Monthly Archives: July 2016
With Many Gods West coming up this coming weekend, author PSVL offers good, solid advice here.
“Miasma is unavoidable when going through life; but the miasma which is created by deliberate negligence and impiety is something else entirely, whether you think it is or not. Even if you have no part in creating that miasma, it can impact you. This has been the case in most polytheist cultures, from ancient Greece to modern Shinto, and we ignore it now at our peril.”
Well said, PSVL, and good for you for writing this. The suggestions for attendees are solid across the board here.
We are currently in the 100th year anniversary of WWI, a war that I think often gets forgotten in the wake of the horrors of WWII. I recently read a couple of things that showed me exactly how little knowledge there is not only of this war, but of history in general. I thought it might be helpful to post a couple of simple, straightforward videos on the origins of WWI. These are not painful to watch and in fact are actually quite entertaining. Maybe it will help increase readers’ knowledge base. I agree with the narrator of one of these videos: WWI was the seminal event of the 20th century. We should know what caused it and what happened.
Here’s a discussion (quite an entertaining one no less) on factors that led to the start of WWI:
Here’s another (love this series):
(There’s one error: it wasn’t Alexander the II who was forced to accept an impotent parliament, it was Nicholas the II. I think it was just a slip of the tongue on the narrator’s part. The creators of the cartoons own up to errata here and also provide interesting and random facts that didn’t make it into the main videos. I particularly like the conclusion he comes to at the very end. Watch all the other videos first though before watching this one.: ).
Here’s part II:
and part III (they’re very short):
and the final part IV:
I particularly like the second video in that it points to the long range, inter-generational impact of WWI – not just that it led to WWII, but that the entire face of the 20th century up to and including our generation would likely have been completely different but for this war. It changed everything.
I have several prayer cards in progress. All of them still need fundraising and most need a prayer too. Check it out:
Cernunnos by Basil Blake
(needs $50 for printing. I also need a prayer for this card)
Hypnos by Grace Palmer
(this is the detailed sketch. The finished will be in color. This one is specifically created as a match for Thanatos. $400 still outstanding to pay the artist)
Mars by Lykeia
($50 for printing needed)
Diana Nemoriensis by Lykeia
($50 for printing needed)
and finally, Jupiter by Lykeia
($50 outstanding needed for printing)
If anyone can donate toward these cards, it would be much appreciated. Contributors up to $50 will receive six prayer cards of their choice and a setting of lights. Over $50, that plus a year subscription to Walking the Worlds journal. It’s important to bring images of our Gods back into being. Please help make that happen.
(also a post that previously appeared on polytheist.com. I’m slowly starting to cycle back into working on this theological piece so I wanted to put this here to have it all in one place for easier access).
So I was having lunch with a friend the day I wrote the first draft of this article and we were discussing cosmogony, the nascent wisdom given via theophany by the Gods to Their individual people. Each cosmological theophany holds within it the wisdom and knowledge to allow the world, its sciences, arts, philosophies, its beauty, and our understanding and engagement with it to unfold. I think it is quite profound the way that the Gods took into account the geography of where our various peoples evolved. You see it reflected in the ritual cycle, in the way the cosmic order, structure, and unfolding is translated into cultural comprehension. I’ve never written much about cosmogony, the order and structuring of the cosmos from the Norse perspective. I think about it, sit sometimes and lose my self in it, but i’ve never actually thought to articulate it in writing. That’s going to be changing because Heathen cosmogony is so richly textured, so beautifully profound, and has so much to offer those of us who practice within its structures that i think it deserves more time and attention.
Our cosmogony begins with a Big Bang. This is a very modern term, and perhaps a bit too prosaic to describe the type of collision conveyed through our mythos. (1) Well before the Gods became, there is violence, a grinding together, there is noise and sound, there is excitement, there is confusion, there is change and exchange. — a maelstrom, but a maelstrom with purpose. There is a coming together that resulted in a change of potentiality into matter, and matter into the seed of unnumbered possibilities. Does it happen slowly or all at once in a huge crash? We have no way of knowing for sure, though if we look at the Gylfaginning, and examine the fragments of cosmogonic lore left to us, it would seem to point to a slow interaction over an extensive period of “time.” (Even so, certainly there would be that one micro-second, that tipping point where interaction or collision gave birth to something new). What we do know is that something happens that forever changes the very fabric, the space, and materiality of Being. (It brings potentiality of being into temporality of being). Something happens and it is irreversible. The world of ice and the world of fire collide and from that explosion of oppositional forces the cosmos begins to unfold. This is our starting point. What existed before this? Where did Muspelheim and Niflheim originate? What prompted this collision?–it’s not important. It’s not relevant to the discussion. Our starting point is the engagement of oppositional forces. It’s that tension and what comes from it: its fruitfulness, not where it happened or what preceded it that we are meant to focus on. Our starting point instead is the blinding explosion of force: fire and ice, action and stillness, movement and stasis, heat and cold, expansion and contraction, light and shadow, projection and retraction…and everything in between.
It must be considered that before this big bang, there was the void Ginnungagap. The void is not and was not empty space. It was not unseeing. It was instead potentiality for all being. It contained the spark, the scintilla, the fuel, the awesome, raw, thundering potentiality of being that allowed for the worlds of ice and fire to begin their inevitable collision. The void contained the possibility of what was to occur. I always make it a point to check the etymology of my Norse words and Ginnungagap has a particularly fruitful etymology. The prefix “Ginn-” occurs in several places and refers to holy might. It’s elsewhere appended to ‘regin’ meaning Holy Powers, and “runa” meaning runes. It implies something filled with potentiality, creativity, and power, something sacred and ancient. We almost always translate ‘Ginnungagap’ as ‘Yawning Void,’ but that’s not quite correct. I think a better translation might be chasm or space full of holy wonder, creativity, and potentiality. Of course that’s a bit more of a mouthful. The important thing is to understand that it is not empty and it IS holy, sacred, and eminently creative. There is power in that moment before oppositional forces meet, power and possibility. The gap was the womb of the universe, the alchemist’s cauldron from which the cosmos sprang in its infancy. It is a place of power and of secrets. From the container of the holy, this thing happened that spewed forth being and matter into existence. It spewed forth the raw material from which everything else was formed. It spewed it forth in a way that it *could* be formed.
Another thing to consider with the Gap: in spewing forth into this act of creation, it gave of itself into the process. There was a transmutation occurring in this collision: an essence of one place (the Gap) being breathed, sparked, crashed into different manifestation in another (creation). That moment is a doorway, the initiation of Being and Materiality. Materiality simply wasn’t before this point in our narrative. Materiality had to become before creation could happen. With materiality came the laws of physics. This process is all about laying out the architecture of the cosmos, of existence. As an aside it also gives one pertinent information for the nature of any and all true initiations: it is the crossing of a threshold. It creates irreversible change. There is death, transmutation/dismemberment of being, and restoration into new being. Such a pattern is locked into the fabric of existence from the beginning. Later, throughout our cosmological narrative, when the Gods take form and function and begin moving and acting in Their worlds and ours, we will see this same pattern play out again and again and again (cross-culturally, I might add), but the paradigm is given to us right here, at that very moment the potentiality and cognition of the Gap is forced through primordial collision into transmutation into a new kind of Being: raw matter. Its very nature and substance has been changed. It’s the same with initiation and its effect on the substance of the soul and our awareness. Before this clash there was potentiality; afterwards there are the building blocks of being and materiality.
Now the Gap is a place full of activity but all in potentiality. There was nowhere for that contemplation of pre-creation to morph into result. Without materiality there was no progress. The Gap wasn’t necessarily a place of stasis, but it wasn’t a place of manifestation into actual being, fact, and material substance either. Something had to happen first before that could occur. The architecture had to be set in place for that transmutation. Potentiality had to be urged into transformative action. As an aside, in my work with Odin, in deep contemplation, in journey work, i’ve seen the Gap. It is neither still nor silent. there is awareness, many awarenesses there, and the snapping of synapses (at least that’s sort of how my mind analogized it), lightening cognition going on all around me in the Gap, from the Gap, that which was the Gap itself. There was a fierce delight in this process of cognition and a whirling dance of concepts and colors that I cannot hope to untangle and commit to the flatness of comprehension. It was too fast and dense for me to process. It had a rhythm, a rumbling percussion beat of shifting harmony. It was, as I would conceive of the term, alive. (Though I rather think terms such as “life” and “alive” are far less relevant or meaningful in a place where temporality and materiality do not exist. I don’t know if i’d previously thought of Ginnungagap as silent and still, but after seeing it, after being brought to it by Odin, never again will I have that misapprehension. There is a lot going on there! There was constant cognitive rumbling. In Platonic terms, I think we’d call it the intelligible-intellective plane of Divine activity.
Thinking about the Gap and its nature, questions inevitably arise. Was the Holy undifferentiated within the Gap? I would say no since within the Gap from the moment our narrative starts we already have two Worlds moving in tandem. We already have Muspelheim and Niflheim. Nor are those worlds singularities, something I’ll discuss a little further forward in this article. There was already differentiation, a plurality of the Holy. What is Holy? That is a question that philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with since the time of our most ancient ancestors, probably since before we had writing to record the question. I’m no philosopher but I think it’s important to note that within or perhaps encompassing this plurality of the Holy, we do then have holy as an undifferentiated category. I think for the purposes of this writing, I am going to be using that term as what I would like to call a ‘sense category.’ I don’t think that any static definition of “holy” can quite encompass what we’re dealing with here, especially at the Beginning, especially before our Gods took name, and shape, and form.
Basically we have a plurality of Holy Beings within the sense category ‘holy’. What do I mean by ‘sense category?’ Rather like one of the circles in a Venn diagram, a sense category is the space within which a thing functions. For instance, if we consider Muspelheim a sense category as well as being one of the cosmological “worlds,” we must first parse out all the things that Muspelheim contains and *means*. What role does it play in our narrative? Once that has been determined it becomes clear that when we refer to Muspelheim in this creation story, we’re not just referring to the “world of fire,” but to the fullness of meaning that can be found in this entire category. Here, we have the category of “holy” and that begs the question of what is holy? what does it mean to be holy? what are the essential elements of ‘holiness’ particularly when there is nothing of humanity nor even yet named Gods by which to determine such differentiation. We might also ask why is the Gap holy? Is it holy in and of itself or simply a container for that which is holy? What does it mean to be holy? Is it holy in itself or rendered holy by what it contains and by its function? Is there a difference? Is the holy with substance or without? Does it matter?
I don’t have answers to most of those questions. I do know that the word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English ‘halig’ which means hale, whole, and complete, entire unto itself. by that rubric alone, Ginnungagap may be consciously construed in a semantic sense as ‘holy.’ It is the ultimate entirety of everything, before differentiation into materiality, before the articulation of the universe, before…everything. I think, however, that is only one aspect of what it means to be ‘holy,’ perhaps a fundamental one, but still only part of the picture. We say a thing is holy when it is filled with or touched by the Gods. Are the Gods holy? Or do They rather render that which They touch, use, and with which They interact holy by contamination? Are things reserved for the Gods holy as opposed to sacred (reserved for divine use)? I will be discussing the difference between ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ in a later article, but for now, know that as we contemplate the Gap, this is one of the questions that logically might arise.
Part of what we must parse out in this narrative is the effective difference between substance and materiality. All things conceived of have substance but not all things have active materiality. I would posit that substance contains the potential for materiality but is unfettered by temporality whereas materiality is connected by its very nature to temporality. It is raw substance — the Idea—given form. The question then arises of whether a fundamental change in nature occurs in the transmutation of substance into materiality. If we accept the Gap as holy, as a fundamental and largely unchanging axiom, then the equation shifts ever so slightly: there’s potentiality and then there’s the creation of matter. The integral nature of the substance is changed through the act of creation and the holiness that was an unconditional and accepted theorem then translates into that which was created, i.e. matter as potentiality. The potentiality for holiness exists then in created matter.
Furthermore, what does it mean that life began as an explosion of oppositional forces? Complementary forces might be a better way of putting it (and you see it echoed throughout our theological narrative). It’s not just opposites that we see in Niflheim and Muspelheim, but complement. These two worlds balance each other out. Before I continue, I want to pause for a moment to note that while we are dealing with oppositional and complementary forces, we are not working within a binary system. I’m going to say that again because with the influence of almost two thousand years of mental colonization by monotheism, and working as we are within a diasporic religion made up primarily of converts from monotheisms, it bears repeating: we are NOT working within a binary system. Binary systems are simply not sustainable, not in a cosmically sound, well ordered, organic theology. (To give you a very prosaic analogy: try sitting on a stool with two legs). We have so much more here than just simple binaries. There is so much more nuance and richness of structure. While it may seem that we have only two players and the Gap itself at this point in our narrative, each of those places contains a multitude.
Firstly, there is all that is contained in Muspelheim — this sense category of “Muspelheim,” and all that is contained in the sense category of “Niflheim.” That right there gives you a plethora of beings and forces and concepts and powers to contemplate and we’re going to be doing that in just a moment. But over and above these two basic units (which are themselves divergent worlds full of life and being and potentiality), we have the space in which they dance, the place where they meet, that moment in the fabric of becoming. We have what happens at the microsecond they meet and what the two of them together produce. We have the rhythm and sound, movement and dance. We have the denizens and raw matter within each world. We have that which is creating, that with which they create, and the things, events, and spaces that are created. There is no stopping point to it. Perhaps the two worlds are still in conversation, still in union, still colliding and vying and fighting for dominance, push-pull of creation unfolding, even now as I write this. We always think of creation as something that happened a long time ago, because we ourselves are tied to temporality, to the here and now, we experience time as a limitation when the Gods themselves are beyond temporality, and rhythm of the cosmic unfolding even more so than that. But creation isn’t a one time event. It’s a process that began and continues to unfold therefore in some way, shape, or form, fire and ice are still engaging. So while the worlds each partake of place and order on the Tree, so too do they continually continue the work of that Big Bang. What this means, one of the many things that it means, is that we are part of that process too. That sizzling fermentation of the Big Bang, the moment of creation is still happening right now. It has never stopped happening. It propels and fuels creation again and again and again.
We have within Ginnungagap these two worlds or sense categories: Muspelheim and Niflheim. They are called worlds and that means they contain an interlocking network of ecology and environment, of culture, society, and nations. Niflheim seems to be the older of the two worlds and exists in the “north” of the Gap (though without temporality and materiality, spacial location is relative and open to conjecture). The etymology of “Niflheim” simply means (in Old Norse—all my etymology is old Norse unless otherwise specified) ‘the dark world.” The primary denizen of this world that we know of is the great dragon “Nidhogg” which means “the one striking full of hatred.” The Voluspa 39 (2) describes Nidhogg as one who drinks the blood of the dead and eats corpses. Later, when the Nine worlds are formed, Nidhogg takes on a slightly more active role in harassing the denizens of the World Tree but for now we should focus on its connotations of death and decay. Death is both ending and beginning. It is transformation. Decay, so necessary to our world (imagine if nothing ever decayed, including our bodies, including compost, including road kill) and its cousin fermentation are all types of transformative destruction. This is what Nidhogg personifies as a holy Being: transformative destruction, wasting nothing, maintaining the whole. In the poetic forms of the creation account that we have via the Edda, there is much talk about poison and venom within Niflheim and I interpret this as fermentation, decay, and transformation. It all breaks down the substance of what is and then transmutes it into something else.
In the South of the Gap (again, metaphorically speaking — spacial location would of necessity be relative), there is the world of fire, Muspelheim. The etymology here is more vexed. It most likely refers to the ‘end of the world,’ which it was, just as it was the beginning of the new. It ended the stasis that existed before the worlds met. It was the hot sparks of Muspelheim that ignited the fermentation that led to the clash, that led to the moment of creation. These two sense categories, which everything they each contain within themselves met and through that synergy something new, something different was brought into being. The primary Being associated with Muspelhiem is the Lord of Fire: Surtr. His name means “the Black One,” ostensibly a reference to the soot, and smoke, and ash that comes as a byproduct of fire. Some of the sources (3) associate Him with volcanic activity and this makes good sense: lava is the lifeblood of the earth. (It is unclear whether Surtr is synonymous with the Being Muspel, or whether this is yet another Holy Being existing in Muspelheim. I tend to think they are synonymous). Fjolsvinnsmal (4) also references a female Fire Being named Sinmara. The etymology of Her name is vexed. Right away, it’s interesting that we have a pair of Beings in Muspelheim but only a dragon (Nidhogg) mentioned in Niflheim. The gendered pairing of one makes good sense in thinking about the elements inherent in reproduction. I choose to look at Nidhogg as the balance to that binary pairing, as transformative, non-binary gender that also breaths its magic into creation. Dragons are serpents after all, serpents reptiles, and many reptiles can shift gender. I’m not going to belabor this here, but I look at these Beings as carrying the potential for creative expression by Their very nature and order in these worlds. There is also the fact that fire here represents the creative, active force driving this transformation and ice represents the cold, still, unmoving force resistant to change, but very focused on maintaining ordered space.
Fire symbolically represents synergy, pushing forward, evolution, expansion, adventure, heat, destruction, explosion, creativity, with Ice representing stability, integrity, solidity, ordered space, cold, lack of movement, stasis, structure, and silence. If you think about this pairing of worlds, one may continue this list of complements almost exhaustively. Creation is always, always a matter of the push and pull between these two forces. You see this mirrored in religious traditions too: there is almost always tension between those who want the tradition to be unchanging and those who want to radicalize and push and bring forth change. It’s from this grinding synergy that traditions organically evolve. This necessary synergy is worked right into our creation story. Fire is the one constantly changing constant in the cosmos. In some ways it echoes the theories of Heraclitus. To sum it up very, very simply, Heraclitus conceived of the world as everliving fire. He gave us the phrase “war is the father of all,” meaning that “opposites are necessary for life, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges. The world itself consists of a law-like interchange of elements, symbolized by fire.” (5) In order to maintain active, and productive order, there must be some measure of discord, something to strive against. This is the nature of growth and evolution.
In the sense category or world of Niflheim, there is the river Hvergelmir, which means “bubbling cauldron.” Here our story becomes a bit more complicated. It will continue to become so as we introduce more variables, more moving parts, more players in this primordial drama…and we’re going to be doing just that. This is the primordial spring, the source of all the ancient rivers of the worlds, a collection of waters called “Elivagar”. Simek notes that these rivers are he proto-sea surrounding the world. (6). That makes a certain sense to me. Water provides nourishment necessary to life materially and symbolically. Fire expands the boundaries of creation, water from Niflheim nourishes it. It nourishes it by means of eleven rivers: Svol (cool one), Gunnthro (thirst for blood/battle groove), Form (I couldn’t find any etymology for this), Finbulthul (mighty wind/speaker), Thul (murmur/roaring one), Slid (dangerously sharp), Hrid (stormy weather/tempest), Sylg (Devourer), Ylg (She-wolf), Vid (Broad one), Leipt (lightening), Gjoll (loud noise). Note that the names for the most part do nothing to conceal the potential danger inherent in such primordial powers. The raw forces of creation must be mediated, first by the transition from idea and substance into material and temporal being, and then by the Gods Themselves as they craft and transform the material building blocks into our cosmos. By themselves, they can be poison—too much, too fierce for mortality to hold. There must be mediation. (7).
I’m not going to delve into the eleven rivers right now. I’ll likely come back to this in a future article. I do want to note that in a way, the spatial orientation given for these two worlds within the Gap makes a certain kind of sense: fire leaps up, devouring and transforming, opening up all it touches, purifying it, consecrating it while rivers rush downward, not up (usually). I think the spatial divisions of Niflheim being located in the North and Muspelheim in the south reflect the inherent nature of what these worlds represent.
Now, we have the Gap. In it, Niflheim and Muspelheim are interacting. This is where things get really interesting. All of these rivers flowed far from their source (where they flowed is not clear, perhaps into the Gap itself). The venom in them hardened to ice. There was already transformation occurring, preliminary transmutation. Because the rivers didn’t stop their flow to accommodate the ice, there was a constant flood of drizzle carrying more venom. This venom froze into rime and more ice and rain and roaring winds, the latter perhaps created by the moving musculature of the rivers. The longer this process continued, the more of this brine was created. This brine is important. This primordial substance, this primordial ooze gives rise, gives birth, to the first Beings of creation. As Muspelheim and Niflheim moved closer (and perhaps this creeping ice was the cause of that spatial shift), sparks and heat from the world of fire, leapt out into the world of ice. The synergy of this contact melted the ice, transformed the rime, added something heretofore unseen. There was a moment of alchemy, a moment’s collision of complementary forces, and substance and idea, potentiality moved from the Gap, through the threshold of fire and ice interacting, into the material world. Materiality came into being in the form of the first Being, the hermaphroditic, proto-giant, Ymir. But that is a tale for another day.
For now, let it suffice to say that the universe is a symphony unfolding. I cannot help but think of music when I think of the Gap. There is rhythm there. The first time I was in Zermatt, and I heard the glaciers singing, (they do sing and groan and chant if you listen with your heart and gut), I was reminded of the crackling sounds, the roar of the Gap. That interplay of oppositional/complementary forces gives us a point and counterpoint in a grand cosmic fugue. The initial big bang may be likened to a symphony warming up, playing the first somewhat dissonant note as all the musicians tune and align their instruments and then the music begins. Creation is not a quiet thing, it is not a meek, well-ordered event. It is a rush of power loosed into being. And then power having taken form becomes subject to wyrd, power having taking form becomes potentially erratic and subject to chance. Wyrd becomes an active force with the birth of materiality and temporality. It too, begins its unfolding. Power having taken form takes on a life of its own. and soon comes temporality and spacial structure and matter begins to take shape. The next article in this series will discuss the first primordial being Ymir, the eldest being of whose essence all things in the created worlds partake, and the sacred cow Audhumla, both of whom evolved out of that primordial brine.
1. Right away we’re confronted with the issue of cosmogonic time. Essentially, at this point in our narrative, we’re dealing with timeless moments. Temporality as such is not yet a player in our tale. It doesn’t exist. It’s not a factor in these first initial unfoldings of creation. To quote Edward Butler (who had the dubious pleasure of reading my initial draft), “Platonists were of the opinion that the sequence of events in a mythic narrative should be understood as a kind of stacking of timeless moments upon one another, so that instead of a linear unfolding of events, we get a kind of layer cake effect in each moment, which is a cross section. Part of what a cosmogony is doing is founding and grounding time itself. The first moments have to be timeless because time isn’t yet. But things that happen when time isn’t can’t have happened “then,” “before,” or “now.” They have to be happening now. ” (Private mail with E. Butler on March 8, 2015). It’s crucial to understand, really understand that while we may be forced by the constraints of language to use qualifying adverbs, to position our narrative temporally, in reality temporality did not yet exist, was not yet a factor in the discussion.
3. Simek, p. 303
4. Stanzas 26, 30
6. Simek p. 73
7. This comes up again in the story of Odhroerhir as well. This powerful, incantational, creative force is lethal until it has been purified through the act of creation. Here we have a poisonous mead of inspiration that essentially carries a body count. It was created from the crushed body and soul of Kvasir, and brought death and misery to anyone it touched. Only through the alchemy of Odin and Gunnlod’s union could it be purified through the bodies of two shamans, and rendered safe for graced consumption.
* Poetic Edda
* Prose Edda
* Edward’s Butler, (2014), Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus. NY, NY: Lulu Press.
* Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus page: http://www.iep.utm.edu/heraclit/
* Rudolf Simek, 1993), Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge, MA: D.S. Brewer.
Markos Gage, the Dionysian Artist has written a powerful call to creative and artistic arms here. He talks about the importance of art, the jadedness that comes of being saturated to overflowing with crap mainstream images, and the possibility that we can reverse this trend, offering us the rallying cry:”Maybe, just maybe, if we can work together to produce good art for our gods we can break the jadedness of mainstream culture…”
Food for thought, folks. food for thought. This is partly why I’m so committed to my prayer card project.
Those of you who are familiar with Heathenry will assuredly be familiar with the fixation some (most) Heathens have on lore. With a demographic drawn largely from Protestant Christianity, and working in an over-culture that is doggedly Protestant Christian in its attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that there is deep suspicion and even hostility toward anything not immediately and apparently mediated by the written word. Given that the majority Heathen demographic is also largely working class, there is also a noticeable insecurity and ambivalence toward mysticism (i.e. direct experience often dismissed in Heathen circles as “U.P.G” or the dreaded unverified personal gnosis) and you have, well, a mess.
Before going further, let me clarify what passes for ‘lore’ in Heathenry. When one of us speaks of “lore,” we’re referring to written texts. That includes the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon texts, and contemporary historical, archaeological, linguistic, as well as any other relevant scholarly work. None of these texts may be considered ‘revealed’ texts, nor were they ever intended to serve the purpose of “scripture’ in the way we are accustomed to think of that term. This is the context in which most Heathens frame their religion, and in many cases, it’s also the context by which their experiences is consciously limited. I find that unfortunate. It is not however to be unexpected.
Let’s unpack that a bit. One of the dominant features of Protestant Christianity is a liturgical focus on Scripture. This was, historically, one of its criticisms of Catholicism: that the latter’s praxis and liturgy veered too far away from Scripture. Bible study, memorizing and quoting scripture, the emphasis (here shared with Catholicism) on reading and of Christ as the embodiment of the “Word” are all key facets of this approach to faith. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is referred to as a ‘religion of the book.’ Even before the Protestant Reformation, in the medieval period with the early Christian fathers, there was this emphasis on text.
Essentially for religions of the book, there is holy writ, and it has tremendous authority in guiding practice and approach to faith. Since Vatican II, unfortunately, Catholicism has also been — all in the spirit of “modernism” and “ecumenism” of course –doing its best to cull its more mystical elements, including devotion to Mary on the grounds that it’s not textually authentic. I find it depressing and sad that a rich, complex, mystical theology would be exchanged for a pseudo-rational, unemotional, modern, scripture based approach. But that’s just me. When this was restricted to the Christians, it wouldn’t be something I felt the need to address, but it’s been a struggle over the past twenty years to avoid having this same reductionist approach dominate Heathenry. We are raised surrounded by the cultural and social trappings of Protestant Christianity. That is the dominant voice of American culture, even amongst our intellectual “elite” — even if one is not Christian. One of the unspoken facets of this is that we assume religious experience to have a textual base. We look for “Scripture” to tell us what to do, what to believe, and whether or not we’re doing our religion right. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to examine our religious expectations, to drag all our unspoken, ingrained assumptions about how a tradition works and how we ought to engage out into the light. There will be parts useful and parts not, but it’s important to see it all clearly. (1)
So with Heathenry, we have a contemporary religion trying to restore what is a conglomeration of ancestral traditions. That’s awesome. What we need to take into account, however, is the influence of our over-culture, birth religion, and the fetish we seem to have for “progress,” and “modernity.” Sometimes it isn’t and sometimes, what we are expected to trade for the trappings of “modernity,” is too high a price to pay for what we get. I don’t think we’ve quite all figured that out yet. It’s so much easier after all when humanity is at the top of the hierarchy, the center of the world, the apex of experience and we don’t have to worry about pesky Gods. It’s so much easier when engaging with the Gods as individual Powers is viewed as déclassé. It’s so much easier when our only obligations are social ones, oh, and reading an authorized text of course.
I’m being more sarcastic with the above statements than I initially intended, but this is the lay of the land in Heathenry. It’s ironic, given that such an attitude would have been utterly incomprehensible to our Heathen ancestors, who knew the wisdom of piety and reverence, and when to go on their knees in the dirt before their Gods out of awe, and when to sacrifice without bitching about giving too much, and that the Gods were Powers capable of impacting our world and us.
In a way, we’re having to do now, what the very early Christians had to do in order to grow their faith. It’s ironic, this role reversal, but it struck me during my reading the other day: early Christians developed their monastic traditions and powerful traditions of interiority and prayer because they had to worship in secret, or at best in small groups away from the public eye. It wasn’t until later, once they’d gained political power that they were able to effect large churches and public spheres of worship (and oppression). First, there were small groups, and individual prayer. This made the hunger for texts, I would think, all the more powerful. If i can’t be celebrating my God with a group of my co-religionists, then allow me to summon that community, and the presence of my God to my memory by reading stories and accounts that we all share in common. Let the absence be filled by memory evoked by engagement with the text. Let me engage with my community –spread out and hidden–in a unity through that very absence as it were. Now, Christians are everywhere (everywhere *sigh*) and it is the polytheist contingent that meets in small groups, often quite spread out, and perhaps — i’m speculating here–we also find ourselves deferring to written texts for prayer and meditation more than our polytheistic ancestors may have done, ancestors for whom the core beliefs of religion were contained and transmitted via intergenerational household and social practice. They could see their religion and veneration for the Gods reinforced all around them. We who don’t have that, depend much more on written media. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Christians engaged with their texts every bit as assiduously as the best (worst — i suspect it depends on your pov) Heathen lore thumper. They didn’t just read and take pride in their ability to memorize and regurgitate (as many a Heathen lore-hound has been known to do). They engaged in a certain amount of exegesis. Each reading opened the door to meditation and prayer, and that in turn opened the door to the potential at least — with the grace of God–for direct experience. Each text, led one on a meditative journey with the goal of drawing closer to one’s God.(2)
This really came home for me when I had to read an article about how small prayer books were used for personal devotion in the medieval period (c. 11-12 Centuries) when there was a shift in focus from communal liturgical devotion to private, personal prayer. I won’t quote the description of the process one would go through when using a Christian breviary for private use, but I am going to re-contextualize that process for a Heathen audience. (3)
Firstly, and this is something Rachel Fulton notes in her article, to own a book was to participate in privilege. Now, I realize that may not be quite the same with us today, especially not with the proliferations of e-readers, but there are parts of the world where reading and writing are a gift, and a privilege. Also, there’s magic there. Think about the first of our ancestors who realized that potential in making marks on the surface of a rock or bit of bark or clay. Think about the work that went into the book you hold or read, it was first formed in the mind of its creator, brought into being, translated to text, and pushed through the publishing process, disseminated online or to bookstores and finally ended up in your hands. This process was much more laborious in the medieval period, but each book is still a miracle, still an act of creation and craft. There is something very special in text that ties us to each and every reader who may likewise be influenced and inspired. This is all the more true of religious texts where the readers share a common cosmology and devotional approach.
So drawing upon and expanding upon the description offered in Fulton’s article, here is how — were I as a Heathen to engage in lectio divina–engaging with the lore might look.
Many medieval prayer books, like prayer books today were drawn off of scriptural readings, as well as set prayers. So using that as my paradigm, I’ll choose a section from the Poetic Edda focusing on one of Odin’s mysteries, the Runatal section of the Havamal. (I should note, the same process that I shall uncover below might be used with a prayer too, to equal effect). Here’s the text for those who might be unfamiliar with it:
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.(4)
First, I might read it quietly aloud in Norse and English. There is a rhythm after all, to the Norse verse that the English translation, however well done, lacks. Certain of the Norse phrases I might have (in fact personally do have) committed to memory. These I might linger over, letting the tones of my words resonate through my body. Odin is, after all, a God of empowered speech, of galdr, of poetry, of incantation. I would strive in my private prayer to make of these phrases, whichever I choose, an incantation that reverberates through the memory hall of my heart, that strikes at the core of my soul, kindling devotion, opening me up, bolstering a desire to connect, to reach outward to Him.
Perhaps I have recently read academic commentary on this section that brought some insight applicable to my spiritual life to light. I might mull that over for a time. My mind might segue to an image of a Tree that calls to mind Yggdrasil. Perhaps I’ll parse that word out: “Steed of the Terrible One.” What does that mean about this Tree. What does it mean about its agency and awareness? When I think of Odin hanging, there are a thousand images that come to my mind. Perhaps I have included one, a prayer card, or even a photocopy of the image in my Edda where I can look at it as I read and pray. Or perhaps I have an image on my altar or shrine, and I am praying and reading with this in my sight.
In my case, part of my ordeal cycle was a hook suspension in imitatio of this exact experience. It is Odin’s greatest mystery and the point of most powerful (for me at any rate) connection to Him. When I read about the windy tree, I think of the november night that I underwent this ordeal. I think about how cold and damp it was, what effect that had on my skin and my muscles, how I watched the sun set with growing dread. I wonder what it was like for Odin approaching the Tree, what preparations He might have made, and what it must be like to be a God and still be afraid.
I have a chant that I use for Him that recounts His time on the Tree and perhaps that will come to mind and if I am alone, I might even offer it to Him aloud. We don’t yet have the tradition of devotional images to which medieval Christians could turn in illuminating their psalters and prayer books, but we do have some. Many, particularly older images show Him in armor on the Tree, or at least a helmet. I wonder why when it was the moment of His greatest power but also His greatest self-chosen vulnerability. What does it say about a God who would choose that? I think about all the images I’ve seen of Him on the Tree—does He have both eyes, or has the artist portrayed Him as already having made His offering to the Well? What do I think of that? What does my own experience tell me there about the variations of mythic time?
maybe I cross-reference this with articles or passages about the sacrifice of His eye. Was this presaged by His encounters with specific runes? Had He been trained for this? What about the fact that Mimir is His maternal uncle? That was a powerful role in many cultures including the early Germanic. What do I know of Mimir? What do I know of the wells that sit at the base of the Tree? Are they all one well, or many? Why are they located with the Tree? What does that mean? What came first: offering to the well or offering to the Tree and does it matter?
When I read the line about Him being wounded by His own spear, I think about sitting beneath my tree, the hooks going into my flesh: how that felt, what it did to me, where it allowed me to go. I remember the disorientation of swinging beneath the branches of the tree, watching the world fall away as I was lifted off the ground. What did He see when He rose into its boughs. I recall other experiences with Him in the woods, and the sound of His body falling sharply down through the boughs.
I remember some of His heiti, his praise names, particularly one’s having to do with the Tree. I think about how the Tree is always nourished in blood, and what such an initiation would mean. I think about the runes and why it took this type of ordeal and sacrifice to win them. I might call to mind the rune poems and see how they too are connected to the Old Man. Maybe, if I am in a mood to do so and if, in the flow of my contemplation, it feels correct, I galdr the rune itself with the goal of being given insight into that moment, that time, that experience.
I read and think on Odin, and think about all the parts that went into suspending me in my tree. How was He suspended? Did the Tree itself grasp Him up? Did the branches pierce HIs flesh and hold Him true until He was empty of screaming and could be filled by something else? Or was that process too an ordeal to be surmounted, a tactical challenge to be met?
I might turn to prayers that I have written or collected that tie to that experience in some way, that bring to my heart’s mind and senses, Odin on the Tree. I might say them, and then return to the Edda passage going over those lines again, rooting out connections to other things, all so I can find my way to Him. If emotion comes, I will sit with it and allow it its voice. That too can be a connection to Him.
The passage talks about the roots of the Tree. Images of ancient Trees with huge, gnarled, tangled roots come to mind and I let them. I think about how when I was lowered to the ground again after my ordeal, after however long I hung suspended in the tree, my feet touched the ground and there was relief, release, and pain, such pain as the muscles in my lower back went into full, several days long spasm. (The angle of the body when hanging in the type of suspension is not the best for those with bad backs. I knew this going in). I wonder if it hurt Odin just as much when He was released from the Tree as when He ascended it to be taken up. I think about all the things that can never be remotely comprehended save by initiatory experience and how it breaks one’s world into a before and an after and how there’s never any going back. I wonder what regrets He left at the Tree, or whether He didn’t have them until later, or whether He had them at all. I wonder how He contextualized the experience that of necessity must have changed Him so in its aftermath.
I pray to be opened up to understanding, to greater connection to Him knowing that it will change my life and I contemplate how far I might go in my devotions to ready myself and make this possible. I think about how far He went. I return to some of my personal prayers, that I’ve written for Him at various times as well as my extempore utterances in the moment and I offer these up to Him again, moving away from the Runatal text and back again and again and again.
I happen to have this particular text memorized, which adds another layer to the experience of engaging physically with a written text. The text is already present in my memory, but I involve my sensorium (sight, touch, sound if I choose to read aloud) when I’m looking at a book and that ads another layer of both engagement and meaning. Being a language person with more than a smattering of Old Norse, I might also ponder both meaning and syntax and grammar of the original to see what can be gleaned there. We all bring different experiences and skills to the table in our devotional life and I think it’s good to use what you have to begin these practices.
I could go on from here, line by line with the Edda, or with any other text, but I think the process is relatively clear. The important thing isn’t being well-read in lore, the important thing is to read lore — if it’s a tool you find helpful–always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: veneration of the Gods, developing a devotional relationship with the Gods, calling Them into the seat of the heart, developing greater understanding of that place in which one dances in relationship with Them. If you’re going to use lore, understand that it is not an end in itself. It’s a map and as with any map, there is a goal external to the process.
1. For more discussion of the Protestant attitudes dominant in American secular culture see “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobsen and also “Secularisms” by the same authors. For information on the impact of Vatican II on the devotional life of the Church, and the absence of Mary see “”Missing Mary” by C. Spretnak, “Alone of all Her Sex” by M. Warner, and for the focus of the Protestant Reformation I highly recommend E. Duffy’s “THe Stripping of the Altars.”
2. Guigo II “Ladder of Monks and the Twelve Meditations” Cistercian Press. See also the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, works of John Cassian, Anselm of Canturbury, even Origen if you can stomach it.
3. Praying with Anselm at Admont: A meditation on practice by Rachel Fulton. First published in Speculum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul, 2006), pp. 700-733, published by Medieval Academy of America.
4. Taken from Carolyn Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda.
I was perusing a couple of sites to see if anything of significance happened in WWI or WWII military history today – because I’ve been feeling very aware of my military dead of late—and in my various meanderings through history sites, I came across a reference that on July 25 in 326 C.E. Emperor Constantine formally and publicly refused to perform proper sacrifices to the Pagan Gods and in fact outlawed them. (1) In doing so, he struck at the heart of Roman polytheism and set the stage for the eventual destruction and dismantling of our sacred ways.
It is a day for mourning yes, but also a day for deep reflection. I don’t think the Pagans of Constantine’s time realize what was going on until it was too late (and it is likely sacrifices continued privately) but suddenly time was running out and Rome was on a collision course with monotheistic take over. It really points up how dangerous it is to mix politics and religion too, or to rely on the insight of one man, even a leader who was none too sacral and was far more interested in bolstering his own power and political position than in rightful service to the Gods. Rome as a power was beginning her slow, ugly decline and it must have been a confusing, exciting, and at times terrifying time in which to live. I think it must have been very challenging to know how to move forward in devotion. The idea that one day—a day not too far in the future no less—such devotion might be against the law, temples destroyed or repurposed, and all the generations old adorations to their Gods suddenly fallen silent. I can’t help but wonder what it was like for the devout polytheists who lived through that transition and what it was like after.
Our polytheistic traditions are sacred things, a gift, a sacred trust given into our hands to nourish and protect, and ultimately to pass into the hands of the next generation. I think days like this call us to be mindful of that obligation in our hearts and minds and spirits. To remember that we carry the weight of ancestral obligation, the tears and horror of thousands upon thousands of our polytheistic dead who watched their devotional worlds be torn to shreds, knowing it was far too late (even with the momentarily light that was Julian) to stop it. We can right that wrong. Every time we work at our shrines, or pray, or pour out offerings we are, in some small wyrd way restoring and righting the desecration done. I think it’s important to let that inspire us in this work because it is hard sometimes, challenging, alienating, frustrating but also joyous and satisfying. It’s important to remember that they are in their way handing off the tattered ends of these traditions to us and we can run with that, together, and make those traditions flourish once more.
As I was thinking about this, I can across this site. I don’t know why it came up in my feed and I don’t know the author of the site but I really like this idea and I think I’d like to encourage everyone to do this for August: thirty one days of devotion to one of your Gods. Here are the questions:
1. WriteaA basic introduction of the deity
2. How did you become first aware of this deity?
3. what are some Symbols and icons of this deity
4 .Share a favorite myth or myths of this deity
5. Who are Members of the family – genealogical connections of this Deity.
6. What are some Other related deities and entities associated with this deity
7. Discuss this Deity’s Names and epithets
8 Discuss Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.)
9. what are some Common mistakes about this deity
10 .what are common Offerings – historical and UPG
11 Talk about Festivals, days, and times sacred to this deity
12. What are some Places associated with this deity and their worship
13. What modern cultural issues — if any—are closest to this deity’s heart? (this is a question that i”m not overly thrilled with. It presupposes that the Gods give a rat’s ass about our “cultural issues” but maybe some of Them do and if They don’t, we can talk about that too, always with the caveat that it is insofar as we as individual devotees have sussed out).
14. Has worship of this deity changed in modern times?
15. Are there Any mundane practices that are associated with this deity?
16. How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?
17, How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?
18 How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG) (again, a question about which I could not possibly care less, but I suspect the answers might be interesting).
19. What quality or qualities of this god do you most admire?
20. What quality or qualities of them do you find the most troubling?
21. Share any Art that reminds you of this deity
22. Share any Music that makes you think of this deity
23. Share A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with
24 Share Your own composition – a piece of writing about or for this deity
25 Share A time when this deity has helped you
26 Share A time when this deity has refused to help (i really like this question).
27. How has your relationship with this deity changed over time?
28. what are the Worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered
29. What is Something you wish you knew about this deity but don’t currently
30. do you have Any interesting or unusual UPG to share?
31 Any suggestions for others just starting to learn about this deity?
I’ve done something similar to this for Odin a long time ago, so I’m not yet sure what Deity I’ll talk about come August 1, but I’m thinking about it and very much looking forward to seeing what you, my readers, come up with. (and to the owner of the luxettenebris site: thank you!).
That is all. Let us maintain our devotions staunchly and steadfastly and remember the example of those ancestors who desperately tried too late to do the same.
(another oldie but goodie:)
I recently read an exchange online between a polytheist (what type, I do not know) and a Heathen that to my mind, highlighted what I consider to be the biggest issue in Heathenry. The exchange was a simple one. In the course of the discussion, the Polytheist commented that he was seeing a lot of people talking about human sentiment and human feelings but he didn’t see anyone considering what the gods might want, or what They might feel about the topic at hand, one that had the potential to significantly impact ongoing religious praxis. The Heathen fired back that this errs into the realm of UPG — unverified personal gnosis– and was better left undiscussed.
I could not disagree more strongly. Those are precisely the questions we ought to be asking, ever and always: What do our Gods want. This is where divination comes into play. This is where your mystics and spiritworkers are essential. This is where we are all served by cultivating a strong practice of prayer and discernment. Whenever I hear Heathens disparaging UPG — and this happens quite a bit–I just shake my head. All religion is unverified personal gnosis, if we look at it objectively. Of course community practices evolve out of a need to find some way of approaching and engaging with the sacred as a community. If enough people are having the same experiences then we might get a common range of accepted, mainstream praxis. Those community practices, however, will only ever be the reflection of the lowest common spiritual denominator, those areas of experience where the most number of people can participate with the least effort expended. Personally, I’m deeply ambivalent about this. I’d like to see that bar held higher, but that too comes with its inherent problems not the least of which is alienating a number of otherwise good folk. That being said, personal gnosis is sacred. It’s the fuel that keeps a religion vital and alive, relevant, and sustainable. It reminds us that the point of what we’re doing is right relationship with the Holy Powers. It places Them at the center of the equation, and encourages us to fuel the fires of our own devotion.
I often think that part of the ongoing hostility toward gnosis, i.e. toward direct experience of the sacred unmediated by community ritual, is the mere fact that one person is having experiences that another isn’t. It’s often a matter of ‘you’re doing something I can’t, so you must be wrong, bad, perverse, not Heathen, or [insert epithet here]. It comes down to two equally vexing things: spiritual envy and having one’s personal prejudices and world view challenged. I tend to think that if the latter isn’t happening fairly regularly, then maybe something is amiss with the depth (or lack thereof) of our spiritual praxis; the first however, is one of the most hurtful and destructive spiritual issues that I’ve encountered; and it’s hurtful not for the one being envied, but to the emotional and spiritual integrity of the one consumed by it. Given our Protestant-influenced worldview, it seems that we all too often we ascribe moral superiority to intense gnosis, we impose a hierarchy of value where in fact, none exists. There’s a lovely story told by St. Therese of Lisieux in her autobiography that touches on this. She recounts that as a small child, she asked her sister if God loved saints more than regular people. The sister — in a moment of inspired brilliance–got a wine glass and a thimble and filled them each to capacity and asked the little Therese, ‘which is more full?’. The child got the point that we each experience the sacred to our capacity and “more” is a very subjective matter.
I also believe that part of the aversion is a problem with authority. Someone having direct engagement with the Gods is a danger to human structures of authority. A mystic, a spirit worker, a shaman, even a priest who has a strong devotional life (as all priests should ,but sadly don’t) is a specialist. A specialist is, by experience and training, an authority in his or her field and that is problematic when that field is religion, a field where we’ve been taught to eschew standards in favor of subjectivity. If something is subjective then it doesn’t really lend itself to external evaluation and challenge. Beyond your specialists, someone, — your average jane and joe– having direct engagement with the sacred has the potential to challenge the comfort of our unexamined practices, to argue for piety over dubious ‘progress’, authenticity over personal comfort, and engagement over ego. Those direct experiences upend our value system, the value system of middle working class *Protestant* America, the value system mired in its own lack of vision.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think part of it also comes down to the inherent distrust our modern, post-Reformation world has with the deeply spiritual, particularly when it touches the emotions. Devotion is not only déclassé, but suspicious. We’d rather pathologies it as a culture than accept that the Gods are powerfully real and can and do interact with Their devotees in ways that mirror every bit the mysticism experienced by some of the ancients. Instead, we all too often avoid the experiential, fearing to look foolish, primitive, fearing to make the mainstream uncomfortable and the result is that we cull the depth out of our practices until what is left is at best a shallow shell.
With this restoration, we are charged with resacralizing our world. Personal experience, what Heathens call UPG and what many other religions refer to as mysticism is central to this process. An anti-experiential attitude goes hand in hand with a desire to purge every bit of mystery out of our traditions, to render them as dull, mediocre, and ultimately as shallow as we possibly can, to render them innocuous, to render them profane.(1) It is our mystics who keep the rampant desacralization of our world from devouring the budding flower of our traditions wholesale. It is those who embrace their own potential — however great or small–for experiencing the sacred who hold a line with their very minds, hearts, and spirits against this excision of the sacred.
We need our mystics desperately. We also need those who are not mystics, but who have a deep piety and desire to maintain right relationship with the sacred. We need that tension to force our own evolution and healthy growth. We need our mystics to remind us to keep the Gods central to our praxis, to ask “what do the Gods want here?” and we need our devotees, who may not be having deeply intense religious experiences but who love the Gods and ancestors, to remind us that there’s a human equation too. This organic balance isn’t happening in Heathenry. Instead, the mystics (and I’m using this term broadly as a gloss for those whose praxis is primarily informed by direct experience with the sacred) are marginalized and the human-centric raised up in place of the sacred to the extent that I’ve even seen it posited that the Gods don’t interact with us anymore, that this was something that happened only to our ancestors, long ago and far away.
People who are intent on venerating the Powers and on active, experiential engagement have the potential to be living windows through which the sacred may seep back into our traditions, and ultimately into our world. Not only is it important to ask, as we go about restoring our traditions, what the Gods want, it’s crucial; and if that upends the world of many gnosis-phobic Heathens out there, then so be it.
1. I use the term profane in a similar way to Mircea Eliade: as the mundane balance to the sacred.
(This was initially posted at polytheist.com. I plan to be posting a series of articles on Heathen theology over the next month and I want to start with my older pieces so I’m sharing them here).
What is this thing called Heathenry? What is this body of religions that many of us are trying so avowedly to restore? I suspect if you asked ten Heathens, you’d receive ten different answers but I’m going to explore this question a little bit here, as I see it, because over the twenty – plus years that I’ve been Heathen, my understanding of the nature of these religious traditions has changed dramatically.
Note, by the way, that I try very hard to avoid referring to Heathenry as one religion. I don’t think it is, nor do I think it would have been so during the times of our polytheistic ancestors. Today we talk about religions having different denominations, each with different theological foci; in the past there would have been regional cultus. The way “Heathenry” was practiced would have varied, sometimes quite drastically, from locale to locale with different Gods taking precedence, different social mores, perhaps different ritual structures at the very least. This is a good thing too. It lends color and texture and vibrancy to a tradition. I think that Heathenry then and now is big enough to encompass such dramatic diversity; in fact, I think such diversity to be one of polytheism’s greatest strengths.
It’s also worth pointing out that neither would the word “Heathen” have actually existed as a specific religious identity. We moderns have taken a word that was used as an insult – Hæþen – hearth dweller–in much the same way that modern Pagans seized upon ‘paganus, a, um’ or country dweller.(1) These words weren’t always used in a derogatory fashion. Once they simply meant someone who lived in the country, but with the advent of monotheism, and the advance of Christianity across Europe (which went hand in hand with the scouring and destruction of indigenous traditions), those who had abandoned their ancestral ways for the new religion of Christianity needed a way to diminish and condemn those who held onto their traditional beliefs and so they called them the equivalent of hillbillies or hicks. It was an effective rhetorical weapon for transforming a complex religious tradition into silly, outdated superstition in the minds of the people. It was a means of erasing the power of a generations-old set of practices.
Moreover, until the coming of Christianity, there was no need for people to use any type of name or word for their religious traditions. This was what people did. It was what their parents did, their grandparents, their great grandparents. It was the natural way of being within one’s community and tribe. Differentiation of one’s sacred identity from one’s tribal identity happened only at the hands of the enemy. Today, living in a very different time and place from our polytheistic ancestors, the need for differentiation is a useful (I hesitate to say important, though I think in many ways it is) part of building, repairing, and restoring our traditions. Now, we seize on these terms to tear ourselves away from the dominant religious culture, the Abrahamic faiths, specifically in the US, Christianity. It’s a way of marking our territory and slowly but surely redefining space for these battered traditions to re-emerge. Words of self definition have become a tool, a lever by which the window to restoration might be cracked open just a little bit wider and I find this rather ironic, given how once the very same tool was used to crush our ancestral ways. But I digress.
When I think of Heathenry today, I recognize that I’m engaging with the modern permutations of what were once indigenous traditions. To be indigenous means to be native to a place. When most of us hear that word today, we think (not incorrectly) of First Nations Peoples. Each one of us, however, came from somewhere. If we look far enough back, before Christianity, before monotheism, we each came from a tribe and each tribe had its ways, its beliefs, its practices, the lens through which it engaged with the world. (2) All of those practices and shared worldviews that make up what we would today call “Heathenry” were once part and parcel of the indigenous traditions of numerous peoples occupying what is now Germany, England, Scandinavia, Iceland, and perhaps even parts of Switzerland.(3) The practice of these traditions was rooted in tribal consciousness, and tribal places. You see this with many ancient polytheisms: there was a certain geographic positioning to their praxis. The way a specific Deity was honored might change depending on where that Deity was honored. The way Odin was venerated in what is now England, for instance, was vastly different from the way He was honored in the forests of what is now Bavaria. The land was an important means of translating and ordering praxis for the people.
I personally believe that there is a certain amount of tension and anxiety within contemporary polytheisms in the US, perhaps most especially Heathenry, because we now lack that self-same tie to specific ancestral pieces of land. I have, over the years, come to believe that many of the more fundamentalist expressions of Heathenry have at their root a certain geographic insecurity. Whereas our ancestors’ practices would have developed in relationship with tribal lands, with the land itself an interlocutor for us and our Gods, contemporary Heathenry has developed in the United States, in uncomfortable relationship with US culture, at its heart, a fundamentalist, Protestant Christian culture. Nor do I see a resolution of this tension in the future though I think the key may lie in engaging deeply in ancestor cultus. I think our dead are able to bridge those gaps for us, as they likely did for those of our ancestors who traveled far from their native homes as well. We carry our ancestors with us, after all, bound to us through blood, bone, and DNA. That’s not a connection that can be severed, regardless of whatever other locational disconnect we might experience. Given that our presence in what is now the United States comes with a tremendous blood debt, it’s no wonder that there may be some unconscious and existential anxiety present in rooting our native traditions here.
As we work toward our restoration of our traditions, I think it’s important to keep these things in mind. All of us are coming to this work from modern cultures diametrically opposed to the mindset of our polytheistic ancestors. We have been patterned to respond to the world by means of that modern mindset. Part of that modern contamination is an unconscious positioning of the ins and outs of our ancestral religions as ‘primitive.’ (4) As we work toward restoration, I think we need to be very careful to explore how our culture has taught us to engage with the sacred, to position the holy in our lives, how we’ve been taught to respond to emotional experiences, and the idea that one may directly experience the Gods. It’s all too easy to respond in a way that makes us comfortable (condemning mysticism, fixating on the written word, i.e. the lore, holding to modern gender, racial, sexual orientation biases and so forth) but that would have been quite alien if not in direct opposition to the way our ancestors approached their world and their traditions. It’s all too easy to allow our comfort zones to become what determines overall Heathen praxis instead of having the courage and integrity to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable while at the same time looking past the lens of modernity for the way our ancestors would have actually related not only to their world, but to their Gods as well; and if that sounds like a challenge, it is.
Modernity after all has taught us to be very dismissive and exclusionary to our Gods. This has only been exacerbated by the Academy and social thinkers like Emile Durkheim (perhaps one of the most influential minds to the development of both Sociology and Religious Studies) who defined religion as little more than an expression of the social glue that binds a people together.(5) Religion has come to be viewed through a social lens rather than a devotional or pious one. Yes, religion can serve as the binding force of a community; yes it can bestow tremendous benefit on a community, and yes, religious festivals and observances are a chance for a people to come together in shared experience of the sacred but that is a far different thing from positioning the community at the apex of importance in things religious. This is one of the places where I think modern polytheisms, including Heathenry (perhaps most especially Heathenry) get things really, really wrong. As moderns we betray the authenticity of our traditions in so many ways, but none more egregiously than this.
In my opinion, putting anything but the Gods first in a religious tradition is a betrayal of that tradition, just like we see with the Christian right that pushes a conservative political agenda above the gospel message. That’s not to say that we can’t enjoy socializing and coming together in celebration and sharing our experiences. There is a difference though between focusing on the Gods during religious rituals (and not truncating those rituals so one can get to the socializing faster) and then socializing before or after, and using the time of a ritual as an excuse to socialize. It’s been my experience that little thought is given to what the Gods might want (and yes, one can know…that’s what your spiritworkers, your shamans, your diviners are for). A sense of respect, reverence, and awe for the experience of the holy is not cultivated amongst our folk. Perhaps because large swaths of Heathens (not all but many) look so doggedly toward the lore instead of toward the reality of their own devotional experiences as the be all and end all of their religion, the Gods for far too many seem to remain solely ideas in a handful of medieval tales compiled by a pissy Christian politician who happened to be a poet too and who did not want the poetic metaphors, stories, kennings, and allusions of times past to be lost for up and coming poets of his generation.
I think above all else, it’s important, no matter where we are in our faith: a newcomer, or someone who has put in twenty, thirty, forty years or more, to cultivate a sense of awe and reverence for the Gods, for the sacred, for the interactions that we are in fact able to have with Them. These things should be given priority over the lore because we are not, in fact, religions of the Book. We are religions of lived sacred experience and there is a vast difference in worldview between the two. At the heart of any viable and sustainable restoration must be the reclamation of that ancestral mindset, one that valued (and perhaps feared) the Gods, but never doubted Their presence, or the possibility of Their attentions.
We’ve lost our way in two thousand years of Christian hegemony. We’ve forgotten what it is like to live in sacred trust with our ancestors, our land, and our Holy Powers. The most important facet of restoration that we can do, over and above reconstructing any particular ritual, over and above almost anything else, is to work like hell to restore and relearn *that* once more and the way to doing that is not going to be found in the lore. It’s going to be found in the laughter and tears, the trembling and terror of our own devotional experiences, those moments when we connect in utter vulnerability with our ancestors, and hopefully eventually with our Gods. It’s going to be found when we are able to translate those experiences back into public praxis. The hostility toward the sacred, toward the mystic, toward ecstatic cultus is not something naturally ingrained in Heathenry itself; it’s an offshoot of the poison of our own entrenched modernity, a modernity poisoned by monotheism and a disconnect from our dead.
1. paganus, a, um: of or belonging to the country or two a village. May be used substantively to indicate villagers, peasants. It’s also used as a contrast to military life and in this case may be translated as civilian. See here. The etymology of “heathen” is not too different. A search of several etymological sources noted that it was of Germanic origin (Old English form is hǣthen) and as an adjective meant ‘inhabiting open country.’ Our word ‘hearth’ comes from the same root.
2. Native American activist John Trudell talks about just this thing here.
3. This in no way means that one can only be Heathen if one’s ancestors came from those places. Firstly, the Gods call whom They call; secondly, ancient polytheisms were phenomenally flexible. They by and large lacked the xenophobia that has crept into contemporary reconstructions (a response, I think, to the need to both wrench ourselves free of monotheistic oppression and to differentiate ourselves from various Paganisms and other polytheisms–we lack the regional ties, the binding locus of cultus that would have been integral to polytheisms of the ancient world. Instead we’ve substituted in many cases, a hostility and fear of “dual tradition,” something that would have been incomprehensible to our ancestors). One venerated the Gods of one’s people and ancestors, the Gods of the place where one might live (if that differed from one’s ancestral traditions), the Gods of one’s household (then as now, I’m sure blended households existed–Christianity certainly used this to spread its poison via maternal/wifely influence in mixed marriages), and then the Gods of whatever mystery cultus one might choose to initiate into. It was remarkably polyvalent. To use one’s Heathen identity as an excuse for racism of any kind is not only not supported by the lore so many Heathens love to deify, but goes against any polytheistic notion of piety. It’s a modern misunderstanding of the role of ancestor cultus, a misunderstanding rooted in the fractures, damage, and racism of the modern world.
4. I very much believe this is at the heart of such rabid, raving hostility toward devotional work, Deity possession, God-spousery, and ecstatic ritual of any sort — these things not only challenge the known status quo, but we’ve been taught, by a school system and culture infused with Protestant ethics and white privilege to view anything remotely outré (to Protestant Christianity) as ‘what those superstitious savages do over there.” and we believe at a gut level that we’re better than that. It is a triumph for the Filter that we denigrate and denounce the very medicine we need to do this restoration cleanly.
5. See É. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965 )