I was surprised by the volume and quality of response to my previous post. I was truly not expecting it. Many people both on WordPress and Facebook came forward, often in agreement with some of the points I raised. Molly Khan wrote an excellent response on Patheos Pagan. There were no vicious comments, though there was a lot of missing the point in a lot of places, and thus there are some things that I wanted to clarify.
I’m not not calling myself a Heathen as some sort of form of rebellion. I want to respect the doctrinal guidelines and suggestions provided by the Heathens that I’ve spoken to, both on line and in person. Some of those guidelines for what is considered Heathen versus what is not include several of the points I raised and more: Havamal must be the origin of your morality or at least considered in every situation, UPG is not to be trusted or given voice or attention, honoring the Gods outside of community functions and community rites runs counter to the spirit of Heathenry, innovation in ritual (i.e. performing religious practices that we are not sure were performed by the ancestors), honoring beings that are considered questionable (including Loki), in some cases honoring the Gods at all rather than the wights and Ancestors as some believe the Gods to be distant, troublesome and non-traditional focuses for veneration, etc.
These are things that Heathens who I’ve interacted with since the early 2000’s (again, both in person and online) have included among the boundaries of Heathen practice, in other words, if you want to call yourself Heathen you can not stray outside of them. Call yourself Pagan if you wish, but according to some you cannot claim the mantle of Heathenry without adhering to the above and further strictures.
Obviously, not everyone agrees. I do feel that Heathens have a right to define Heathenry, though. Of course, it gets sticky when there are self-identified Heathens who don’t agree with all or most of these principles, but by and large the Heathens that I’ve met and discussed it with agree with some of the above. I’m personally not going to try and join a faith and then tell people that are already practicing it that they’re doing it incorrectly when they have already established guidelines and boundaries for it.
The misogyny, racism, and multiple ‘phobias are things that are definitely worth working against in modern Heathenry. I’m glad that there are more and more voices speaking up against them, because whether I wear the label or not I’m still going to be coming to your rites and share in mead and offerings for as long as I’m welcome, and would like not to have to deal with that. Those are the things that I spoke of that “insulted my soul” the most.
So at the end of my last post I said that I would discuss the options that I’ve found, considered, and in some cases embraced. What’s a wooey, non-doctrinarian, solitary, non-racist, lover of the Norse Gods call them selves? Under what banners can they come together? How can they reconcile their beliefs and practices with larger Heathen culture?
Being Heathen Anyway
This by far seems to be most people’s answer. Unswayed by the insistence that their practice, beliefs, ancestry, virtues, or favorite brand of toothpaste renders them mere pagans or heathens rather than actual Heathens(tm), these bold individuals choose to identify as Heathens, and to Jotunheim with anyone who disagrees. I’ve heard a lot of people express some variation of this sentiment, including Molly Khan in her response to my original post (linked above).
I appreciate this approach because the culture of a faith can’t change without people who feel differently standing up and speaking out. The main reason that I haven’t embraced this path myself is that I feel Heathens have a right to decide the boundaries of their identity, faith, and doctrine, and I honestly respect it enough not to appropriate the name if it’s not… appropriate.
Is it? Who decides who can use that title? As many are fond of saying, there is no Asapope. As of now there’s been no High Moot of All Heathens that’s decided what the exact boundaries of that term are. If this movement lasts more than a few hundred years, there will be. There might even be one sooner than that. It might be good for all those to whom it matters to make sure that their voices are heard at yonder hypothetical HMAH.
Just “Polytheist”, Thank You
The other day I was thinking while I was out on a walk. “Huh. I wonder if there’s a word for being specifically devoted to multiple Gods. Kind of like polyamory but for devotional worship. What would you call it though… poly..theistry?…wait…”
I hate it when what I think is a stroke of brilliance ends in a facepalm.
A fair number of responses to my posts included folks who identified that way. There’s a growing movement of polytheists who eschew (or at least de-emphasize) a particular cultural focus and respond to the Powers that call to them. To be fair, I fit that well myself. I try to commune with the Powers that I do through rites that have some of the appropriate cultural trappings sometimes (I’m generally speaking about European or Egyptian deities here; part of the reason that I rarely work with Gods of living cultures is a desire to try and avoid blatant appropriation when I don’t have proper cultural immersion) – but was there ever a culture where folks simply didn’t call out to their Gods in times of need or thanksgiving? I know that there are few cultures and faiths where there are no forms of offerings or sacrifice. Often my prayers and offerings are less umpty-ump alliterative poetry and a mead horn than they are simple gestures of adoration, pleas for help, or offering of gifts. I don’t don an apron dress every time I want to honor Freyja and Freyr (I don’t even own one, sadly) and in ancient Rome I would not have any right to offer to Jove (as I understand their practices). That doesn’t mean that I don’t do it anyway. A lot of these trappings are artifacts of the time and culture that they were in, and the materials and concepts were more accessible to the people who used them.
The Gods seem to appreciate it when you do try to recreate the old stuff, or maybe that just puts us into a better framework to interact with them, or maybe they’re waxing nostalgic (“It’s been over a millennium since I’ve seen a Volva with a proper staff and catskin gloves. Good girl!”). Whatever the reason, those touches do seem to help on some level with signal clarity and reception. However, if our devotion to communion with the Powers is going to be part of our day-to-day life, we need to either wear apron dresses all the time (Which would be totally fine by me. Yes, I’ve been obsessing over them lately. Hush.) or we need to adapt our polytheism to fit our culture. At least for Pagans in the US, that means a culture that accepts that there are many kinds of people with many kinds of Gods and thus no one pantheon (in theory, at least). For Pagans in the modern world in general, if you’re not part of the dominant cultural faith anyway (which is likely some brand of Christianity or Islam, depending on your neck of the woods) there’s no reason that you should be limited to one pantheon or one form of cultural expression. There, I’ve said it. I warned you that I could be pretty darned eclectic.
So just Polytheist works for quite a few folks, many of whom accompany it with “Pagan”.
For purposes of community (and I’m a pretty social person; even when I’m solitary in practice I like having community) I’ve found a couple of groups that work well, and heard of others that I haven’t approached.
I’m a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin or ADF. ADF was started in the distant mists of the past probably around the time I still thought that the Goonies was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It’s been a good community for a Norsey non-Heathen like me. Individual members and Groves are encouraged to embrace “Hearth Cultures” which are cultural applications to the general framework of ADF rite and practice. The community for the Norse Health Culture is large, diverse, and well-educated, while generally taking what I’d consider a pragmatic stance towards UPG. Lore is emphasized as the basis of understanding but no there are no official rules or restrictions on UPG other than it’s not usable for the reading material for coursework.
It’s great for a heretic like myself because there is no policing of private practice, either: official ADF rites have to be public, but what you do outside of official ADF rites has no bearing on whether or not you can perform or participate in them. It tries hard to emphasize orthopraxy (we all perform the same rites or in a similar fashion) over orthodoxy (we all believe the same thing) and while I don’t feel that it’s possible to be entirely one without the other it does a good job at keeping the policing of belief to a minimum. ADF does have its own brand of sacred tech that I’ve incorporated into my own work, and its focus on scholarship and excellence make it an organization that I’m proud to be a part of. Plus, I can be in it, worship the Vanir and Aesir, and not have to conform to Heathen culture.
Pardon me while I put on these goggles and duck behind this blast shield. Can you still hear me? Ahem…
Northern Tradition Paganism is what seems to be a loose affiliation of solitary practitioners and a few Kindreds of Norsey Pagan people. They make the distinction of being “reconstruction derived” rather than strictly reconstructionist, meaning that they start with what they can find and work from there rather than sticking with the basics of what can be reconstructed, which pretty well matches what I’ve seen in ADF Norse Hearth culture, too. They have an emphasis on personal devotion, shamanism and spirit working. They also don’t restrict which Gods people worship – they are fine with people worshiping the Jotnar and their kin (though that’s not a requirement – it’s been explained to me that there are NTP people who don’t, but anyone who calls themselves NTP is required to drink when they’re honored at someone elses’ rite, which is just good hospitality/ghosti as far as I’m concerned.)
Throw in that they have a pretty queer membership overall, that their founders/leaders are super-controversial in the Heathen community primarily because of Jotun worship, wild rumors, and not putting up with Havamalier-Than-Thou talk from Heathen Elders, and they make the perfect Heathen boogeyman. There is no better way to throw a monkey wrench into an Asatru conversation than to bring up Raven Kaldera or Galina Krasskova!
So no one should be surprised that I consider myself Northern Tradtion as well. Although the idea of making offering to Fenris or Surt or Thrym or Jormugandr gives me the altogether willies, they’re Powers too, and even if they don’t particularly care about humanity, there are humans who care about them, and if I’m at someone’s table and they drink to them I will too to honor my host and be a good guest. I’ve felt very comfortable with the NTP folks that I’ve met and interacted with and hope that I hear more NTP voices in the future.
Norse Wicca is a thing, also. I don’t have a lot of exposure to it or a history with it, except insofar as I honored the Norse Gods while still considering myself Wiccan. If there is an organized tradition of it in any way I’m unaware of it, although I’d be happy to learn and share more. I don’t connect well to some aspects of Wicca anymore (especially the painful – to me – emphasis on binary gender) so I haven’t considered it an option myself, but I’m sure that there are people who find fulfillment in it.
I don’t know what else is out here, but I’d love it if in the comments here or on Facebook, or on your own blogs or articles discuss the paths that you’ve taken to negotiate this quandary. The conversation has begun, and I’d like to encourage it to continue, because from the responses that I’ve had it feels like there is a real need.
Why is all of this even important? Why put so much thought into it? Well, I’ve been trying to find community that I resonate with, that I can join, that I can be a part of and that I can be a voice in. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve found a couple of labels that stick after a few days’ wear-and-tear. I do feel that Heathenry is often a bit exclusionary, but again, I’m in favor of people setting their own boundaries. I want to know where I fit in, and it seems now like a lot of other people feel the same.
We need the community builders. We need the legalists. We need the loremasters. We need the Godhis and Gydhjas. We need the craftspeople. We need the seidhkon, the volvas, the vitkis, the mad and the touched and the inspired. We need the people that just want to go to the rites, connect with the Powers, and go home and not think about it. We need the poets and taletellers. We need the passionate speakers and activists. We need the people sitting outside the ring around the fire, occasionally getting passed the mead and acting as the peanut gallery (which is kind of where I’m sitting right now). When I refer to “we” I don’t just mean self-identified Heathens and their many subsects – I mean all of us who honor the Norse and Germanic powers and/or embrace the richness of Northern European Paganism in all of its contexts and aspects. If “Heathen” doesn’t apply to all of us, we need a term that does form a proper umbrella, because there are things that we all share, and things that we can all teach each other and it will help us remember that on some level we’re all in this together, Heathen and heretic alike.
That’s that for now. I’m going to Brushwood Folklore Center for Wellspring tomorrow, one of ADF’s primary annual gatherings. The inimitable Patricia Lafayllve will be there with her ve to Freya and performing a seidh rite, and the Norse kin have a lunch at some point when the schedule settles. I also hope to explore my conflicts regarding queer space vs. gendered space, and come back with more answers and questions on that and many other things. If there’s wifi there I’ll be trying to make blog updates and report on location. I’m excited – I’ve never been to Wellspring before!