Category: HT Archives


The Freedom of Community


This was originally posted on Heathen Talk 

I am free because I am bound to a community.  It almost seems contradictory. How can someone in modern society consider themselves free when they intentionally bind themselves to the good of others? This comes down to a clash of the Heathen worldview and the overculture’s ideals of how a person should live. The Heathen worldview is transgressive to modern society, but ultimately the most freeing.

 

Modern American culture has a focus on individualism. Modern literature and movies are driven by characters who pioneer on their own into uncharted territories. There is especially an emphasis on the western pioneer, who went out and created fortune from nothing but raw land and his own labor. Even though the facts of Western settlement and other pioneers are often skewed, as a society, we have a fascination with autonomy and individualism, and that fascination bleeds into our behavior and practice as Heathens.

 

Individualism is defined as “the doctrine that self-interest is the proper goal for all human actions,” by Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. To put it more plainly, individualism is “looking out for number one.” It is a focus on the self over the group, and the belief that personal achievement is more important than the good of the community. Writers on the subject of individualism such as Craig Biddle, in his 2012 essay, “Individualism vs. Collectivism,” believe that human beings are distinct, separate beings, who are not in any way metaphysically connected to one another. Quoting Frederick Douglas, “I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons… God created both, and made us separate beings.”

 

Many of the larger parts of American culture are built on individualism – unrestricted capitalism, protestant theology, and the idea of “pulling up your boot straps,” are but a few examples. There is a strong emphasis on the self, and rarely do you hear of the group. Very few people credit Apple for the iPhone or Microsoft for Windows – instead those are credited to a single individual such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

 

In contrast, the Heathen worldview is that the group comes before the individual, because the individual only exist as part of the group. Therefore, one could argue that Heathenry is a form of collectivism. By this, I do not mean on a governmental level. Heathenry is not communism, but instead collectivism in the objectivist point of view, defined as “emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity,” by Merriam-Webster. Group interest is the goal of Heathen moral decisions. Within modern Heathen theology, there is no larger example of this than Frith. In Culture of the Teutons, Grøntech states in Chapter 1, “Thus the kinsmen proclaim their oneness of soul and body, and this reciprocal identity is the foundation on which society and the laws of society mast be based. In all relations between man and man, it is frith that is taken into account, not individuals.”

 

Modern Heathen author Ale Glad writes in his essay, “The Heathen Mind: Construction and Transgression”:

Heathenry is communal. In Culture of the Teutons, Grönbech discusses frith, kinship, and honor to great extent and one of the conclusions he draws about Heathen society is summed up best as “the man is the clan and the clan is the man.” We are at our truest when we are part of something and when we are invested in it. In fact, it is the man without a clan, without frith, that is no man in any meaningful way. This is partly because a man living without frith, without kin, is expelled from society and can build nothing. They will have no legacy. They transgress the borders of society, living like a wolf, and preying upon others. They are outlaw and not protected by the normal rules governing human interaction. They are without purposeful and meaningful existence and, where they intersect society, exist as a parasite. They steal what they can and give nothing back. They violate all the rules and upset the proper order of things.”

 

I believe that being an individual, unbound to community, is one of the hardest ways to live. The world is a cruel place, and nature, quite frankly, is trying to kill us all. In my neck of the woods, it’s only a matter of time before we experience a devastating earthquake. Tornados are common, and occasionally we even get a tropical storm if a hurricane blows up over south Texas.  No matter who you are, where you are from, or what you believe, there is someone out there who wishes to harm you. This is not meant as doom and gloom, but simply a statement of fact.

 

Looking at modern culture, it is easy to see the price we have paid for this individualism. According to the United States Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making, 60% of households are three missed paychecks (or less) from losing their home. If faced with that situation, how many of those people have a community they can depend on to help them weather the storm? How many people are so isolated from community they don’t know how to ask for help?

 

In his book, “Quest for Community,” sociologist Robert Nisbet discusses the effects individualism has on society. He argues that the emancipation of the individual from local, meaningful communities has led to the rise of searching for belonging. When people begin searching for belonging, this search can often lead to predatory groups. I have experienced the recruiting tactics of radical, racialized groups that prey on the disaffected and lonely in my community. Predatory tactics are also used by cults and other less than savory groups to try to ensnare people to their beliefs or cause.

 

On the show, I have been very open about my struggles with mental illness. Anxiety is a monster that is always lurking in the back of my mind, and I can become consumed with worries. When I try to face these things alone, I fail, and this failure often leads to even more anxiety, which can spiral into an episode of panic and distress. There is a stigma around asking for help. I have found myself trying to take the weight of the world on my shoulders, and this has led to disaster personally and professionally. Eventually, I become so burdened that I implode, and neglect everything, to the detriment of myself and those around me.

 

When self-interest becomes my goal, rather than the community, I become destructive to my community. What is gained at the expense of my community is ultimately going to be at the expense of myself emotionally and spiritually as my actions diminish the bonds I have with my community. Without my community, I am the most wretched of creatures, alone and without a friend.

 

When I surround myself with community, including my family and my kindred, I feel at ease. Acting within my frith bonds gives a sense of peace, because I never shoulder any burden alone. It gives me hope, because I know I am working toward something greater than myself. When I am acting as a part and not an individual, I am constructively building the luck of my community, and that luck in turn rewards me when it is most needed. I am able to take risks I could have never taken before because my community is there to support me, and pick me up if I fall.

 

Embracing this worldview is not something every Heathen will do. There will be those who value their individualism over the Arch Heathen values of community and Frith. There are also those who have not embraced this facet due to ignorance about the beliefs of our religious ancestors. I was once in the latter position. My worldview continues to evolve daily. My sincerest wish is that every Heathen is able to experience the power of Frith and community, because it will profoundly change their life for the better.

Dear Asatru


This was originally published on Heathen Talk in 2016

Goodbye, Asatru

When I got involved with the greater Heathen religious movement in the early 2000’s, Asatru was the preferred nomenclature for anyone who didn’t identify as Theodish belief. It didn’t matter if you were Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, or Icelandic, you were Asatru. I can only speculate as to why that was, but I strongly suspect a good deal of it was a lack of access to information. Many of us learned Heathenry from the Eddas, the Sagas, and bad Victorian scholarship.

As the years have passed, there has started to be somewhat of a divide in the community. On one path are those who identify under the banner of Heathen, who actively engage in trying to understand not just who or how the Arch Heathens worshiped, but how they thought and why these practices were meaningful. On the other path are those who identify under the banner of Asatru, who are more interested in grafting a branch of Norse belief onto the modern Wiccan influenced Neo-Pagan movement, including the trappings of that movement.

There is a very key difference that I believe separates the two of these paths, and that is the view of the individual. The reconstruction path takes the view that the individual is an expression and a representation of the tribe. Therefore, whatever the individual does, it is not for themselves, but for the good (or ill) of the tribe. If someone engages in activities to improve themselves, they are not just improving themselves, but affecting their kin as a whole.  The more Neo-Pagan influenced path is focused on the self, and sees each person as an individual. Self-improvement in this case would be for the self.

This difference expresses itself into how the divine is approached. When the reconstructionist approaches the divine, he does so with his tribe, or at least representing his tribe. When the Neo-Pagan approaches the divine, they do so on a more personal level. Therefore, the way we do ritual, even if we are doing the same physical actions and saying the same words is profoundly different. It also can cause many arguments when there is a discussion about “solo ritual.” There are no solitary Heathens in the reconstructionist mindset. Everyone has tribe by the sheer fact they were born into a family, they live in a community, and they interact with others on a daily basis. One can be a solitary Neo-Pagan.

There is a last area of divide in the road, and that has to do with how we see the world. The reconstructionist mindset tends to be very world accepting. Rarely do you hear the reconstructionist talk about dying with honor or going to Valhalla. Life is taken on life’s terms, with the understanding that the purpose of life is to create luck for your kin. There is no need to be “called by Odin” or other such special favor of the gods.  In more Neo-Pagan circles, the opposite is true, and there is an expectation of having a patron deity that takes an active, personal interest in your life.

When I first joined this movement, I fell into the first camp. I had 20 years of living a worldview that is focused on the individual and not the tribe. It took me another ten to finally understand what it means to be Heathen, to live in a state of frith and feel the awe inspiring power of my ancestors. I have come to find that the approach offered by Neo-Pagan and New Age inspired paths doesn’t offer me the same things.

Asatru has become the Neo-Pagan path. Heathenry has become the reconstructionist paths. Once we all walked together down road that was neglected and rarely used. This was meaningful and helped Heathenry grow into what we are now. However, the path is splitting, and it is time to say goodbye to Asatru. Your beliefs are not mine, your worship is not mine, and I no longer wish to be seen as a part of your system of belief. I no longer want groups who claim the title Asatru to control the public dialogue about who my kindred is and how the greater public perceives us.

Goodbye Asatru. You served your purpose in my life. However, we’ve grown apart. It’s you, not me.  

The Hammer Rite: A Relic of the Past


This was originally published at Heathen Talk on 26 December 2016

Thor’s Fight with the Giants by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872

When I first became a Heathen in the days before Facebook and a plethora of digital archives, the Hammer Rite was a staple of Heathen ritual. Most, if not all, of the blots, fainings, and sumbles I attended were began with that familiar call of “Hammer of the North! Hallow and hold this holy stead.” I have fond memories of my own rites as a new Heathen, and the excitement of being in a sacred space. As time has passed, more and more information about the Arch-Heathens come available, we have discovered that the history that was used to create the Hammer Rite is flawed. While the Hammer Rite was once a temporary bridge across the vast chasms of gaps of knowledge, modern Heathenry has grown past needing the Hammer Rite to conduct ritual.

To understand how this flawed history was used to create the Hammer Rite, we need to first examine these ideas and how they came into modern culture. While there are many events in the late Victorian age that influenced modern Paganism, the largest influence came from a woman named Margaret Murray.

Margaret Murray (1928) Photograph by Lafayette Studio National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

Murray is described as an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She was the first female lecturer in archeology in the United Kingdom, and served as president of the Folklore Society, a very prominent British organization that is almost 140 years old that has published yearly journals, and has curated over 15,000 books on British folklore. 1 Murray was also a fan of a Johann Jakob Bachofen*, who put forth the Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right) hypothesis that all societies were once a matriarchy, a hypothesis that respected scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell said stood in radical opposition to the Aryan origin theories of religion, culture and society, and suggested that Bachofen’s theories only adequately explain the development of religion among the pre-Aryan cultures of the Mediterranean and the Levant, and possibly Southern Asia, but that a separate, patriarchal development existed among the Aryan tribes which conquered Europe and parts of Asia in his book Occidental Mythology.

One of Murray’s most well-known works is The Witch Cult of Western Europe, which put forth the idea there was a homogenous, gynocentric religion that existed in all of Western Europe prior to Christianity. The so called “Burning Times” of the European witch trials were, in her hypothesis, the Catholic Church trying to eradicate what she called later in her book The God of the Witches “The Olde Religion.”

Early criticism of her works came from scholars such as George Burr, an American historian who reviewed her book in The American History Review in 1922. His review refutes many of Murray’s claims as far too narrow, and says she was not acquainted with the “careful general histories by modern scholars” and criticised her for assuming that the trial accounts accurately reflected the accused witches’ genuine experiences of witchcraft, regardless of whether those confessions had been obtained through torture and coercion. 2

Murray had her critics, but never less, her ideas took hold not just in the academic community, but in pop culture. The God of the Witches was written for a mainstream audience, and Murray’s hypothesis was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica under the Witchcraft entry from 1929 until 1969. 3

Founder of Wicca Gerald Gardner was also a member of the Folklore Society where he had access to Murray’s research, and as a result, he adapted many of Murray’s ideas when he created Wicca sometime between 1939 and 1956. 4 5 For many years, Wicca was seen as historically valid because it was in agreement with Murray’s widely accepted Witch Cult hypothesis.

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the first sparks of what is now the Asatru/Heathen movement began to stir. 6 Unlike modern Heathens, the first group of people who attempted to revive Heathenry didn’t have access to as many academic sources and information. Much of what was available was out of date, or heavily influenced by Freemasonry and ceremonial magic such as the writings of Alexander Rud Mills, one of the first documented Odinists. 7 As a result, they worked with what they had. One of the pieces they did have was Wicca was a historically accurate religion. Since Wicca encompassed an Anglo-Celtic perspective, and the idea that there was a homogenous cult prior to Christianity, it makes sense for those Heathens to look to Wicca for clues as far as structure in ritual.

The Hammer Rite is part of this legacy. The idea of casting a circle, calling forth the directions, and using a sacred object to so is common in Wicca and in the magical practices of Freemasonry, Thelema, and Ceremonial Magic that influenced Wicca. 8 This allowed them to start some sort of practice that honored the Gods. Their praxis wasn’t correct, but it was at least an effort to do something to revive a dead religion.

The idea of Wicca being a historically accurate religion began to fall apart in 1999 when Ronald Hutton published The Triumph of the Moon. Hutton, a professor at the University of Bristol who specializes in pagan British religion, conducted detailed research into the claims that Wicca was “the old religion.” His conclusion was that Wicca was “a mélange of material from relatively modern sources.” Hutton effectively demolished the notion, held by Wiccans and others, that ancient pagan customs existed within medieval Christian practices. This research reveals that outside of a very small number of traditions, such as decorating with greenery at Yuletide and celebrating May Day with flowers, no pagan practices have survived from antiquity. Hutton found that nearly all rural seasonal pastimes once viewed as “timeless” fertility rituals, including the Maypole dance, actually date from the Middle Ages or later. This research helped lead to a widespread consensus among historians that Catholicism thoroughly permeated medieval Europe, with their culture of saints’ shrines, devotions, and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin actually come from the Protestant Reformation.

Hutton also challenged the Wiccan narrative ancient Goddess worship. His strongest argument against the theory of Goddess worship is that pre-Christian Europe believed in many gods and goddesses, being true polytheists.  The concept that their gods and goddesses represented different aspects of a single deity was foreign to that culture. The Germanic cosmologies are crowded with discrete spirits. It wasn’t until the second century this idea was introduced by the Roman writer Apuleius, who claimed Isis was in fact the same as other goddesses representing forces of nature.

At the same time, Heathen scholarship was beginning to take off. Books such as We Are Our Deeds were published, and Heathens began pulling away from the practices influenced by Wicca. During the last fifteen years, the average Heathen has obtained access to a plethora of academic sources that were not easily accessible before they were digitized on the web. Now almost any Heathen could really dive into what it meant to be a Heathen prior to Christianization, without the need to depend on other Pagan traditions to fill in the canyons we once had in Heathen belief and practice.

As a result of the increased scholarship, the Hammer Rite fell out of favor, though some groups still use it. I have found two types of groups that still use the Hammer Rite – those who are more interested in practicing a more Neo-Pagan influenced ritual, and those groups who formed prior to the mid 2000’s, when the Hammer Rite fell out of favor. The latter group has a historical and tradition based reason to continue to use the Hammer Rite, and while I don’t agree with it, I find it hard to argue with an established, regional tradition.

Heathenry is coming into its own, and with the existing scholarship, along with current innovations in practice and ritual, we have no need to borrow from Wicca, or any other religion in terms of constructing ritual. The Hammer Rite is a piece of the past, one we should remember, but keep in the past.

 

Mjolnir by masbt via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

* Bachofen never left his house after he retired.

Sources:

1 (2013). The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman’s Work in Archaeology. New York: Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-7417-3.

2 www.jstor.org/stable/1837549

3, 5, 8 Doyle White, Ethan (2016). Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Brighton, Chicago, and Toronto: Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 978-1-84519-754-4.

4 http://www.gardnerian.de/artikel/howard/gbgmmm2.htm

6 Snook, Jennifer (2015). American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-4399-1097-9.

7 Gardell, Matthias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822330714.


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