Mouths and Ears

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A friend who often represents Ásatrú/Heathenry at interfaith events has interesting stories to tell about manning the tables, explaining us to people who know nothing about us and our religion. A common conversation there goes something like this:

"So, what is your holy book?"

"We don't have one."

A look of shock and amazement appears here.

"You don't have a holy book?"

"No, we have some old stories and poems that were written down about 800 years ago. They are very important to us, but we don't think of them in the same way that other religions think of their holy books."

These old stories and poems were written down well after the Conversion of Iceland in 1000. Most were written after the last Heathen ruler of Sweden in the 1100s. All of them were written for literary and historical reasons, not religious ones, after the Viking era, and by non-Heathens. That's because, while many Viking-age people knew how to write, they didn't do it much. Religion, law, and all of the rest of culture were carried orally from generation to generation. These days, we tend to think of this as a nearly superhuman feat. At the time, it was considered unremarkable. It was something ordinary people simply did.

Modern Ásatrú is sometimes called "The Religion with Homework." We dredge a formal understanding of our gods and our religion out of an assortment of ancient works, none of which were designed to be religious guidebooks. Most of these works were written in Old Norse, a language that is quite similar to modern Icelandic, one of the world's most difficult languages to learn. Others were written in Old English, or various Old German dialects. More than a few of us try to learn these old languages, so we can read the original works. Some even succeed. The rest of us have to be content with translations, and we usually own several different translations of the same works to get a better feel for what the originals probably meant.

Back in the infamous 1960s, Marshall McLuhan made the now-famous pronouncement "The medium is the message." This statement is variously interpreted, but a common understanding is that the means by which a message is delivered influences, and even determines, what the message turns out to mean.

I bring this up because Heathen literature was originally an artifact of a purely oral culture. These things were meant to be spoken and heard.

Perhaps you will sometime have an opportunity to hear old poetry composed in one of these languages, pronounced by someone trained in how it originally sounded. Your experience might be similar to mine: even if you don't understand the words, you will understand the feeling in them, maybe even better than if you did understand the words.

Those who attend the same Heathen gatherings I go to have heard me say many times that we need to be more than just consumers of Heathen literature. We need to be active performers of it. We even need to be creators of it. We don't have an immutable holy book. We have our own personal knowledge of our gods, whose stories are not yet all told, whose songs are not yet all sung. Whether these stories and songs are old or new, it is important to voice them with your own mouth, and hear them with your ears.  Remember this was once the only way: the way our whole culture was kept alive. If you think you're not up to this, you are. You can.