Thinking of Heathen Women

"Like" the Patheos Pagan Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Pagan issues.

A few years ago, I participated in a formal academic survey of the Heathen community, conducted by a then-graduate student named Jennifer Snook, who has since received her Ph.D. It was an interesting several hours spent on the phone. Most of the questions were easy enough for me to address, but still far from trivial; some of them took many minutes to answer. But there was one question that stopped me in my tracks.

"What do you think of Heathen women?"

I suppose I could have said "Well, they're women . . . who are Heathen." But that is an inadequate answer. Or it may have been the question that was inadequate. Or perhaps it was just opening a door into a room that deserved to be examined, and that I had not.

Before we talk about what I think of Heathen women, let's talk about what I think of women.

Mom was a speech pathologist in private practice. She dealt with challenging problems, such as how to make a living in a small business while helping people learn to talk again after devastating diseases or injuries. Family dinner table conversations often went deep into neuroanatomy and physiology. Her work required remarkable inventiveness and superlative interpersonal skills on a daily basis. And she did make a living at it.

I live and work in Silicon Valley, where it's easy to find interesting people. Mom now lives in a retirement community not far away. She walks slowly and forgets things now and then, but the topics of our conversations haven't changed. She is still one of the most interesting people I know.

When I started having girlfriends, and for decades afterward, I often found myself faced with a woman informing me at the outset that I had to somehow make myself understand that she was intelligent and capable, regardless of whatever stereotypes I had grown up with. After several encounters with this, my responses were sometimes less than kind, addressing stereotypes she had apparently grown up with. Intelligent and capable is what I start off expecting in a woman, Heathen or otherwise.

But let's get back to Heathenry. There are mythologists who say that a people's gods are an expression of their ideals. Let's go with that notion.

In our pantheon, we don't just have gods. We have goddesses, too. Lots of them. The most famous is Freya. To say that she is beautiful and sexy is the epitome of understatement. I think it likely that even the stones in the earth want Freya. And if you think that's all there is to her, you'd better think some more. Failing to do so is a very bad idea.

Sif is Thor's wife. The best-known story about her involves a temporary loss of outward beauty, but there is much more to know of her. Sif is what's called an Etin-bride. If you want to understand what that's about, you really need to talk to a Sifswoman. I can't begin to do the topic justice.

Frigga is Odin's wife. While Odin is able to learn whatever he wants to know, Frigga just knows. She seems not to have any choice in the matter. The two of them argue often, and she often wins those arguments.

Surrounding Frigga are a dozen or so so-called minor goddesses, each a specialist. While the Heathen pantheon is best known for its arsenal of war gods, the deeper values of the culture are found here among Frigga's handmaidens. The perspective can challenge the unprepared. One of the more interesting to me is Syn, the goddess of Defiance. The opening ceremony of the old Icelandic Althing a thousand years ago was an appeal to Syn in support of those accused there at trial.

There are others. All are women to respect, value, and admire. None are for trifling with. If you want to know what I think of Heathen women, that's a good place to start.

Heathens devote great respect, not mere lip service, to the classic female roles in life. There is equal respect for women who have other things to accomplish. Our religion is about standing up and being something worthwhile. Whatever that turns out to mean for a particular woman, there is at least one goddess or god to give her good company, and probably several.

Hail the Asynjur!