Heathenry–incomplete, or no?

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.

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5 thoughts on “Heathenry–incomplete, or no?

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    There is a lot more to look at if you are willing to look outside the ‘authorized’ sources, such as fairy tales, folklore, etc. I personally think it’s a lot more that many vocal “old guard” heathens are really, truly, unwilling to look outside these sources. If it’s not in the Lore, it’s not allowed seems to be the refrain.

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  2. Silence says:

    I’ve been enormously enriched in many ways from learning with and worshiping with traditions that the article calls “unbroken”. I think that these traditions have a great deal to teach us about maturing as faith cultures and about existing in a pluralistic religious landscape (in terms of our self-selected communities of believers and on a global scale). I also think it’s important not to fetishize or tokenize these traditions as somehow intrinsically better or more sound just because they lack apparent breaks. This kind of perspective minimizes the often vast distinctions that exist within these groups and the many, many revolutions of thought, practice, and philosophy that have taken place within them. Hinduism was mentioned but the idea that Hinduism is a monolithic thing that has this particular label is a product of specifically British scholarship. (I know the author is quite aware that innumerable variations exist within the category we call Hinduism and he was making a separate point so I don’t fault him for not mentioning it. My point is just the concept of an “unbroken” tradition makes it sound consistent and unchanging in a way that simply doesn’t reflect the way these living traditions actual exist with and in the people that animate them.)

    I don’t like calling Heathenry a “broken” tradition simply because it suggests deficit instead of wealth. There is a constantly growing wealth of information inside Heathenry – it’s called Heathens. I think it’s important to validate our religious experiences as an authentic source of information – after all, who is best qualified to speak of the intricacies of a faith tradition? Certainly not books and definitely not very old books written by non-members. These things are *part* of a tradition but they must never be mistaken for a tradition.

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  3. Marcus says:

    First, you’very been you This Solitary Hearthstone and solitary is hard, unless you’really really not. I reached out to the Truth Steward for my state trying to find others (with which he sadly could not help) but he started reading my journal blog, raising questions and challenging novitiate assumptions and generally taking me under his wing. This has helped a great deal. Sadly no one who chose to publish their address on TheTroth.organization who is from my state has answered an e,ail I sent after five days but I will search, I will pull my Mjoll ir out and see what happens. I even posted something in the Craigslist spirituality forum with predictably hilarious results. Still, with Doug the Steward I am not truly alone. And then I find blogsomething like tnis. (How does one say Hallelujah in Old West Norse? Or in my personal case, Old German?)

    As for voodoo as an example, I live in New Orleans. Originally there was a large cohort of slaves from the sa,email limguistic group all in one place, with a living if suppressed tradition. Then there was an influx of Haitian slaves brought by people like a few of my ancestors, so you had two strains meeting. You have Sante rialto from Cuba and there is a large Honduran population, so you have these things on might call voodoo, or African tribal-sourced religions one might say in anthropology. You also have the Spiritualist churches which has are superficially Xian but involve all of the syncretic veneration of Saints with the aspects of the loa(s) Never can remember the plural form.. So you have this thing one could call Voodoo generally but in spite of unbroken tradition there is probably almost as much diversity as in the multi-headed beast call Pagan.

    My small private ritualsector are just that, and comes from something almost like automatic writing, from inspiration. (Hail All Father. First always. A gift for a gift,) I say that because of a boon asked and granted, one that apparently hasn’t stopped but that could just as easily be Bragi (Hail!) as that is where the blog started although it was Frau Holle and Nerthus who came to my this Yuletide and Imbolc/Carnival and which I took as my calling. I am not reading out of Paxton or Lafayllve or gods help us Thorsson. I am inventing as I go along at this point, with the outlines of the primers in the backmo6f my mind and a breath of inspiration from Odin/Braggi as I write my litlle invocations. And then there are the Vaettir of my oak grove and bayou so as the tagine on This Solitary Hearth says I am closer to your world in spite of the promise made and kept to Odin. A gift for a gift.

    N.B. I need a suitable Old German curse for Android predictive typing of hermetic names. Will have to settle for that old Anglo-Saxon stand by for now. And I’must not about to try to figure out Dia critical on Android, no siRhee Bobby. Oh I quit.

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  4. Marcus says:

    First, you’very been to This Solitary Hearth and solitary is hard, unless you’really really not. I reached out to the Troth Steward for my state trying to find others (with which he sadly could not help) but he started reading my journal blog, raising questions and challenging novitiate assumptions and generally taking me under his wing. This has helped a great deal. Sadly no one who chose to publish their address on TheTroth.org who is from my state has answered an email I sent after five days but I will search, I will wear my Mjollir out and see what happens. I even posted something in the Craigslist spirituality forum with predictably hilarious results. Still, with Doug the Steward I am not truly alone. And then I find blogs like this. (How does one say Hallelujah in Old West Norse? Or in my personal case, Old German?)

    As for voodoo as an example, I live in New Orleans. Originally there was a large cohort of slaves from the same linguistic group all in one place, with a living if suppressed tradition.(From this website get role culture.) Then there was an influx of Haitian slaves brought by people like a few of my ancestors, so you had two strains meeting. You have Santeria from Cuba and there is a large Honduran population, so you have all these things one might call voodoo, or African tribal-sourced religions one might say in anthropology. You also have the Spiritualist churches which are superficially Xian but involve all of the syncretic veneration of Saints with the aspects of the loa(s) Never can remember the plural form.. So you have this thing one could call Voodoo generally but in spite of unbroken tradition there is probably almost as much diversity as in the multi-headed beast call Pagan.

    My small private rituals are just that, and come from something almost like automatic writing, from inspiration. (Hail All Father. First always. A gift for a gift,) I say that because of a boon asked and granted, one that apparently hasn’t stopped but that could just as easily be Bragi (Hail!) as that is where the blog started although it was Frau Holle and Nerthus who came to my this Yuletide and Imbolc/Carnival and which I took as my calling. I am not reading out of Paxton or Lafayllve or gods help us Thorsson. I am inventing as I go along at this point, with the outlines of the primers in the back of my mind and a breath of inspiration from Odin/Braggi as I write my litlle invocations. And then there are the Vaettir of my oak grove and bayou so as the tagine on This Solitary Hearth says I am closer to your world in spite of the promise made and kept to Odin. A gift for a gift.

    N.B. I need a suitable Old German curse for Android predictive typing of hermetic names. Will have to settle for that old Anglo-Saxon stand by for now. And I’m not about to try to figure out diacriticals on Android, no sirree Bob.

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