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.
(Most of this is drawn from a conversation I’m having with several other spirit-workers and NT shamans. We’ve been discussing and exploring our cosmology, specifically the Norse creation story. I write a bit about that here and this delves a bit deeper into some of the ideas expressed in that piece. This is speculative, posted mostly to give myself a record of my thoughts).
|I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize the importance of our cosmogony. I think any understanding of the way Heathenry and the Northern Tradition works must start with an exploration and understanding of our cosmogony, because that is the lens through which we are expected to engage with the world, relationships, and everything in between. I’ve occasionally seen the primal Gap (Ginnungagap) described as a ‘womb’ but I really do not like the image of a ‘womb’ for the Gap. It’s too much a gendered term. The Gap is a crucible and for many reasons that I’ll be discussing here, precedes any idea of gender.
Likewise with the runes: one often ascribes gender to them (and they can in fact present as gendered) but I think it’s perhaps a mistake to assume that any gendered presentation represents the actual nature of the rune itself, and for many of the same reasons as with the Gap.
I’ll start with the runes because in many ways, they’re easier to touch on than our cosmogony. From my experience, some specific rune spirits might take on a gender, but as a whole, they’re not what we would term masculine and feminine in their essence. I think this is important…I don’t think that like the Odu, (with whom I have seem the runes often compared) they’re building blocks of creation. Instead, I think they in some way expand and expound from the Gap, almost like agents provocateur, instruments that carry that synergy wherever it needs to go, especially at the points where wyrd begins. This is all speculative theology but the runes are not of this world. They were never of the human world (at least not the elder. I have suspicions about the younger. I suspect that the younger were born of the elder, and born to be a more direct bridge to this world, are more inherently connected to this plane of existence). They take on gender, or can take it on, when they enter our world/state of being but within their own natural realm, the Gap, it is an alien idea.
I think we really have to be careful of co-opting gendered language for these things. That’s immediately a category and a limitation and for those things that are beyond temporality and even materiality, it’s important to resist that urge. All the more so as those terms carry so much weight in our culture. We reduce the power of these Forces (the Gap, the worlds within the Gap before creation, even the runes) when we make them feminine or masculine. We reduce their nature, blocking it off and culling it down, parceling it out when we ascribe to it those categories that limit with respect to substance and manifestation. Sometimes it’s inevitable. We need a means to discuss these things after all, but I think with the runes, we can deal with them as they are, and the Gap as well without projecting our own gendered language onto them. (I do think that within the rune families, rune spirits will choose to appear in a variety of genders but I think it’s an assumed guise for our sake. Half of learning how to work with the runes is a matter of us learning how to communicate with them, and them learning our interior symbol system, i.e. how to communicate with us. Taking on gendered forms may improve communication). When we begin exploring our cosmogony, we’re challenged to move beyond ideas of gender as these somehow inherently meta categories of universal structure.
The first actively gendered force that we have is Audhumla, the sacred cow and that is crucial. Once materiality is yoked to temporality, once it’s out of the Gap and into Being, once there is substance, it’s filtered through Audhumla, that feminine force that brings Ymir into being and starts the process of embodied creation
I remember thinking about the creation story and thinking, “where the fuck did the cow come from?” but it’s an IE motif: the active principle of embodied creation, once things have moved into materiality, is a cow: a feminine, or rather female force. Cows were wealth, abundance – we see this in the runes too with fehu, domestic cattle and wealth (versus Uruz, initiation and the challenge of the wild aurochs). It’s potentiality for abundance, the power of manifestation (I believe even Audhumla’s name means ‘wealth.’). That’s a different level from the moments preceding creation and again from creation itself, at once removed from the Otherness of the Gap. For most of us, I think that when the runes present as gendered, that’s here, in our world/state of being, not in the Gap, not their origin point and that difference is significant. It may be that there is how the runes are there, and how they can choose to be here, or how they are filtered through here.
I think we need to step back and examine how often we contextualize based on gender. The moment you ascribe that category, you’ve put a limit on something. You’ve also humanized it. Now sometimes that happens. Our Gods taken on gender for instance…note I said ‘take on.’ I don’t’ want to limit Them by assuming They are bound in any way to it. They take it on. When we start talking about cosmogony, we’re pre-human, pre substance, pre material and categories (like gender) no longer apply. They don’t exist yet. So for this, we have to move away from how humans experience the world, and our assumed position of necessity to its order, and look instead at how things are without filtering it through humanity as a necessary lens – because these things we’re discussing here existed/came into being, well before we did.
To further complicate things, Old Norse, like many IE languages is a gendered language. This means that nouns have grammatical gender (they can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. It doesn’t have anything to do with what that noun might be usually, but instead is a way of categorizing based on morphological terminations). In some respects, looking at grammatical gender can be enlightening. It’s one more level of analysis but certain concepts and ideas, certain types of being are beyond gender, beyond any human category. When we’re talking about something similar in so many ways to the Platonic Agathos, Nous, and Psykhe, we’re not dealing with something yoked by gender. Gender is a material limitation. I do with the runes, think of them as gender fluid to some degree, but largely because I ‘m not sure gender has any relevance in THEIR realm…whereas it’s part of ours, and like a costume they can put it on or take it off at will to communicate specific things in their interactions with us.
Once we start looking at cosmogonic principles, however, up until the point of material creation, the point where suddenly there is materiality and temporality, and *substance*, gender has no meaning. Once we get to substantive realms/states of being, then gender becomes a thing, because then, by virtue of being substantive, there is already limitation.
Insofar as we have substantive concepts, I think bringing gendered language into it can be interesting (both grammatically for analysis and ideologically). As noted above, it’s another level of analysis when we’re doing theological exegesis. The cosmogony, however, before the moment when materiality comes into being as a result of friction between worlds (opposing forces) doesn’t exist as we might comprehend it.
So this morning I was reading through my own book “Neolithic Shamanism,” which I co-wrote with Raven Kaldera, looking up some random information on the Norse Wind spirits and Gods which I’d forgotten and I came across this line:
‘In Northern legends, the shaman-god Odin gave humanity that final wyrd-giving and life-giving breath.” (p. 271)
After the initial “oh shit, I wrote that?” lol, I just sat back a bit floored. Now I’m an Odin’s woman; I know that Odin gave us breath. After the creation of the first mortals (Ask and Embla) from drift wood, at the beginning of the worlds, the three Brother Gods, Ođinn, Lođur, and Hoenir bestowed the gifts of breath, warmth and hue, and intellect/sentience respectively on them. Odin came last, (and yes I alternate between the Norse and Anglicized spelling of His name for convenience and out of habit) breathing that first life-giving breath into their bodies and this is what began the unfolding of their wyrd. I know that, but I don’t think I ever stopped to really think about what that means.
In my article “In the Beginning,” I start parsing out the deeper theological meaning inherent in our cosmological tales. I think all such stories are encoded means of narrating and conveying the worldview of a particular tradition. They help elucidate the lens through which devotees of that tradition engage with every part of their world. These stories structure our world so there can be a lot to unpack in each of them.
In looking at the creation of humanity, we are given a moment out of time, a moment in the narration of the creation of being, wherein the Gods bestow particular gifts. Each gift given fetters us to both temporality and materiality – corporeal being. These gifts likewise make the unfolding of wyrd possible. The gift giving is a process of animating corporeality and attaching it to wyrd – the gift not just of tangible gifts of breath, blood, and sentience, but of fate and the means to change and be changed by it. With temporality (and wyrd) comes the gift of evolution, of transformation, of death, and of the ancestors. Time becomes conceptual.
What caught me this time in contemplating Odin’s initial gift to us, is the direct link between that primal breath and life, and then life and wyrd. I’ve always assumed that the Gods were subject to Their own wyrd, but reading this makes me wonder. If active wyrd is tied to corporeal life, if it comes into play, if it begins to take effect on/for a person at the moment that person draws breath then it is a thing tied specifically to both corporeality and temporality – to neither of which are the Gods subject. Creation, which includes most specifically the creation of matter is a process, which in and of itself implies that linkage to temporality. In and of Themselves, the Gods have no need of that. They precede its creation. I know we have stories of the Gods being born, but I think what we’re really dealing with, at least with the Norse creation stories, is the moment a Holy Power takes on certain names and forms, parses out a portion of its own, independent being, narrows itself for communication and interaction with us, a necessary concession to beings fettered by temporality and corporeality i.e. humans. That…that is hugely profound. There is so much, after all, of what every Deity is that is beyond our capacity as corporeal creatures to comprehend.
To say that Odin breathed life into the first humans, and to equate that as binding them to wyrd (which I do and it does – a child’s wyrd begins the moment it draws breath. Until then, there is no point of connection. Until then, there is only potential and abstraction. Birth mirrors the initial moment of the creation of materiality and its yoking to time. Our ancestors can work off their wyrd, correct it, strengthen it, and help us to do the same, but there is no new wyrd being generated, no new layers being created. We can inherit wyrd from those who have gone before us, but they are not still creating further wyrd. There does seem to be a correlation between life and the beginning of active wyrd vs. death and its ending or tying off).
So if that is the case (and I believe it is), then all the stories we have hinting that Odin and the other Gods cannot escape wyrd, must of necessity be interpreted differently. The question must then be asked: whose wyrd?
If wyrd is the one force to which even the Gods must bow (as our lore teaches) and if wyrd is also tied specifically to temporality then we are dealing with cosmic law. We are dealing with a force that is not bound to the Gods, but rather us. We are dealing with a framework of causality and consequence generated by us, our choices, the choices of our ancestors, and descendants (and overseen by the Nornir). It’s the inherent infrastructure of creation. We’re also dealing with the loop-hole of free will. I posit that it’s not so much that the Gods are bound by Their own wyrd, but that they’re bound by the law of ours. They cannot undo that which we create for ourselves because to do so would completely undermine free will and one chip in the edifice of the structured order of creation would risk undoing the whole thing.
All of which demands reinterpretation of the forces surrounding Baldr’s death, usually presented as a matter of it being impossible for Baldr to escape His wyrd. (This may be another forthcoming article. I’m not going to dwell on it right now). It also demands reevaluation of exactly what Odin was doing when He gave us that animating breath. I can’t help but find it even more powerfully significant that one of the defining moments of the Odinnic canon occurred on Yggdrasil, when He hung for the runes. Yggdrasil is where Urda’s well lies, and where the Nornir lay and order the threads of wyrd we pattern. There is a deeper connection to Odin as shaman-god, creator-god, murderer of His ancestor Ymir, and bringer of fate and destiny to humanity. To be bound to wyrd, after all, is to be bound to that against which we may both measure and challenge ourselves. Be our wyrd good or bad, we are defined by how we meet it.