After reading my last practicum post, Chase from Nevada asked a really good question and I said I would touch on it here. Chase asked, “Quick question for you regarding the conversion from Christianity to Heathenry: what are some of the key things one is able to do to make that transition a bit smoother?”
This is a great question, but one that doesn’t have a single clear cut answer. Firstly, understand that it is a transition. Conversion is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not a matter of waking up one day deciding that today is the day and from now one you’re Heathen. Even if you are deeply devoted to your new Gods, even if you have committed to practicing your new religion and are doing your absolute best to learn what you need to learn and to root yourself in the practices that will serve you best from the get-go, problems –issues—may still arise. Truly changing everything from one religion to another can take years of careful, mindful work. There’s a deconstruction mentally that has to occur. Give it that time! It’s important to do this carefully and cleanly because it can be a messy and painful process sometimes. Now, this is an intense and weighty topic, too much to cover in one blog post, but I’m going to hit a couple of what I consider to be key points here. There is a good deal of literature on the psychology of conversion and it’s worth checking out. The one thing I would emphasize is this: be certain that you are running to the Gods, not away from the God of your birth religion. That can change everything.
Most importantly, understand –because this can really trip one up unexpectedly—the way we were all taught to see “God,” our expectations of “God,” and of “liturgy” were formed by our birth religion. Moreover, we learned how to be in relationship with our Gods, what it means to be in “right relationship” with the Holy from those self-same birth religions. That may or may not be congruent with what those things mean in Heathenry. This can lead to moments of intense discomfort, unexpected anger, and cognitive disconnect: our ingrained and unexamined expectations aren’t matching up with the reality of our new faith.
There can often be sadness or grief, not just at losing one’s religious community but at the loss of those things familiar and comforting. It’s ok to mourn your birth religion. It’s quite natural, actually and you may find yourself mourning different things at different times. That process isn’t necessarily one that will be completed all at once. You may feel incredible guilt at times, particularly if you converted from an evangelical branch of Christianity. Those fears are normal too. Just sit with it, talk about it with a supportive network of friends, journal, and most of all pray about it. Eventually, you will work your way through.
Also, sometimes there are things that we don’t want to leave behind. Prayer, for instance, doesn’t belong to any religion. Polytheists have always prayed so when people tell you that it’s Christian behavior, you can dismiss them as simply not knowing what they’re talking about. Maybe a particular prayer still resonates – that’s fine. Rework it so you can still use it. Maybe you have a devotional relationship with one of the Gods or Holy Powers of your birth religion. It’s ok to maintain that. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist. In fact, it makes you very surely polytheistic. It can, however be awkward and there are those in our community who may shame you for it and you may end up with conflicting religious requirements that need to be carefully navigated. In those cases, seek out a specialist. Polytheists have done this for millennia.
It’s a sad reality in contemporary polytheism in general and Heathenry in particular that spiritual direction is sadly lacking. This can lead not only to fumbling during dark nights of the soul – which are a perfectly normal part of any healthy spirituality – but also to incredible isolation and loneliness. You may have to struggle to find community but it is out there. The internet has really transformed this and made it much easier to connect with like-minded co-religionists. Don’t let anyone bully you. The most important thing you can do is to take the time to develop a clean devotional relationship with your Gods. That happens through prayer, meditation, offerings, shrine work. Even if you fumble (and you will. We all do.), have courage and do your best to begin some type of consistent practice. I always tell people to “start where you start” because people will struggle inevitably with different things but everyone can do something and then you build on that. New converts often get caught up in one of two things, both of which are terribly damaging to one’s spiritual life: perfectionism (what Christians termed ‘scrupulosity’) and fundamentalism. The first involves becoming obsessed or obsessively worried with getting every little thing perfectly correct and with never making a mistake. You won’t always get things perfectly correct, and you will make mistakes and you have to in order to learn anything. Almost everything else can be sorted out with a diviner or specialist if need be. Scrupulosity can destroy a person. It is right and proper to be concerned about miasma and to approach the Gods reverently but scrupulosity will cause your love and devotion to wither because all you will be worried about is whether or not you are making errata. If this starts to be an issue, change up your practices. Change your routine, your rhythms, even the way you pray. There is a spiritual discipline inherent in carefully training yourself to avoid scrupulosity but to cultivate piety, and it’s something that you can develop over time with practice. The Gods will not hate you when you make honest mistakes. You will not be a bad Heathen.
Many converts also become very fundamentalist in their new religion. They want one way of doing things and it is the only correct way ™ and if you don’t do it that way, you’re wrong/evil/deluded/insert term of choice here. This isn’t a Heathen specific thing, though Gods know we see enough of it within Heathenry (lore thumping anyone? We get a great deal of our converts from Protestant Christianities, especially the evangelical varieties, and this has had a tremendous influence on mainstream Heathen ritual structure and the obsession with lore and having something analogous to scripture.), but common with new converts to any religion. Don’t do this. Polytheism is ontologically different from monotheism. There are so many different ways to honor the Gods within various traditions. While each tradition will have its rules, when it comes to personal devotion, and what we call “hearth cultus,” or household worship, it is as manifold and varied as there are Gods and ancestors.
One thing that converts should be aware of is possible hostility and pressure from families. I have found that parents and relatives can take it very personally when a child converts. I can understand this. Were I a parent, I wouldn’t take it well should my child convert away from polytheism. It strikes at core values and there can be a deep concern for the well-being of the child. I have no answers on how to deal with this. Truthfully, each situation is different, but just be aware that it can become an issue. It helps to be mentally prepared.
Far more difficult are the tensions that can arise when one converts as a married adult, particularly if there are children involved. I think that it is crucial that we raise our children as polytheists, but if you are married to a non-polytheist and then convert, this may create significant problems. Hell, even converting may be an issue depending on the religious persuasion of your spouse. You’ll need to figure out your priorities and what you can compromise on and what you absolutely will not. This can destroy marriages, I won’t lie. It doesn’t have to though, because polytheism can encompass Christian (or other) cultus. It cannot, however, encompass monotheistic exclusivist claims and that is usually where the problems arise. If custody becomes an issue, get a damned good lawyer because it is almost inevitable that your new religion will become an issue. We shouldn’t have to fight these battles in 2020 but they’re hardly the only battle we still have to fight. Again, be prepared. This may seem harsh, but that is not my intention. I am trying here to be as realistic as possible.
Finally, converting is not just a matter of replacing one God or no Gods with many. It involves a total shift in worldview, in values, ethics, and in one’s way of being in the world. It is often quite a cognitive shock to realize for the first time the degree to which one’s polytheism is incompatible with the values of the modern (or post-modern) world. Realizing that we live in a “world full of Gods” as the philosopher Thales wrote, changes everything. It eventually transforms our values, our priorities, and the way that we ourselves choose to be in the world. Like coming out of Plato’s cave, there’s no going back to the state one was in before, and that can be very uncomfortable. One area where I have seen people really struggle is understanding that morality/ethics and religion were not yoked in ancient polytheisms. This is a really big issue. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) draw their morality from their religion, specifically their holy books. This is not the case in polytheism. The position of religion is very different. Here’s how it breaks down:
- Religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers (Gods, ancestors, spirits).
- Philosophy, custom, culture, and civic engagement were ways of developing virtue, morality, and an ethical sense.
- Soteriological concerns fell under the warrant of various mystery cultus.
Abrahamic traditions tend to roll all those things into one (I’m not sure why. I’ve never thought about it from their perspective). We do not. Religion is restricted to the Gods, the Holy, the Powers. So, when we have sacred stories that present the Gods in ways we find less than stellar, they’re not meant to be read as literal necessarily, and they’re not meant to serve as the Ten Commandments or a similar ethical guide. They are meant instead to give us windows into the Mysteries of a specific Holy Power. They can be read in multiple ways, but their purpose was never to teach ethics or virtue. That’s what philosophy was for.
So, when you run across people who say “I would never worship a God who does X.” or “If my God told me to do X I would cease worshipping Him” you know you’re dealing with someone who has no idea of how to engage with the Holy Powers, and certainly no idea of how to engage with surviving lore. Instead of squawking like rabid marmots about how the Gods don’t live up to our standards, we should instead be concerned with venerating Them. It is for us to live up to Their standards not the other way around, because whatever standards They have are not necessarily presented through the cosmological stories, but rather through the intricacies of personal engagement via devotion (also because we are not ontologically on the same level as the Gods and our purpose is Their veneration). We are tasked with undoing two thousand years of terrible propaganda directed toward polytheism, starting with dubious claims that our Gods lack virtue, claims that were made precisely because of our cosmological stories (1).
Finally, (for real this time), it can take a while to learn to be proudly polytheistic. That’s ok. If you have moments of doubt, it doesn’t make you a bad polytheist, a bad Heathen, a bad [insert polytheistic tradition here], it makes you human. If you sometimes find yourself feeling awkward when talking with relatives or colleagues and slip and use the singular when referring to the Gods, that’s ok. Note it and do better next time (if it is safe for you to do so). I find that there can be terrible pressure to hide one’s polytheism, curbing our language to reflect monotheistic mores and/or to make those around us who are not polytheist comfortable. I think it is beneficial to train yourself out of this. They will not curb their monotheistic language for you and really, neither side should have to do so. Our religious reality is different from that of a monotheistic interlocutor and that’s ok. If they are not big enough to handle that, such a thing is on them. Of course, I have flat out been asked, “You are so educated…do you really believe in Gods?” I’ve taken to responding, “Of course. It is because I am educated that I believe in Them.” This is facile though – yes, it is the most sensible thing in the world to recognize the Holy Powers, but …it is simply reality and a reality that will not be denied. Falling into linguistic patterns or marking yourself as a polytheist publicly in other ways may feel awkward at first, especially if you don’t have a support network of co-religionists, but it’s never good to pretend to be something or someone that you are not (2).
There is so much more that I could discuss about this topic, but these are just a few key points that I think particularly relevant. Also, if you have just converted: welcome. This is a glorious time to be a polytheist.
- While examples abound in early Christian writing, a brief perusal of Augustine’s De civitate dei (City of God) will provide plenty examples of this. It’s filled with purposeful misrepresentation of indigenous polytheisms and co-opting of Neo-Platonism to some degree, something that Christians continued doing well into the modern period. Augustine really set the stage for later scholastic appropriation of ancient philosophy.
- Take the time to develop a support network, of polytheists if you can, but at least of supportive, understanding friends. It is a godsend, as friends always are, and can do wonders in helping you through the rough times spiritually.
Trolling around the web the other day (one link leading to another link), I saw a question from a new Heathen: why don’t we treat the Eddas like sacred scripture. Surely, this person opined, it would give us added legitimacy amongst other religions as we worked to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Yes, that was literally what this person was saying. It’s actually a good question on several fronts and one I want to take the time to answer here as part of my practicum series.
Firstly, we are not trying to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Frankly, I think we’re far better than they because we’re polytheistic and we are in the process of restoring the ancient contracts with Gods, ancestors, and land that those religions shattered. Also, it’s not a competition. Some people will be legitimately called by those Deities. That’s fine. We need to do us, and worry about restoring our traditions with integrity instead of competing with religions that have almost zero resemblance to our worldview and way of doing things. Those religions are utterly irrelevant to us and to our praxis.
Secondly, why assume that we need scriptures? That’s not the way our tradition works. Our ethical code is drawn from our community and culture. We don’t need it ensconced in a religious text. That’s not, in most polytheisms, what religion is for (1). Nor is such a text necessary for transmission of our traditions. That happens inter-generationally through being surrounded by reverent people and seeing right relationship with the Powers demonstrated and encouraged every day (2).
Heathenry was an oral tradition. It was passed from mother to child, father to child, community to child through active practice and household cultus. Writing something down, relying on written texts as the main archive of one’s tradition creates a very different environment than the fluidity of orality. A tradition dependent on written texts is one that has closed the door to revelation and theophany. Oral traditions, because change and transition is ensconced in the very process of orality, have loopholes that render them flexible, vibrant, living.
Finally, the Eddas are not religious texts. They were not written to be religious texts. They were not even written by Heathens. The Poetic and Prose Edda and anything else written by Snorri Sturluson, were written by a Christian poet and politician to help younger writers comprehend the pre-Christian stories and kennings that filled their literature. Apparently, poets of Snorri’s time were forgetting these things because those poets were largely Christian. They are not sacred texts. They may contain windows to the holy, but they themselves are not holy. That’s an important distinction (3). These texts are highly mediated. They’re filled with elements that better reflect Christianity than Heathenry. We can draw inspiration from the stories therein but to enshrine such a text as scripture is to allow that text to limit and define one’s religious life.
I think new converts have to be careful not to cling to worldviews and ways of doing things that do not reflect our ancestral traditions. We get a lot of converts from Protestant religions and Protestantism is very focused around lectio divina and the study of sacred scriptures. There’s nothing wrong with that (and knowing how to engage with a close reading of our sacred stories is very useful but taking it to the extreme of elevating those texts as ‘scripture’ twists the Heathen worldview far out of true) but it doesn’t reflect Heathenry and leads, when such a thing is given normative power within a tradition, to a very different place than where our ancestral Worldview would rightly lead.
The Eddas are useful tools, but let’s not make them more than that. We’re not reinventing Protestantism after all; we’re returning to and restoring our ancestral traditions and our ancestors did not need scripture to venerate the Gods and see Their works throughout the world. We need to be smart enough not to cut ourselves off that way.
- In most polytheistic cultures, religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy, philosophy is where one learns to cultivate virtue and become a decent human being, also civics, and then soteriological questions are answered by mystery cultus.
- I remember a couple of years ago talking with a theology colleague who was stunned when I said we don’t have scripture (not like the Abrahamic traditions). He couldn’t grasp it and asked, ‘how do you pass your religion on to your children?’ It was a good question and I’m glad he asked and I explained how polytheisms work, about hearth cultus, the role of a pious community and tribe, etc.
- I think the stories of our Gods are sacred but they’re not ‘scripture.’ They are not unchanging revelation upon which a tradition is based. Quite the opposite given that there were multiple regional differences in cosmology, stories, and approach.
(I posted this today on my facebook and I was surprised at the response–this is apparently information that people do not have. So, if this helps folks, especially those new to our community, I am very glad).
My husband was manning the horn during our Solstice ritual and was a little confused about how to clean it afterwards. It occurred to me that he’s not the only person in our religious communities who might have this question so I figured, as a change from bitching about politics (I do this a lot on fb lol), I’d talk about that for a moment.
Those who practice Heathenry often utilize drinking horns in their rituals. The horn symbolizes the well of Wyrd, fate, and memory so any prayers or oaths taken over it have particular sacral power. In some denominations (particularly Theodism), only women may bear the horn around the gathered community but our household’s tradition does not hold with that, and having a priest and orpheoteleste of Dionysos carrying the horn (which is almost always filled with alcohol for rituals) seemed fitting — far more than having me do it while trying to juggle two shaman’s drums, or our Freya’s woman who was leading the rite.
Most horns are made of some type of bovine horn that has been cleaned and either lacquered or covered with wax inside. I own several, with museum quality carvings and semi-precious stone inlay. I also have at least one that has just been engraved with a bit of color added, and one with brass design around the mouth and tip. styles vary and some horns are just plain with only the inside having been fiddled with. Regardless, they do need a bit of care (1).
So here you go: rinse out the inside with tepid to lightly warm water. If it’s lacquered, you can use serious dish soap and a cleaning brush. If not, be careful. Do not let the horn sit after rituals. Do this immediately. Take care of your tools. With a slightly wet towel or sponge, wipe down any mess on the outside of the horn (drinking from a horn is tricky. ha ha. it’s almost a rite of social initiation for a newcomer to Heathenry to do it incorrectly and end up with a face full of mead. We’ve all been there. lol). Let it dry. Take a bit of food grade mineral oil on a soft cloth and wipe down the outside, every nook and cranny. Let that dry. (This is the same way, by the way, that I care for ritual offering bowls if they’re made of wood). Store your horn in a safe, dry place (mine live on two different shrines).
That’s it – easy, peasy. Do NOT run them through the dishwasher. Do NOT let crud accrue in them. Do NOT use abrasive chemicals to clean them. Treat your tools with the respect they deserve and they will serve you well all your working life — this is especially so with horns that are nearly objet d’arts.
(a close up of my Idunna horn, crafted by Shrewood)
- The only difference between sealing the inside of a horn with a lacquer of some sort versus wax is that with the latter hot liquids cannot be used in the horn (they’ll melt the wax). Honestly though, in the thirty years I’ve been Heathen, I cannot think of a single time that I have used a hot drink in a horn. I guess i must have with either wassail or spiced wine –I probably didn’t think about it because most of my horns are lacquered. If your horn is sealed with wax, and you want to use something like Gluhwein in it, just use a glass or cup instead. I think our ancestors were practical and there’s no harm in substituting a glass. I even have a couple of glass horns that I inherited. If you haven’t found the right horn yet, or you can’t afford one at the moment, it’s perfectly ok to use a glass or cup as a stand in and then during the ritual it serves the same sacral function.
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
The second edition of Sigyn: Our Lady of the Staying Power, now through Sanngetall Press, is available as of today on amazon.
This volume has some minor changes from its original iteration. I have removed a bit of material, and I have added several prayers that I’ve written over the last couple of years. It obviously has a new cover design too (I absolutely adored the original cover, make no mistake, but a new edition with revisions needed a new cover). It was a pleasure revisiting this text, and all the things large and small that brought Sigyn into my devotional life.
More updates and new editions will be forthcoming over the summer and early autumn. Stay tuned for those and more.
Dagulf Loptson‘s latest book, a devotional to the Norse God Loki is now available and comes Highly Recommended.
Pagan Portals–Loki: Trickster and Transformer
Loki Laufeyjarson is the famous trickster of Norse Mythology, who brings its pages to life with conflict, humor, and excitement. Far from being just a villain or a prankster, Loki is a god who brings necessary change into the world, transcends boundaries, and shines light on hidden truth. In this book, you will be introduced to Loki and the many masks he wears: whether he appears as the bringer of enlightenment, the traveling companion of the gods, or the ender of worlds. This is also an accessible guide to building a devotional practice with the trickster, where you will learn new ways to honor this often misunderstood deity. Open the door to Loki’s mysteries, and prepare to laugh, be challenged, and potentially change your life.
Buy Now on Amazon
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
I have several book titles that have now been retired, this means they are officially out of print, and any product at retailers is being sold from any remaining inventory they have, or they are re-selling used product. If you want these books, and do not have them, you better pick them up them sooner, rather than later.
OUT OF PRINT
- Day Star and Whirling Wheel: Honoring the Sun and the Moon in the Northern Tradition
- Essays in Modern Heathenry
- Full Fathom Five:Honoring the Norse Gods and Goddesses of the Sea
- Into the Great Below: A devotional to Inanna and Ereshkigal
- Root, Stone and Bone: Honoring Andvari and the Vaettir of Money
- Sekhmet: When the Lion Roars
- Sigdrifa’s Prayer: An Explanation and Exegesis
- Sigyn: Lady of the Staying Power
- Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology for Idunna and Bragi
- Walking Toward Yggdrasil
- Whisperings of Woden: Nine Nights of Devotional Practice
In the case of both Whisperings of Woden and Walking Toward Yggdrasil, this content is also included with additional material in my book He is Frenzy: Collected Writings on Odin, however the German language content of Walking Toward Yggdrasil is not present in any other form.
Root, Stone and Bone, as well as Sigdrifa’s Prayer will be re-printed in a new edition.
[Updated for clarity] Excerpts of content from the other retired books may eventually be seen in other works, but if you want to enjoy the retired works’ complete content, these out of print books will be the only way to grab them.
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the interaction of our Gods with the land. Regional cultus is a thing, and the way that a particular Deity manifests Him or Herself in a small village in Norway maybe completely different from how that same Deity manifests in an Appalachian hollow and different again from the open, eerie spaces of the old American West. I never really thought about this with Odin until today when my husband put on the Gambler, by Kenny Rogers (may he rest in peace). I listened to the song and commented that there was something very Odinic about it, which prompted a whole discussion about Odin’s affinity for the old West. I think it’s a unique path of the Old Man, one that is clever, lucky, and brutal.
This of course got us musing on Country and Western and Bluegrass music. The heroes of each, the harmonics, the tonal cadences are completely different. You’d never find a character like the Gambler being lauded in a Bluegrass piece, for instance. That music is connected to land and kin in a way that the Western part of country and Western simply is not. I think the luck working, the wanderlust, and all that the West represented to the people that settled it, many from German and English heritage, with His presence embedded in their songs and folktales, a shadow, a haint, a haunt, a glory, opened the door for this God to come through in an unique way. It’s one with which I’m just starting to connect.
To help, Sannion made me a play list of music and I share that with y’all now. Click here to listen.
(image by W. McMillan)
One of my publishers, Red Wheel / Weiser Books is having a sale of 30% off their entire inventory, plus free shipping for those in the continental United States. So for those who like a deal and who have been waiting to pick up Living Runes, or a Modern Guide to Heathenry, now is your time to act and increase your book hoard. Better act fast if you’re interested, the deal expires on April 14, 2020.
I recently signed a petition, and urge you to do the same. The issue: trademark protection of the word “Heathen”. I’ve seen how luxury brand Hermès has used their trademark to go after religious items for Hellenics and their God Hermes. We have a chance to try to save the Heathen term.
“Dave Lancaster owns a company called Heathen Productions which produces a t-shirt line known as Heathen Nation, who holds a Trademark on the word Heathen. His company has been serving vendors, crafters and merchants who even so much as use the word Heathen in their description box for their product with take down orders and threatening legal action if they do not comply. He is not a Heathen himself but he is affecting the livelihood of many Heathens just trying to support their families and or kindreds.”
You can sign the petition here: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/heathens-vs-heathen-nation
To my British fans, today (January 25, 2020) is the UK release of A Modern Guide to Heathenry: Lore, Celebrations & Mysteries of the Northern Tradition from my publisher Red Wheel / Weiser Books! Some of you were impatient and imported the book already, for the rest of you, happy book release day!
The book takes what I created in Exploring the Northern Tradition: A Guide to the Gods, Lore, Rites, and Celebrations from the Norse, German, and Anglo-Saxon Traditions (2005) as a foundation and significantly expands upon it with more than 70,000 words of new material especially on devotional work, honoring the ancestors, and theological exegesis. It’s basically twice the word heft of its predecessor!
What the Back Copy Says:
An accessible yet in-depth guide to this increasingly popular pre-Christian religious tradition of Northern Europe
Heathenry, is one of the fastest growing polytheistic religious movements in the United States today. This book explores the cosmology, values, ethics, and rituals practiced by modern heathens.
In A Modern Guide to Heathenry readers will have the opportunity to explore the sacred stories of the various heathen gods like Odin, Frigga, Freya, and Thor and will be granted a look into the devotional practices of modern votaries. Blóts, the most common devotional rites, are examined in rich detail with examples given for personal use. Additionally, readers are introduced to the concept of wyrd, or fate, so integral to the heathen worldview.
Unlike many books on heathenry, this one is not denomination-specific, nor does it seek to overwhelm the reader with unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon or Norse terminology. For Pagans who wish to learn more about the Norse deities or those who are new to heathenry or who are simply interested in learning about this unique religion, A Modern Guide to Heathenry is the perfect introduction. Those who wish to deepen their own devotional practice will find this book helpful in their own work as well.
Available For Purchase from these and other booksellers