This (long) post has been a long time coming. I’ve referenced my feelings about personal background and development in some other articles and have been spending a lot of time trying to explore myself in relation to the modern Pagan movement and Heathenry. Although the title was inspired by Bertrand Russel’s piece “Why I am Not A Christian” I won’t, as he does, seek to deconstruct the idea of a particular deity. I will, as he does, explain why the values expressed in the religion in question do not fit mine, and why that leaves me in a difficult place.
Let me begin by explaining that I’ve had a love for the Aesir and Vanir since childhood. I first read of them in children’s fiction when I was four or five and rapidly advanced to reading more adult storybooks about them. Later on I discovered source material like the Eddas and Sagas and buried myself in them. I love the tales and I love the Gods. However, I cannot love the Gods within the same framework that so many others do as in many ways it (in the words of Walt Whitman) insults my soul.
When speaking to Heathens about where they derive the virtues that they form their community on, Havamal inevitably arises as the primary source. While I cannot (and do not) argue with the value of the Nine Noble Virtues, I have irreconcilable differences with some of the source material.
It starts with the misogyny. Hearing Har proclaim that “The speech of a maiden should no man trust, nor the words which a woman says, for their hearts were shaped on a whirling wheel and falsehood fixed in their breasts.” (83), and having “women’s bed-talk” and “witch’s flattery” being included in the list of things that none should trust scored me sorely. I’m a woman of integrity and honor, and sweeping statements about my sex do no credit to my many sisters that stand by their words and honor their oaths and debts.
While we’re on the matter of integrity, allow me to raise this verse: “But hast thou one whom thou trustest ill
yet from whom thou cravest good? Thou shalt speak him fair, but falsely think, and leasing pay for a lie.” For some, this may be honor. The other has breached honor and integrity, after all, both should be allowed to do it.
I can’t sit by this myself. Whether or not another has been untrustworthy with you, I still consider if false to be false to them. I know that the Allfather isn’t always known for fair dealings himself, and I take that into account when I read this. However, I cannot use a philosophy like that as a basis for my own ethical beliefs.
Likewise, there are many verses that caution people against being too trusting. While I understand them (having been a person who has trusted the wrong sorts of people in the past) they also feel paranoid. I can’t base my behavior around a document that tells me not to trust people; trust builds trust and integrity builds integrity.
I love Havamal, and much of the advice found within is timeless and sound. The tale of Odhinn and the runes makes my hair stand on end whenever it is recited (especially when recited in Norse). However, I feel that that advice should be considered on a case-by-base basis, and not necessarily used as a be-all-end-all guide to human behavior and social interaction. I think that that emphasis helps to account for the undercurrents of misogyny and xenophobia that I have encountered in Asatru and Heathenry – if devotion to Har’s sayings is unquestioned, the environment that is created will attract many sorts of people that I find questionable.
Dismissal of UPG
There are several problems that can arise from lack of grounding in lore in any polytheist tradition. It is possible to think that you are honoring the Gods with ancient practices that turn out to be not so ancient. It’s possible to be mislead by spirits and entities that may claim the identity or name of a deity to gain your attention or trust, and a grounding in the lore helps with discernment in the identification of wights that you deal with. It’s even possible to look like a complete idiot in the face of scholars (Pagan and otherwise) who know better than you and can fill in the blanks while you trip over words trying to explain or discuss aspects of your faith.
I never met Snorri Sturluson (at least, not that I remember). I can say that the window that he has provided us into the beliefs and poems of his time are invaluable. I know that without him countless deities and tales would be forgotten, and as a storyteller and a Pagan I suppose that that makes him something of a hero of mine.
However, I don’t know him. I don’t know the measure of his worth as a person, I haven’t seen his integrity in action, and I don’t know entirely why he did what he did. What I do know is that even as a teenager reading the Eddas I recognized Christian influence in the tales, occasionally in a rather heavy-handed way. I do know that Snorri made some odd claims about the ancestry of the Gods, and I do not agree with his suggestion that all deities were once human heroes.
The fact is, his work, and the Sagas we’ve kept in other ways, and hearsay are all we have to inform us of how people at the time when they were first written down felt about the Gods, and what they knew about the Gods, and what they did about those feelings. Without this work reconstructionists wouldn’t have made it as far as they have.
I believe that the Eddas and the Sagas should be the first word, but not necessarily the last, and certainly not the most important. The world that we live in is radically different from the world that those who recorded these things lived in. We see it through different eyes, hear it through different ears, and filter it through different brains.
Yet some of us feel the call of the Gods and spirits from across whatever barrier of perception or dimension or both separates us. Among those there are folks like myself, who find that the practices that have been reconstructed do not work as well for us as other techniques that we’ve learned or practiced, or who wish to supplement their practices.
Heathenry involves a degree of cultural reconstruction as well, and the awesomeness of Viking apron dresses aside, there are aspects to reconstructed Heathen culture that don’t fit with every person who honors the Aesir and Vanir. There are those who don’t feel that we need to revisit age-old mores to create good relationships with the Gods. There are even those like myself that feel that Gods might be okay with not being honored within a certain cultural context; that they might even care far less about human culture than we do.
I have been and perhaps still am a witch and a seeress and a priestess. I know many others who fit into those and similar categories. If I trust the person as a person I will tend to trust their words when speaking about their experiences with the Gods, the Wights, and the Ancestors. I know that sometimes even honorable people lie, and that sometimes everyone is wrong, especially when feeling for signals from the spirits.
At the same time, if I am to truly believe in the Gods as real beings who really can communicate with us, I cannot ignore the gnosis of my fellow priestesses, seeresses, and spirit workers. “UPG” or “Unverifiable Personal Gnosis” is often used interchangeably with “MUS” or “Made Up Shit” in modern Heathen discussion and dismissed out of hand. Even when it is not it is treated with quite a bit of suspicion.
Like the layers of a pearl that form around an irritant, so do religions form around spiritual experiences. Somewhere along the line, someone called that redgold Goddess “Freyja” for the first time. Someone heard her voice, felt her presence, and decided to name her “Lady.” Without that time-lost incident we also would not have the faith we had today, nor would Snorri and others have been able to write record what they had.
All religion starts with gnosis, both personal and shared. Though the lore states nowhere that Freyja likes chocolate, I’ll challenge you to find a Freyjaswoman or Freyjasman who would argue that it’s not a worthy offering for her. If someone said something confusing like “Freyja likes being offered bug spray.” I might be skeptical, but if many voices devoted to her spoke up for her love of pesticides I’d have to practice my own discernment and divination on the matter and see if that was part of my relationship with her.
At what point does “UPG” pass the threshold into accepted belief? In a community where personal spiritual experiences of living worshipers are never considered to be of equal worth to the writings of those long gone, how can our understanding of the Gods evolve? As our understanding of the physical universe and social realities of humankind evolve, so should our spiritual understanding and awareness. Chaining this to modern interpretations of static words will put us into the same trap of stagnancy, corruption, and materialism as many other religions.
Rejection of Neopaganism
This takes many flavors and comes about for many reasons, but the majority of Heathens that I’ve spoken with do not consider Heathenry to be part of neopaganism. Some claim that it is not a new religion, that it is an unbroken tradition (which I cannot answer to but I am always suspicious of those claims). Some feel that the Gods and Ancestors are dishonored by association with deities and practices of other pantheons and cultures (regular readers know how I feel about that one). Some claim that Heathenry is different enough in values and practice that Heathens don’t fit in to big umbrella Paganism.
I could take on any one of these individual points, and I understand the arguments both for and against them. Personally, however, I do identify with the Neopagan community, because there are a great many within it that love the Aesir and the Vanir, the Landwights, Elves and Ancestors. Our practices may be different, and our individual -theism or lack thereof may cause disagreements, but we all seek to revere the Gods dear to our hearts. I would rather be exposed to a wide variety of practices and experiences with the Gods that I love, than to be in a strictly formulaic practice that allows no deviation.
The vitriol I’ve seen directed at those who identify as Pagan by those who identify as Heathen is excessive and shows a lack of willingness to assume good will or intent. The fact that being called “Wiccatru” (a label I’ve seen applied to modern Heathen leaders and scholars who have a mystical or spiritual bent in practice) is considered an acceptable way to dismiss someone’s scholarship and practice brings me sorrow, as the many Pagan paths have quite a bit to teach one another.
Disregard for the Spiritual
As one of the God-bothered, a person who has always had experiences with spirits, I can’t reject or turn away from spiritual realities. I’ve always lurked about and taken part in religions to help me find useful frameworks and techniques to deal with and make good use of my experiences. Many of those experiences happen to be with the Aesir and Vanir and associated wights.
Thus it always baffles me when I encounter people who seem very devoted to religion or at least to religious identity but who mock spiritual experiences. You know, the folks who claim that the runes were never used for magic (haven’t you read Sigridfumal?) or feel that the Gods don’t care about us or wish to interact with us personally (Ottar in the Lay of Hyndla?). I’ve seen this in the Episcopalianism and Islam of my youth, and I’ve seen it in the Heathenry of my adulthood. It’s a cultural attitude whose origins I am uncertain of but seems uncharacteristic of the people whose faith we’re trying to reconstruct or build on. The sagas are full of tales of magick and seers and vitki and ghosts and spirits and Gods. Why is it acceptable in our tales but not in our lives?
I’ve been told by at least one Heathen that Heathenry is an excuse to get drunk and dress like Vikings (and had pretty much the same words said by others). If I wanted to get drunk and dress like a Viking I would not come up with such an elaborate excuse; I would have a Get Drunk And Dress Like A Viking Party. I wouldn’t put work into reading lore. I sure as anything wouldn’t be making offerings if I didn’t believe that anyone was on the receiving end. I want a living faith that honors and builds relationships with the Gods and Spirits that I love dearly, not a frat party.
Community Focus (or Solitary Exclusionary)
Time and time again, it has been emphasized to me that Heathenry is community oriented, that without a community there is no purpose to it, that’s it’s not genuine, that’s it’s not right.
How nice for you.
Really, though, it’s nice to have community. It’s affirming and validating and helpful when you have other people going through the same things with you. It’s good to have people to be there for you through all of life’s transitions and vicissitudes.
However, not everyone can find communities that they fit into. I struggle with both the Pagan and larger world community because of my trans status. I struggle with the trans community because I have a religion that isn’t watered down non-spiritual Christianity or nihilistic modern American Buddhism. I have to carve niches for myself wherever I go, and sometimes I don’t have that option. I’m not alone in that, either. There are a lot of people who, for reasons above or others (including the paucity of available Heathen communities in general) can’t find a Kindred or Hearth to belong to.
So when you don’t have a Kindred should you stop honoring the Ancestors and the wights and the Gods? Should you just give them the shove and stop calling yourself Heathen because you don’t have a community? “Well, I was Heathen but my Kindred broke up, so I’m an atheist until I can find another one. No, following another religious tradition would be ‘drinking from someone elses’ well’, so I can’t do that either. Just have to wait for another Kindred to form or form a new one before I can be a Heathen again.”
Which brings me to:
Folkish, Tribalist, Racialist, and other words that are used to say, “I’m not racist but…”
You know the story – your spiritual ancestry is carried in your DNA. Only those whose blood is pure will receive blessing from the Norse Gods. Only those of Pure European Heritage With Ancestors Who Were Never From Anywhere Else Ever Can Venerate Them. Also, if you’re from Northern Europe, you shouldn’t pay any attention to any Gods or Spirits that aren’t in the Eddas or Sagas, because that’s “drinking from anothers’ well”. You have different DNA, and that means that you are totally spiritually incompatible. They either aren’t reaching out to you, or they are because they want to corrupt you, because foreign things are evil.
After all, the many races of the world are like instruments in an orchestra. Each musician plays their own instruments; if you try and play the wrong instrument for you, all that will come out is a horrible sound and it will totally screw up the orchestra. Also, unlike in the orchestra analogy, you can never learn to use an instrument that you are not designated to play at birth by skin color and last name on your birth certificate.
The concept of race is a dead one and should stay that way. The idea that humans have distinct and pure bloodlines breaks down really quickly once you study any one person’s genealogy going back more than a century or so. Throughout history, people have traveled, met other people, made war or trade with them, and whether it was war or trade also made babies with them.
There are ethnic enclaves that have been geographically isolated for long periods of time (like Tibet was up til around the 1950’s) where it could be argued that “pure” lineages developed. Their ancestors still came from elsewhere, though. As a Voudoun priestess once said to me, “It’s okay if you’re white; we all come from Africa, baby.”
I’ve studied my family genealogy. This fat white girl from suburban America has black and native ancestors within the last two hundred years, and was raised by an Egyptian stepfather in an ethnically-mixed household. I tan dark enough to look Italian in the summer (if you’re going to go by something as lame as skin color) – I know people from North Africa and the Levant who are paler than me. I was raised on a combination of hummus, ta’amayah and the Qur’an on one side and white guilt, Tolkein, and liberal Episcopalianism on the other side. Tell me, what faith do my genes or upbringing want me to follow?
I think that the Gods and spirits care far less about human culture and bloodlines than we do. I think that they favor who they choose to favor, regardless of their ethnic or genetic background. These beliefs come from observation and experience, both mine and those of folks who I know. I’ve had a Kemetic Goddess (who I worship mostly in Her Greco-Roman aspects) tell me in a Norse oracular rite to join an organization that bills itself as Druidic.
As such, I can’t be okay with “racialism”, “folkishness” or “tribalism”. I’m an educated person of my time who knows that no blood is unmixed, who knows that no “race” is pure or even really exists, and who has enough of a mixed background that were I to limit my spiritual practices only to one tradition I would be leaving out other, important things.
When I formally approached The Ancestors, my Ancestors, as a whole for the first time and asked them what they wanted me to know, I was taken out of myself, or rather back through myself. I followed and spread out through endless lives like branching worm casts, spreading more and more until I couldn’t count or even pay attention to the details that were passing by me. All life is my ancestry, every being who has lived has contributed to who I am today. It’s the same for you, dear reader. They are all part of you.
However, taking issue with folkishness (aka Heathen racism) is somehow naughty because Frith. Because we should all be peaceful and safe with one another and trust one another. Because we need to reach across the aisle and embrace all Heathens, regardless of what they believe.
This mutt, this mud-blooded, racially mixed lover of the Vanir and Aesir has no inclination to do so. I’ll not share a space with those who discount me, or would discount my sisters or any of my family or loved ones because of their ancestry. I’ll not drink with those who wouldn’t drink with me (or would because my skin is pale, but wouldn’t with my little sisters because theirs is not). I’m also not going to pretend that I don’t have a problem with it, or that I think that pandering to folkish beliefs is in any way acceptable to me. But, because people are afraid to stand up to their own beliefs and cover cowardice with Frith and make peace with people who would take our Gods away because of our ancestry (if they could) I don’t fit with any but the most stringently liberal of the Universalist/Folkish divide.
Not to mention the queer and trans thing. That doesn’t go over too well either.
So where do I go from here? What options does this non-Heathen have? What space is there for a polytheist who wants to honor the Vanir and Aesir (and maybe a couple of the friendlier Jotnar like Gerda and Skadhi) but can’t abide many things that grate upon her in popular Heathen culture? Stay tuned; my next post is going to explore all of the options that I’ve found and considered.