would love to) or get to participate in any of rituals or blots. I basically do it all on my own, and I basically do it as a combination of instruction from Them, what feels right, and what I’ve found in the large amount of research I have done/still doing.

    In the early time, before I was fully “converted” (aka when a certain Thunderer decided to invade my dreams and basically claim me) I was doing research on multiple pagan religions, mostly tied to some part of my heritage (I’m a mutt). It was a YouTube channel by an Asatuar, about the religion. He spoke in the video about the different sort of views/belief in the religion. According to him, some thought of Them as ancestors that needed to be honored (taking the Eddas very literally where they are shown more as people), some more as the spirits of nature (like Thor is the lightning and thunder, not the creator of), or the ones that do in fact see them as Gods. I really have a tough time seeing the first two, which the guy making the video says his beliefs were a combination of. That’s when I stopped watching his videos, even then it just didn’t jive with me. I certainly won’t tell him he is wrong, his belief is his belief and he is more than entitled to such.

    Side note: a little sad about her comment about Supernatural. It is my all time favorite show, I’ve been watching it since the very first episode ever aired. Should by no means be taken any kind of literally in context of religion. I mean, Dean calls all angels dicks (which in the show most of them really are). If you have never watched it, please do! I think the episode that may be referred to here is the episode where the Winchesters were trapped in a hotel room with multiple Gods of different pagan religions, showing the Gods as human eaters, also has Kali and Baldur dating which is quite the interesting pairing. Was incredibly inaccurate in any portrayal of Them (I mean, it has Loki as actually the Archangel Gabriel incognito so yea..), but they are there to move along the plot and were changed to fit it.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Supernatural is dismissive and disrespectful of even christianity. that’s precisely my point: it and shows like it create an unconscious attitude of disrespect toward the sacred and the supernatural. when pop culture shows like this aren’t creating that particular atmosphere, they’re furthering one of excessive familiarity, which is also a type of disrespect. The terror and danger is removed from the experience of the sacred and this patterns us in our interactions. (I enjoy the show too, btw, but i’m very aware of what i’m watching. I try to keep my imbibing of such things to a minimum.)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. ganglerisgrove

    Atlantic Religion, worship is, imo, crucial. research is not enough. it’s not even the most important thing. Shedding that mental baggage is, but so is veneration. Without veneration we’re just play acting.

    Liked by 3 people

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