Building a Better Heathenry
(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 It was an effective rhetorical weapon for transforming a complex religious tradition into silly, outdated superstition in the minds of the people.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 )