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.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of my ordination, something that in many traditions is a day to be celebrated and marked. I don’t generally do so with mine, save by making special offerings to my Gods, but it’s got me thinking: not about the ordination but about the process that, for me, preceded it: initiation. That’s one of those things that a lot of us talk about, but no one ever seems to really explain. Part of that is because it can’t be explained really—oh, I could give you a run down of every single part of the ritual, but doing so would just be discussing the scaffolding; it would do nothing to explain the transformation that initiation can and should bring.
First, I want to note as strongly as possible that A) initiation does not necessarily lead to ordination. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with that. I’ve undergone many initiations at the hands of my Gods and Their people and that the very first one was a predecessor to ordination was simply a reflection of the way that tradition was structured. It is not necessarily the norm; and B). initiation isn’t a matter of one and done. One can undergo more than one type of initiation. It all depends on the tradition, the Gods, and the individual.
This is not a new concept. Polytheisms have always had their mystery cultus and have always, as far as I can tell, had rites of initiation. Sometimes these were ceremonies marking life transitions, such as moving from childhood to adulthood. That is not the type of initiatory ritual that I am talking about here. No, when I talk about initiation, I’m not talking about anything that binds or marks one’s place in the continuum of generational human experiences. I’m talking about those things that bring us, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes awe struck and weeping into communion with our Gods, those rites that change forever our world both inner and out. There is no going back from an initiation of this sort. It is a type of death, rebirth, and transformation and the person who exits the ritual space at the end of such a rite is not at all the same person who entered it.
Pretty words and I’m sure that some of you reading this think that I’m speaking metaphorically. I’m not. Initiation can fuck you up. A true initiation is not a pretty ritual after which you can go on your way feeling good about yourself. This is a terrifying rite that can strip you bear, open you up, and throw you face down before your Gods. It can open up fractures in your emotional matrix and your psyche, dredging up scars and issues and pain that you may have thought long ago put to rest. It can create internal chaos because it is the Gods effecting a change spiritually, energetically, emotionally, psychologically. It can bring taboos and obligations. It can damage you physically – not because of anything those shepherding the initiate through whatever the rite may entail do, but because of the internal process itself, and the energies in play.
Of course it may also fill you with ecstasy and joy, transform you in such a way that you are in closer, ongoing communion with your Gods, transform your afterlife, mark you as being one of the cultus of a particular God energetically and many other things and usually it is a glorious and joyful transformative experience. Sometimes though, it’s not and there’s no way to tell. I sometimes think the Gods must consider the initiate much as a master jeweler considers a rough stone. How to polish, how to facet? How much pressure to apply and at what angle? It’s such a delicate procedure and only the Gods have a hope of making such a thing work. This is why it’s so very important that They be at the beginning, center, and end of it all. An initiation isn’t something to seek out for one’s own purposes. It should be at the behest of one’s Gods. Divination should be done – thorough and extensive—to make certain that it is the right time (the Gods fix the time), and that the initiate is ready. Divination –thorough and extensive—should be done to figure out what offerings need to be made, what the rite should consist of (even in traditions where there is a strict process, this should still be done. There is always the possibility of the Gods wanting something special), how it should unfold, if there are any taboos or obligations to be kept before, during, or after, and so many more things. Most of all: is this initiate ready for this initiation into this tradition done by these elders? This is all the more important as we are restoring our traditions. Unlike religions like Lukumi or Ifa, our initiatory rites have largely been lost. We don’t have the inter-generational structure. We are restoring it now slowly but surely but so much of that is a matter of finding one’s way, inching nervously forward, and it must be admitted, making terrible mistakes. Initiation is not a place where mistakes can afford to be made. It is dangerous enough all on its own.
This is why it’s so crucial to have competent and trusted elders, and a community that can support and guide the initiate not only before, not only through but after the initiation and by after I mean for weeks, months, and possibly years.
I’m going to tell you a story of an initiation gone bad. I’m going to gloss over many parts of this story because parts of it are not mine to tell. Yes, I have changed personal details. I saw a young man undergo an initiation. I was witness to it. The initiation was done perfectly. The elder in question did everything right. The initiate in question was well-prepared and very devout. The witnesses, including myself were experienced, well-prepared, and devout. All the divination, from several diviners, gave clear and strong go ahead. When the ceremony, lasting several days, was done, there was joy, the overwhelming joy of such a process. There were blessings. Everything looked perfect. I brought my concerns to the elder and was told that perhaps I was over-reacting. That surely I was misreading. I celebrated with the rest and then over the next year watched this young man ,a good friend of mine, destroy his life.
Remember I said sometimes initiation brings up past wounds so that the initiate can address them and move forward into healing, stronger and healthier? Well that was what was happening. He began to spiral down into a very bad psychological place: hoarding, self-harm, cutting off ties to all friends, ceased working on getting clear of a damaging family relationship, became extremely paranoid, lashed out at everyone in the religion, began to encourage others to back away from devotion and throw themselves into mundane life, began to have outbursts of rage, and worse. I believe my friend gave himself over to the Filter rather than continue his spiritual work—work that would have required facing so much pain. He has been lost to us, though still he lives and more than that I cannot say. It is a painful subject…and this is an initiation where everything was done right.
I myself underwent an initiation that was necessary, but done in such a way that I was left partially crippled by pain for months. It was only when the scars to my energetic body, and the blockages were cleared by an elder that I began to heal. I do not mean that my spiritual life was impinged, I mean I would wake up screaming in pain so severe that my husband on more than one occasion nearly took me to the ER. I was lucky. I was able to heal from this damage and the issues that caused it were not mine, but rather a matter, as I found out later, of the one doing the initiation lacking the requisite qualifications. The transfer of energy—in part what an initiation is—could not happen cleanly. The initiation was legitimate, but damn near killed me.
I want to emphasize for those of you who may be wondering that in the above examples neither ritual involved any measure of what we term ordeal work. Both were done within the structure of the respective traditions. In the first case, well, sometimes initiation is a crap shoot and sometimes there is a terrible attrition rate. In the second, a corner was cut that shouldn’t have been and the price was pure agony and ongoing damage. I want to note again: no one laid a hand on me (save to touch my head in blessing). There was no ordeal. There was simply the initiation ritual and the transfer of power. These are horror stories and they’re not the norm. Most initiations leave the initiate feeling liberated and transformed and filled with wonder and joy and a new sense of connection to their Gods. But…even the best of them can go wrong and there’s often no way to tell until well after the ritual how the initiate is going to cope with the changes spiritually wrought. It’s not a game. They’re not words or pretty rites. This can fuck a person up in this life, and it can change the nature of the initiate’s afterlife too. An initiate becomes a carrier of a tradition. (One initiates generally not just to a Deity but within a particular tradition, after all). The changes wrought are often those which allow the initiate to become a container of the Mysteries of their God. It’s a powerful process.
No one, by the way, is owed initiation. That’s also something that I want to put out on the table. These things have real world consequences. I, for instance, am forbidden to initiate into the Mysteries of Dionysos. I love Him dearly. I’ve worked for years helping to build His cultus. I have nearly a decade of ongoing venerative practice to Him and I maintain a household shrine to Him. Hell, I even married a Dionysian! Still, extensive divination showed that I cannot receive His mysteries via initiation. I can honor Him – He is delighted for me to do so. He has helped me and I have had powerful devotional experiences with Him. This is one of the Gods that I deeply love but I will never become a bearer of His mysteries. I cannot, no matter how much I may want to do so. Why? Because undergoing Dionysian initiation can both change where you will go in the afterlife (part of the deal Dionysos made with Hades to liberate His people from the Hades’ control when they’re dead) and change one so that one is wired specifically for Dionysian energies. I belong to Odin. Where I go when I’m dead, the energies I’m wired to carry and receive when alive are His. It is specifically because I am Odin’s and patterned for this God that I cannot receive the mysteries of Dionysos. It doesn’t matter that sometimes I feel left out when Dionysos’ folk gather. It doesn’t matter that I may love Him dearly. It wouldn’t matter if I wanted initiation. I can’t have it and trying to force the act not only would be a deeply impious act, but also a damned stupid and dangerous one. There are consequences for the things we do and the Gods we carry.
This is one of the reasons why it is so important to have and to respect our competent elders. They carry the weight of their Gods’ tradition on their backs. They are guardians of that tradition just as we become when we take up certain burdens. They are the ones who help navigate these waters. It’s also why it’s so absolutely crucial to have supportive and cohesive community. The community is the container for all of this. When a community gathers to welcome a new initiate back into human/mundane space after that person has been transformed via initiation that is a tremendously holy and sacred act. That is what roots both the initiate and the energies of the rite and the tradition in the here and now. The community is the rootbase of the great tree of whatever tradition they are carrying. They are necessary and it’s the interplay of elders, community, Gods, initiate that gives everyone the best chance for initiations to occur safely and well. We need our initiations. We need all the various levels of interaction with our Gods, all the various rungs on the sacred ladder of our traditions and cultus.
I understand the enthusiasm of wanting to honor the Gods this way and go deeper into devotion but it’s important to follow the necessary protocol. There is a right way to do these things and a right time.