The Rules of Modern Heathenry

Attend a gathering of modern Heathens for the first time, and you'll find yourself at Square One: probably seeing some things you haven't seen before. Attend a gathering with the same group for the ninth time, and you'll see a lot of things you have seen nine times now and become comfortable with, along with some other things you haven't seen before. Attend a gathering with a different group of Heathens, and you might be pretty much back to Square One. A common response to this situation is to find yourself standing in blot with your new friends and thinking, "Wait a minute...that's not right!"

One of the interesting upsides to involvement with modern Heathenry is that one gets to witness a religion in the making. Yes, we're Reconstructionists, and unlike some modern Paganisms, we know beyond doubt that our religion actually existed a thousand years ago. What we don't know, however, is very much about what that religion looked like in practice. This leaves us having to invent things, borrow things, and try things out to see what works, because there are a lot of cracks (or maybe chasms) to fill in. In some religions, there is a convenient leadership hierarchy that spans that community. Have a question? You know whom to ask, and the answer is given to you. But Heathenry isn't like that.

Heathen practical lore is sometimes presented as darkly flavored jokes. For example, here are The Rules of Modern Heathenry. Both of them.

  1.  You're not the boss of me.
  2.  You're doing it all wrong.

The humor in this case is similar to the humor in the Dilbert comic strip: the thing that makes it funny is that it isn't funny at all. There is no Asa-Pope, and individual Heathens don't usually accept any leadership other than people they know well and have deliberately chosen as associates. This seems a good thing to us: we like to think for ourselves and keep our counsel close to home.

The downside of this is often apparent when one group of Heathens visits another. Hospitality is one of our sacraments, and we look forward to having friends, Heathen or otherwise, in our homes and at our public gatherings. But there is no Standards Body in Heathenry: blots and sumbels look and work differently between groups. Some of these differences are obvious, while others are quite subtle, and some folks get offended. The results are often expressed, loudly and in public, by Rule 2 (see above).

I attended an event recently at which a local kindred offered to run the sumbel for the larger assembly. Things were going well, and I noticed that the Valkyrie was doing things with the horn that I had never seen before. It was all very deliberate and beautifully done, and I remember thinking to ask her later what she was doing. When it came time to refill the horn, this also was done in a way I hadn't seen before. But not everyone in the assembly, myself included, knew how the local kindred did things, and it turned out to matter. Some things happened that, in that kindred's eyes anyway, corrupted the contents of the horn, and they insisted on abandoning the rite. A fair amount of ill will ensued, and patching it up was a very dicey issue.

This kind of thing might get the blood pumping when it happens to you, and it's clear that some Heathens really enjoy that, but it doesn't do anyone, or anyone's gods, any good. It's worth looking for a way to keep this kind of thing from happening.

I know that The Troth and the Asatru Folk Assembly publish official blot books, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the Odinic Rite and Asatru Assembly do, too. I own the Troth and AFA books. There is a lot of similarity between the two. But neither of these books presents even itself as an authority on "This Is How To Perform A Blot Or Sumbel." They both present their contents as suggestions, with some encouragement to experiment. And so we find ourselves back at the pointy end of the reconstruction issue. Mix in the widespread acceptance of the validity of at least some UPGs (Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis). And we have a recipe for social acrimony that we can feed on well on into forever.

No, I don't think we should try to have an Absolutely Standard Book of Blots across the larger Heathen community. Anyone who suggests such a thing has not read The Rules, or else has not grasped that we mean them. Nor do I think we should give up on The Rules. There is a way to make this work. What is required is a strong dose of the Havamal mixed together with some of that excellent Heathen pride, then top it off with a small change in outlook, and The Rules become something beautiful indeed.

The Havamal is about as close as we come to having Scripture. In this old poem, Odin discusses, among other things, the mutual responsibilities of hosts and guests. Watching your mouth, minding your manners, and treating each other with respect are some of the topics on order. These issues are the wallpaper over the core issue, which is to actually have respect.