My wife occasionally posits that I should spend more time talking about what Heathenry/Asatru/Norse Polytheism is and substantially less time focusing on what it isn’t. I also recently had a friend ask some rather meaningful questions about what I, and those who have the same faith as me, believe. These are the sort of statements and inquiries that demand attention, but addressing them is more complicated than one might initially realize.
Much of modern Heathenry is arguing about what we are not, I think, because a discussion about what we are is really difficult to have. We are a young religion, based on old traditions, without a text or a prophet that helps inform our beliefs and ideals. There is no historical tradition of having a centralized religious authority, so we have nothing that is parallel to a Pope either. We can barely agree on when our religious holidays should occur, or even how they should be observed in some cases. There is a lot of disagreement on which records are valid and accurate as written, and which ones represent Christian metaphor/fan fiction. It gets trickier still when you realize that religious and cultural boundaries were remarkably more blurred in previous eras. The example that comes to mind is the Island of Mann, were the religious methods of both the Germanic and Celtic religions had more than a small degree of overlap.
Everything is second hand, and it makes it difficult to have any sort of meaningful discussion. So much of Heathenry doesn’t agree with the rest of Heathenry on what it’s about, and it leads to some pretty passionate arguments. Arguments, by nature, are rarely about what any two sides agree upon so the current tension actually makes a lot of sense.
Fixing that diplomatic disconnect requires finding the things we agree on, but how does one effectively quantify what is or is not Heathenry without just making the argument worse? I can feel the rolling of eyes from some more experienced and seasoned Heathens, but the question is really a lot more poignant than many might realize.
Many Heathens are quick to say why this person or that practice is or is not Heathen. How? Why? If we cannot finitely say when someone IS Heathen, how can so many be so quick to say when some one IS NOT Heathen. If you can’t tell me in less than fifty words why the beliefs of a soft-polytheistic Wiccan aren’t compatible with a Heathen world view, than you need to start thinking about your religion actually means. To paraphrase Einstein, if you can’t explain your beliefs with ease and confidence than you probably don’t understand them.
You see, I’ll agree with you and say that such a person is most definitely not Heathen. If you don’t know the why and cannot explain your opinions, we hit a bit of a tricky issue. Such quick confidence with such little understanding begs questions of why we have such strong opinions. It smack of elitism and disdain, which isn’t something I want in my Hof. The terms of our faith should be motivated by shared consensus, not via our shared antipathy.
So let’s talk about what the absolute basics are. Let’s remove terms such as “Asatru” or “Heathen” from the discussion, as these may represents different versions from the whole; this isn’t a denomination nitpick. If you say your religious beliefs mimic those of pre-Christian Germanic, Icelandic, Scandinavian, and/or Anglo-Saxon cultures, what are the absolute bare minimums that this indicates?
This is what I have so far.
1) Worshiping entities within the Norse Pantheon predominantly, with or without honoring other pantheons or incorporating synchretic elements: Obviously, this is the foremost concern; do you venerate the deities that are identified to exist with the myths and lore that are assigned to the Norse pantheon? As far as I can see, that’s the only quantifiable hard limit one may place in regards to the subject. I’m not putting any definition on what is or is not an entity in the Norse pantheon; if you feel the Jotuns can be worshiped, your practice is just as legitimate as those who say they are the enemies of the Gods. There is too much lore that suggests that there is legitimacy to such practices, since the Gods just as often married/socialized with these beings as they crossed blades with them. Many are related to them quite directly, with Odin himself being the most notable. Viewpoints that depict them as allies, enemies, or something in between can all find legitimizing sentiments within the lore. As there is no clear cut answer, it’s all up to your own UPG.
When it comes to matters that include synchretic elements, or even acknowledgement and respect shown to the deities of other pantheons, it’s the same thing. Synchretism is a loaded word, and I’m probably going to disappoint both sides by saying it doesn’t matter what you think of it. Personally I’m pro-synchretic, but I don’t think it’s very appropriate to use this as part of a checklist one way or the other. At the end of the day, it has almost nothing to do with someone being Heathen or not. Borrowing Wiccan ritual elements, using Tarot decks, or cultivating an understanding of Feng Shui doesn’t mean more to the Gods (in my opinion) than honest worship and devotion. Include or exclude the practices of other faiths at your own discretion. Likewise, being willing to recognize other pantheons exist isn’t an issue unless any given individual opts to make it one.
2) Ancestor worship: Ancestor worship is echoed in the lore, the anthropology, in dig sites, and everything else that we can get our damn hands on. It’s unquestionably part of all the cultures that venerated the Norse pantheons, though how that veneration takes place in modern times can vary widely from person to person and from kindred to kindred. It’s so frequently and directly talked about, that I can’t find a way to reasonably exclude the practice. I don’t feel that someone could claim a Norse Polytheistic religious view and leave ancestor worship on their cutting room floor.
3) A Hard Polytheistic Point of View: Soft and hard polytheism doesn’t really get along, but this isn’t related to that constant theological tug of war. Our ancestors viewed Thor as Thor, and if there was another warrior God from another land with a propensity to use physical strength and weather phenomenon? Than that was a different entity altogether. Now, there is definitely room to suggest that this deity or that had a connection to another; I’ve heard interesting and curious theories that suggest Deity A and Deity B are the same entity due to similarities in the lore and geographical connections. That is different than a soft polytheistic perspective as, at the end of the day, you are still recognizing the Gods and Goddesses as being unique beings. I see nothing wrong with suggesting that our historical records missed a few details along the way. Suggesting that Thor, Zeus, and Raiden are essentially the same thing is where you start getting into murky territory.
This is not a dig against soft-polytheists; I just don’t see how or why you would come to claim yourself as a Norse Polytheist of some type if you had that belief structure. If you believe that everything extends from a single entity, the word “Norse” wouldn’t be any more or less connected to you than any other word.
4) We are our deeds (or WAOD for short): Other than the book on Heathen ethics that pretty much everyone agrees is the deep fried awesome, I really couldn’t find where this one came from. It could just be that Eric Wodening coined the phrase and it stuck, and I’m honestly okay with that. I’ve dug into the Nine Noble Virtues in the past (and, not surprisingly, they’re not making this list) for a number of reasons. Well, everything that the NNV does horrifically wrong, WAOD does spectacularly right. It doesn’t spell anything out for you, it’s an incredibly versatile tool for self reflection, and you could probably write a few dozen pages on all of the possible ways to view it and utilize it without even trying. It prompts consideration via thought, as opposed to falsely presenting ethical consideration as a checklist.
It is also one of the few things that people don’t argue about in modern Norse Polytheism, which means it probably deserves the Pagan equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. While subjects like synchretism, Loki worship, and god spouses are analyzed and dissected with intense scrutiny, WAOD is almost universally accepted without comment. Even those who take issue with it are either content to let it slide, or have more of a problem with those that abuse it than anything else.
5) A high value placed upon certain virtues and concepts such as (but not limited to) hospitality, loyalty to family and proven friends, the sanctity of verbal oaths, and frith: The above constitutes what is, essentially, the unquestionable ethical and philosophical considerations for a Norse Polytheistic outlook. Hospitality was what separated good people from bad, and the anger of the Gods (particularly Odin) was anticipated by those who shirked their responsibilities as hosts. Loyalty to family and friends, and the mutual exchange of gifts with the same, formed a cultural and spiritual responsibility that could not be broken without great cause or terrible consequence. Oaths were to be upheld without excuse or exception, and the good of the community was considered equal in importance to the good of the individual. These are ideas and concepts that endure, were unquestionably part of the cultures who originally created the faith, and can be placed within our modern culture with little to no modification. As such, I can’t see any reason to exclude these from a list of the bare minimums.
The ethical systems of the pre-Christian, Norse worshiping cultures are interesting and definitely worthy of modern analysis. I don’t think we can say we conclusively know them, however, as it’s difficult to say whether certain modern day assumptions on their worldview are correct. In other cases, it’s easy to say that they believed in certain virtues but it’s difficult to say what the terms of such virtues were. Honesty and truth are great examples of this; was a Norseman going to tell the truth to an enemy, if doing so would hurt his friends and family? I sincerely doubt it, unless there was an oath involved! Others would say he would, and could cite evidence with the sagas to suggest it. That is an ethical consideration up for individual analysis, whereas the role of things like frith and hospitality are far easier to understand.
I’m getting wordy here, so let’s draw this blog post to a close. Let’s also open up the dialogue for anyone and everyone who might be reading: let’s talk about what Heathenry is instead of what is isn’t for a second. Any thoughts?