Book Review: Asatru: A Beginner’s Guide to the Heathen Path by Erin Lale
Asatru: A Beginner’s Guide to the Heathen Path by Erin Lale, Weiser Books, 2020.
[Disclaimer: the author requested that I review this book and very kindly sent me a hard copy thereof. Also, while I am Heathen, I would not consider myself Asatru, though most of us got our start in that denomination and it remains one of the largest in the US. *whew* Disclaimers over, let’s get down to business!]
Before even opening the book, my impression is of a portable, easily accessible book geared for those new to Heathenry, and perhaps even completely unfamiliar with what this religion is all about. I do tend to dislike (intensely) the term “Path” for a religious tradition or denomination, but – and please note this, dear readers—authors rarely if ever get to choose the titles of their books when working with larger publishing houses. The title likewise has the advantage in this case of making the book seem accessible to folks from all different traditions, even those who don’t want to become Heathen but just want to learn a little about it. Now, aesthetics aside, let’s delve into the content.
The book is comprised of a brief introduction, and seven chapters concluding with a short list of (somewhat dated) resources for those who would learn more. There was good, there was bad (or at least somewhat problematic) but there was nothing really ugly. I can recommend this book as a relatively painless and very approachable introduction to a heavily universalist flavored American Asatru (1). I think the author has a definite skill at distilling complicated ideas into very simple, yet thought-provoking equations and this works very well in a beginner’s guide. There’s enough to whet the reader’s appetite and provide the important facts—though it should be noted, many historical claims are made with absolutely no citation (there are no foot or end notes in the text at all)– but also just enough to encourage further exploration and study. Moreover, throughout, Lale makes room – or attempts to do so and for the most part succeeds– for other denominations, flavors, and approaches to both Heathenry as a whole and Asatru in general.
There are numerous historical … not outright inaccuracies, but a smoothing over of the complications and nuance, starting right in the introduction with the etymology of “Heathen.” In some case (as with her discussion of transgender issues and ergi) historical reality is stretched to the breaking point to present Heathenry as a completely inclusive tradition. There is simply no substantial evidence that individuals whom we would today term transgender were socially “well accepted” outside of specific religious roles (and sometimes not even then). That doesn’t mean that Heathenry today can’t re-evaluate this, but the culture of the Viking era was different from our own. It does no good to occlude history to make modern Heathenry seem more welcoming to various groups than it, in reality, is. It’s just wrong and potentially misleading historically. This is one of the areas where I found the contemporary political world seeping into the book- in a very well-meaning way. Overall, however, the author consciously works hard for objectivity. I will say she does a very good job distinguishing between examples of ritual transvestitism in the lore versus what today we’d call transgenderism.
She rightly notes very early on that there are other Heathen religions than Asatru – I would clarify this by saying “denominations” rather than religions, because they are largely dealing with the same pantheon and families of the Gods, though each denomination might choose to emphasize different deities within those divine families. I was pleasantly surprised to see Urglaawe, a Pennsylvania Deitsch Heathen tradition mentioned. Lale also notes that Heathenry is related to Celtic polytheisms, Druidry, and even Slavic polytheisms – and this is true, because people travelled and shared their faith, intermarried, traded, etc. It’s something that I don’t think we pay enough attention to in general: our ancestors communicated, traveled, traded, shared their ways, and interacted with the communities around them, especially in matters of religion. Her definition of Asatru as a new religion (restored/reconstructed rather than existing in an unbroken line from pre-Christian times) and a folk religion (no centralized authority) is likewise a very important point, and she foregrounds her information in a way both clear and simple. She is very gentle in emphasizing that Asatru and Heathenry in general are not connected to Wicca and also that “Pagan” is not a term appreciated by all Heathen practitioners. Every religion has its internal politics and Lale does a very good job of giving the bare bones information necessary for newcomers without overwhelming them.
One thing I would note, and it is here that I disagree with Lale strongly. She makes space in her definition of Asatru for those who aren’t polytheist and who don’t believe in the Gods. I don’t consider these people Heathen in any sense of the word, nor welcome in our communities. Sadly, she had no choice but to note that there are plenty of Asatruar who see the Gods as personifications of nature, some who see Them as archetypes, and some who are even essentially monotheist or atheist. It’s the unfortunate reality of our Heathen world today. I look at her very careful description (which is accurate for how the community is; in fact, I think she is far more optimistic in her description than I might be) as an encouragement to do better within our various communities. Where we differ is that she notes on p. xxi that “you can regard the gods as archetypes if you choose, as long as you act honorably.” I would say sure, but if that’s your view of the Gods, you’re not Heathen or a practitioner of Asatru. This is a hard line in the community and the intro alone and Lale’s willingness to include these people in the Heathen umbrella marks this book as decidedly universalist. (I would add that it’s the mark of a good clergy person to help educate newcomers out of these misguided ideas, but clergy and spiritual direction are not mentioned in the intro nor indeed very much in the book at all, but one must keep in mind that it is an introduction, a place for a newcomer to begin).
She notes that we honor land spirits (vaettir) as well as Gods but does not note anything of significance on ancestor veneration. This is a serious lacuna; however, I was very glad to see that she addressed the question very early on (p. xiii) about race and whiteness in Asatru. She very clearly states that one does not have to be white to practice Heathenry and this is absolutely 110% true. She also gives a very balanced and unbiased definition of “universalist” versus “Folkish” and includes “tribalist” as a midway point between the two. This was very well done and yet articulated simply enough that someone completely unfamiliar with our traditions could pick up the book and understand the major denominational divisions right there.
I was also very pleased and surprised to find an acceptance of blended traditions. This is good and something that you just wouldn’t have seen openly accepted even twenty years ago. Yet, it’s precisely how traditional polytheisms worked. She even notes that while Asatru is not an initiatory tradition, there are initiatory traditions within Heathenry. She attempts to briefly address the question of theodicy (why does evil happen) in the intro. This is a turn toward one of the most important questions in theology (I don’t think I can call to mind a question within the discipline of theology upon which more ink has been spilt) and I think the paragraph she devotes to this represents a step forward in Heathenry as a whole. The communities are slowly starting to orient themselves toward asking theological questions and this is a huge step forward, well reflected, if in brief, in Lale’s introduction. I would also note that this is a perfect book for young people who may have become Heathen to give to their parents, to (as Lale notes at the end of her intro) begin the discussion on what their religion is about.
Chapter 1 gives a brief recounting of our creation story and ties that into Indo-European themes and structures, noting commonalities with other IE traditions. She discusses Roman interaction with the Germanic tribes, the interpretatio romana, the gothic conquest of Rome and the sad conversion of Europe to Christianity. As an historical theologian specializing in early Christianity, I had to chuckle at her rather positive presentation of the Arian Heresy on p.5 (2). Lale likewise accurately notes that during the 1930s, Heathens were rounded up and killed as “politicals,” and compares the Nazi response to Heathenry as an “SS driven witch hunt”. (I’ve written about this as well in my book here, which came out of my first MA thesis in 2009 and I’ve only very rarely seen other Heathen authors mention that Heathens were persecuted during the third Reich). It was refreshing to see this included as a point of fact. I think it is of utmost importance to emphasize, as Lale does quite well, that Hitler was NOT Heathen. He was Christian and while he might appropriate the trappings of Heathenry like the runes, he had no use for actual practitioners and sent them off to the camps without hesitation. Lale also gives a nice account of the fight American Heathens had with the US military, which used to forbid Heathen religious tattoos, the wearing of our most universal symbol of our religion (Thor’s hammer), or having our religion noted on dog tags and gravestones. She also has very interesting things to say about the potential Nazi origins of the movement against Loki in modern Heathenry, describing it as a modern iteration of the ideas of SS. General Karl von Wiligut – who considered Odin satanic and spurred the SS hunt for Heathens (p. 9, 14). She says that modern “NOkeans” are just putting Loki in place of Odin in Wiligut’s equation and makes a good case for this too. All in all, the intro, while there may be some ideas with which I disagree, is a very nice, approachable description of the evolution of modern Heathenry. It gives just enough detail to educate without overwhelming the newcomer.
Chapter two gives an alphabetical index of the Gods and Goddesses, including lesser-known ones like the Frisian battle goddess Baduhenna, and the Alcis twins. I was particularly pleased to see Narvi and Vali, the children of Loki and Sigyn included, and Sigyn Herself. They are often excluded from God lists in many modern books. I did not appreciate later in the book, Nerthus and Njord being equated as one Deity, but this is an early academic theory that unfortunately has found its way into certain corners of our traditions.
Chapter three discusses the other Beings honored within Heathenry, like Disir, our mighty female ancestors. This is where I fault the book heavily. There is no serious discussion about the importance of ancestor veneration to Heathenry, and it is crucially important in nearly every extant polytheism, certainly every branch of Heathenry. This is a significant flaw. As far as Heathenry goes, we have more information about ancestor veneration and the veneration of landvaettir than we do the Gods in many cases, so for those who are going solely by historical reconstruction (which, despite Lale’s more inclusive and modernist take, the majority of Asatruar still are) that needs to be included. More than any other criticism of this book, this is the one thing that is seriously lacking and needs to be considered when or if recommending it.
Chapter four: “beliefs and morality” is likewise somewhat problematic. The whole question of morality is so much more complicated and nuanced than the author presents. She does do a good job of pointing out (p.51) that the mythologies are about religious mysteries, ways to draw closer to the Gods rather than literal renditions of how the world began. This is so incredibly important and I’m glad she included this point. It is the beginning of reading theologically, something that is still difficult for our communities to fully embrace. What she terms “relative morality” however (p. 58) I think would be better termed “tribal morality.” Our heathen ancestors drew their morality from their cultures and societies. Lale is correct that a moral good was something that benefited society as a whole but again, the question of how one gets from point A to point B is more complicated and there’s no intensive theological exploration to bridge the gap (granted, this is a very brief beginner’s guide, so perhaps this can be forgiven). Instead, she explores modern political issues: abortion, animal rights, capital punishment, circumcision, LBGTQIA issues (though she uses the term QUILTBAG people for LGBTQIA folks, which I find quite charming), marriage/love/sex, gun rights and so forth, giving a couple of paragraphs offering suggestions for how pre-Christian Heathen societies might have viewed these things while always noting that modern Heathens are free religiously to develop their own position. The problem here is A) the very issues she includes give this work a political slant and were there an equal amount of material on the ins and outs of devotion that might not matter, but as the book stands, I think it does a disservice; B) it would have been a stronger work had the question of how one develops a moral framework been addressed without tying it to specific issues (even though I may agree with many of her positions on these issues!), C) historical claims are made without citations and as someone trained in both medieval history and historical theology, many of those claims are…stretching it at best, and at least in the marriage section and the LGBTQ section, flat out incorrect at worst (3). I understand that the author is trying to show that heathenry can be and is for the most part inclusive, but without a way to track and thus verify her historical information, it’s impossible for the average reader to figure out where she’s stretching historical reality to make a point about inclusive Heathenry today. Also, in the section on animal rights, Lale writes as though animal sacrifice is a thing of the past. Many contemporary Heathen and Asatru groups consider this the highest sacrament of our traditions. There are those trained as blót priests today and it is in no way a ritual relegated to the past, though many groups do not have anyone properly trained, or choose not to incorporate it into their rites.
The final chapters are rituals, holiday calendar, and the three kinds of magic. I think a section on devotion, building and maintaining a personal shrine, and ancestor veneration would have been far more useful than simple scripted ritual scaffoldings. It’s a big lacuna in the book: how to do devotion. There’s nothing substantial about how to start personal devotion. As to magic, not only are there more than three kinds of magic in the northern traditions, but why include it in a beginner’s book, especially one that ignores ancestor work and devotional practice? It doesn’t really need to be included in a beginner’s book at all. No newcomer needs to muck around with magic, runes, seiðr, and the like, all of which are specialist foci, before he or she even knows the names of the Gods. A section on prayer would have been far more helpful, since so many people today have no idea how to do that (something I found shocking but true in my teaching). The section on holidays was somewhat interesting in that it discussed movable versus fixed feast days, and gave a rather nice listing of the latter, noting the geographical areas in which each rite originated.
Now, it may sound as though I didn’t like the book. That’s not the case. It’s a very clear introduction but, there are lacuna and those need to be mentioned because while this might be the book I’d give someone who knew nothing about Heathenry, or to make Heathenry seem approachable and safe to parents, spouses, etc. when one converts, actual day to day, long-term practice is going to require more. It reminds me a bit -in tone and accessibility– of Cunningham’s The Truth about Witchcraft Today.
I recommend it, but with the above caveats.
- I don’t say this as a negative or positive, simply as an observation because in all fairness, I have to note that the Asatru this book presents bears little resemblance to the Asatru I first encountered in the nineties when I converted. Lale purposely presents the most positive and inclusive version of this community possible and stretches perhaps its openness particularly in areas of gender roles, extra-marital promiscuity, and transgender issues far out of what any average Heathen group would consider the norm. I get it. In some respects, we write the community we want into existence, shifting the ideological center as we go.
- Lale writes about the Goths “They believed in what the Catholic Church called the Arian Heresy, which, like the paganism of their ancestors, said there was no intercessor between man and God.” I should note that the split between Orthodox and Catholic churches did not happen until the eleventh century (though we can see the beginnings of the rift as far back as the 325 C.E. Council of Nicaea, and definitely with the 451 C.E. Council of Chalcedon). The use of “Catholic” to refer to the Church here may be read as ‘universal’, not Roman Catholic unless it was an unintentional anachronism. With respect to the Arian Heresy, Arians denied in large part the divinity of Christ, which had significant repercussion to any incarnational theology and thus to the Christian salvific economy. For an Arian, there was a time when Christ did not exist. He was created by God the Father. For a catholic Christian who held to Nicaean orthodoxy, there was never a time where Christ did not exist. He was co-eternal and con-substantial with God the Father. Arianism was actually one of the factors in the 1054 split between the churches of Constantinople and Rome due to the Latin insertion of one small word to the Creed to emphasize trinitarianism: filioque (and from the son) referring to the processing of the Holy Spirit. Arianism had nothing to do with God and man and any intercessor. It had everything to do with pondering the question of how a God could suffer and die without impacting the ultimate omnipotence (a given even for early Christians) of their Father God.
- I have never encountered so much focus on hair and beards in Heathenry as in this book. There is no religious mandate in Heathenry *at all* to have long hair for women or beards for men. Historically, as Lale does discuss, short hair had certain social meanings within certain tribes at certain historical points but at no time in the modern community (save perhaps Theodism) have I see any expectation at the level of religious obligation to have a beard or long hair, certainly nothing approaching that of Sikhism to which Lale compares Asatru. I do appreciate that she notes that this is not common to all denominations, but she equates not holding to this hair/beard aesthetic as something only done by modernist Heathens, and that’s just not accurate to contemporary Heathenry of which Asatru is a part. I should also note that she says clergy devoted to the healing Goddess Eir are necessarily pacifists. No, they are not. There is nothing in the lore to indicate that; in fact, quite the opposite given that there is a reference in the Eddas to Eir riding with the Valkyries and choosing the slain. Now Eir’s name means “mercy,” but death can be a powerful mercy on the battlefield.
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