Something Old, Something New:
Making Heathenry Make Sense Now
©2004 Ingeborg S. Nordén
Author's note: This article is loosely based on a message which I had posted to Patrick "Jordsvin" Buck's Heathen discussion list, as a rebuttal of Bil Linzie's e-book on Christian and Wiccan influences in modern Asatru.
After reading Bil's work, I’d agree that he has some valid points about Christianity and popular neo-paganism influencing the beliefs and practices of the average American Heathen. There is no sound basis in the lore for any of the following:
· Use of an "eightfold year wheel" calendar. This practice is clearly based on the timing of Wiccan Sabbat celebrations, not on any list of holidays preserved in lore or in the folk practices of any one Germanic culture; since most Heathens prefer to focus on a single region or ethnic group in the Germanic world, following holiday traditions of that "source culture" makes more sense than using a mix-and-match schedule from all over Western Europe.
· Ahistorical "days of remembrance" for cultural heroes on an arbitrary day of the month. Although the heroes themselves usually are mentioned in lore, the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor a specific person is not. Furthermore, the chosen date for these celebrations (usually the ninth of a month, because nine is a sacred number in Asatru) rarely has any historical connection to the life or death of a hero being honored in this way. When I see a Heathen newsletter mention "Remembrance for Raud the Strong" in the coming-events schedule, am I the only Heathen other than Bil who thinks of Catholics celebrating the Assumption or the feast of John the Baptist on some arbitrary, non-Biblical date? Adding memorials for their own sake feels too much like a Blot-of-the-Month Club, an excuse for kindred members to meet on a regular basis—not a sincere tribute to anybody whom Heathens might admire in modern times.
· Obsessive concern with regular votive rituals. Although the lore does mention people asking for divine guidance when they need it, or making offerings on personal occasions which had nothing to do with any festival--the modern idea of doing those things at regular intervals seems to be a holdover from Christianity. Stanza 145 of Hávamál warns Heathens: "Better not to ask than to sacrifice too much…better not to send than to slay too much." Furthermore, the title character of Hrafnkels saga is described as a "great maker of sacrifices" who shares half his property with Freyr; yet his religious fanaticism does nothing to prevent a lawsuit which led to his being exiled and tortured (Hrafnkell even becomes an outright atheist in the end). Clearly, the Norsemen frowned on excessive involvement with religion in ancient Heathen times; modern followers of Asatru should remember their attitude if they take the lore seriously.
· Obsessive concern with the role of clergy. Although secular laws might require an ordained minister to preside at religious weddings and funerals today, I see no other lore-based reason for Heathen godhar and gydhjur to fill roles similar to those of Christian priests. Heathens in ancient times worshiped at home with friends and family most of the time, with nobody appointed as a permanent leader in those situations. The few saga descriptions of godhar leading public sacrifices may have already been influenced by Christianity; even if those are legitimate, the lore still doesn't imply that a godhi was necessary for all formal religious functions.
· Obsessive concern with the afterlife. Although the lore often mentions an afterlife with several possible destinations (not "one good/one bad" as in the Abrahamic religions), few people mention any desire to earn rewards or avoid punishments from the gods. They admitted that such things existed, but did not base their entire ethical system on earning a desirable state in the next world. Nor did they see preparation for the afterlife as the purpose of earthly life: that attitude is common in many Near Eastern cultures and religions, but foreign to anything Germanic.
· Obsessive concern with magic, especially misuse of some magical terminology in the lore. First, the popular neo-pagan idea that most people can and should learn magic conflicts with the Norse perception of magicians as marginal members of society--and with descriptions of characters who keep their magical knowledge secret from all except a few trusted people. Second, Norse terminology is often misinterpreted and misused by Heathens who do practice magic today: "galdr" wrongly includes chanting isolated rune names in meditation or reciting poetic invocations to the gods. "Seidhr" wrongly includes a mishmash of foreign traditions (such as trance channeling and pathworking) with only a thin veneer of Germanic names and imagery. Although we have only a few partial descriptions of native Scandinavian spellworking in the Eddas and sagas, those fragments of existing material are not enough to justify most so-called galdr and seidhr work as legitimately Heathen.
Despite my agreement with Bil on those points, I disagreed wholeheartedly with some of his comments on modern Heathen theology and social structure:
· The decreased importance of ancestral spirits does not necessarily derive from either Wicca or Christianity. Instead, I believe this change reflects the social reality in which modern Heathens live. Very few of us have detailed family histories recorded and memorized, unless we are descended from nobility or other famous people. Even for those who are, most Heathens in the past thirty-odd years have converted from some other religion: if we respect our ancestors enough to acknowledge their beliefs and backgrounds, it makes sense that at least a thousand years' worth of them would consider Heathenry blasphemous and not want to be included in ceremonies of our religion--let alone worshiped with offerings, or consulted after death as the early Germanic peoples consulted theirs. "Respect through omission" seems to be the best way of treating those ancestors. They can be acknowledged in purely secular contexts, but anything more leads to a theological Catch-22; either our idea of honor becomes dishonor in the eyes of a non-Heathen ancestor, or we end up incorporating so many non-Germanic practices for the ancestors' sake that our religion becomes an eclectic Christo-paganism instead of Asatru.
· Similarly, the decreased importance of local nature spirits is rarely a matter of personal "baggage" from another religion. With the physical and religious environment so hostile towards nature spirits nowadays, it seems logical that few Heathens have the opportunity to develop a strong relationship with those beings. Nordic folklore often describes nature spirits as shy or even hostile towards humans; therefore, few of them would stay in crowded urban areas. Furthermore, the spirits are often said to hate the trappings of Christianity: in a neighborhood where churches, Christian holiday celebrations, and the like are very common, it makes sense that few beings friendly to Heathens would continue to live there. Finally, people travel and change residence much more often today than they did in the ancient Germanic world; they rarely stay in one region long enough to become spiritually attached there.
· With the role of both ancestors and landwights decreasing, a corresponding increase in the gods' importance makes good sense: deities are seldom confined to one place or ethnic group in Midgard, unlike the other two types of spirit. They are also better known to most Heathens, if only because the written lore which describes them is easier to find; and they are reliably Heathen, unlike the foreign land-spirits or devoutly Christian ancestors that many people would otherwise have to shoehorn into their religion. Neither Christianity nor Wicca is necessarily the culprit in this theological change: Heathens are simply trying to make their beliefs and practices consistent with their real-life situations.
· On a related note, the concept of patron deities and "personal relationships" with the divine is not necessarily foreign to Heathenry. Both the Eddas and the sagas mention characters who felt particularly close to one deity or another; though some of them were depicted as dangerous fanatics (like Hrafnkell, mentioned before), others were described as heroes rewarded by the gods for their loyalty (like Thorolf in Erbyggja saga, whose house pillars were divinely guided to the place where he settled). At least one other saga character whose name escapes me is said to have carried an image of Freyr in a belt pouch; if this does not suggest a personal closeness to one specific god, no one knows what else that person's motives might have been.
Granted, the modern insistence that all Heathens ought to have patrons seems to derive from non-Germanic paganism (not necessarily Wiccan, but still non-Germanic). And granted, the modern belief that most Heathens will live with a patron deity after death seems to be strongly influenced by Christianity: the lore does contain a few references to non-warriors living in some divine residence other than Valhalla, but those cases are an exception to a general rule. Still, making a blanket statement that a follower of Thor can never hope to live in Thrudvangr after death--or that he must be a closet Christian/Wiccan for feeling that way--is not entirely accurate or fair.
· Finally, I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that these social and theological trends in Heathenry should be reversed by rebuilding and enforcing ancient tribal structures. The gods are not locked in a time warp over Northern Europe in the Bronze Age, and do not expect their followers to be that way either. Why didn't the Migration Era peoples get punished en masse by the gods after settling in fixed homelands? Why didn't the Norwegians and Icelanders face divine wrath for abandoning sacral kingship? If neither of those things happened, then it makes no sense to assume that the same gods would punish or reject modern Westerners for living in non-tribal and non-agrarian societies. As long as we retain a solid understanding of the lore, as long as we use common sense to apply that lore to our own times and places--our religion is just as Heathen as anything practiced in the ancient Germanic world.