Recently there’s been several very good, thoughtful articles about whether Modern Heathenry is a full, living tradition. They’ve provided me with much food for thought, so I thought I’d share them here.
Dagulf Loptson, a longtime Heathen and member of the Troth writing on Polytheist.com, points out that as we are a reconstructed religion with no “unbroken living tradition”, such as perhaps may exist with Santeria or Judaism, there is much that we’re missing. I agree with him on this for the most part. We are particularly missing those aspects of the religion than can’t be preserved in material culture, like songs and dances. In addition, because the Norse and Germanic cultures will illiterate (writing was not used to record myths, histories, or details of everyday life, in any event) and nothing was written down by them or their contemporaries, we only have a limited amount of written material to go on as well. (Snorri, a Christian writing maybe 300 years later, doesn’t count as a contemporary.)
While the source material may be much older, the remnants we have are limited by a number of factors: 1) what Snorri and his contemporaries knew about; 2) what of that Snorri and his contemporaries decided to record; 3) of that, what we in the modern world have found, and then translated into English; and 4) that unless you have put in the time and effort to read and discuss all of the lore than has been translated into English, you’re limited to what those other scholars have decided to share with a larger audience. (The scholar’s interpretations of the surviving evidence is always changing; for example, we now know that many of those skeletons buried in “warrior’s graves” were actually women and not, as previously assumed, “small men”. This sheds a whole new light on the concept of the shield maiden; just sayin’.)
However, not all is lost. As members of the ADF Heathenry forum on Facebook pointed out when I posted Dagulf’s article, we do have quite a bit to go on, even given these limitations. From the Voluspa (“The Prophesy of the Seeress”, from the Poetic Edda), we get a fairly detailed example of a ritual and the technique (and cultural attitudes) around the practice of spa (“far seeing”). From the Gesta Danorum (“The History of the Danes”), by Saxo Grammaticus (which includes the material that is the basis for Hamlet, and the story of Ragnar Lodbrok), we get information on what kind of offerings each deity was given. (The Havamal also lists various “charms”, though the specifics of how to work these charms are not included. Typical Odin.) Also, we have several Anglo-Saxon resources, such as the Leechbook, which list spells for various needs and ailments. So we are not completely at a loss when it comes to the magical, spiritual, and religious practices from back in the day.
The question then becomes how much of the specific details and non-material culture do we really need to reconstruct the basic Heathen belief system and practices? Alyxander Folmer, creator of Huginn’s Heathen Hof (and also the husband of a rabbi), wrote this response to Dagulf’s article. He has a lot to say about this topic. What stuck out to me were, first, that even those cultures which seem to have a long, unbroken history (such as Judaism) have themselves changed quite a bit over the years. He points out that modern Judaism, in all of its forms today, doesn’t look at all like the Temple-era Judaism of 2000+ years ago. This is as it should be. On a practical level, and coming from the anthro/folklore background that I do, I know that languages, cultures, and religious practices do change; else we’d all be speaking some version of Sumerian and honoring Namma.
Secondly, he points out that we already have a living religion. People are holding blots, worshiping the gods, making offerings and sacrifices, and creating songs and dances and rituals that work for us–here in the modern day. Heathens are having discussions online and in person about how to do this thing called Heathenry and make it work for us. (He also points out that it’s really hard to be a solitary Heathen, a point I solidly agree with. This isn’t Wicca; you can’t be a solitary practitioner and attempt to reconstruct a tribal religion. Even if the only community you can find is online rather than in person, that’s still considerably better than trying to walk this path alone.)
So is Heathenry lacking anything that we can’t that we can’t reconstruct or create ourselves? I’m not sure. There have definitely been times when I’ve thought about leaving Heathenry entirely, but got pulled back in, ostensibly for one mundane reason or another (though likely the Gods had a hand in it). And it would certainly be a whole lot easier if we did come from a living tradition, where all of these songs, dances, practices, and beliefs were already known and fully entrenched into our day-to-day lives. However, I think that the practice I have now is very fulfilling. It continues to provide me with many opportunities for even deeper spiritual growth and advancement. Is it perfect? No. But it’s definitely workable.