The Development of Heathen Culture – Part II

The Development of Heathen Culture – Part II June 14, 2010

William Arnal writes that “no statement about what religion is can avoid at least partially explaining what religion does, where it comes from, and how it works.”(Arnal, p. 22). This is an issue not just for the specialist but for would-be theologians within the Asatru community as well. There is, especially given the rising denominational clashes within the religion, no fully accepted consensus on any of those things.

Leaving aside semantic questions of definition, I believe it is possible to determine several clearly delineated factors within Heathenry, points of practice and approach that most adherents would agree are uniquely Heathen. Individual communities possess their own unique cultures, often centered around and growing out of the common focus of people’s collective experiences. In other words we have work place culture, religious culture, even one’s own family culture. Each of these cultures may possess their own special language, customs and rituals. This is why sociologist Emile Durkheim, in writing about religion noted that ‘religious beliefs proper are always held by a defined collectivity that professes them and practices the rites that go with them.’ (Durkheim, p. 42. Emphasis mine).

To be sure, there has been some very tentative work done within the Heathen community on just this subject. Dr. Stephen Flowers (aka Edred Thorsson), in an article published in the journal “Tyr: Myth, Culture, Tradition” discusses the idea of Heathen culture dividing it into four categories: ethnic, ethical, material, and linguistic. (From “The Idea of Integral Culture,” in “Tyr: Myth, Culture, Tradition,” p. 12). He goes on to explain that “symbolic, or ethical, culture is entirely invisible and supersensible. We know about it through its manifestations in the other three branches of culture: ethnic, material, and linguistic.” (Flowers, p. 13).  In many respects, these are precisely the areas of experience most privileged in the act of religious Reconstruction and that is where difficulties can arise: instead of allowing “culture” to develop organically from ongoing, community experience, the contemporary community is (albeit of necessity) forcing the issue.

So what are our unspoken cultural markers? Flowers postulates that culture is most perfectly encoded in the linguistic code utilized within a given community and within the Heathen community (communities?) this certainly holds true. The Heathen communities utilize a very specific language with many terms drawn from Old Norse or Old English to define ideology and to bracket their communal experience. They also use these same terms in an exclusionary fashion when questions of difference in practice arise.  Among these occasionally charged terms are:

  • Frið:    Frið is an Old Norse word that indicates ‘right order’ or ‘right balance’ between friends. In the community it is used to indicate the state of harmony and peace that exists in a cohesive community, peace enjoyed while amongst one’s own people. The unspoken reality about the use of the term frið within modern Heathenry is that it has come to assume a presupposed homogeneity within any given group, a homogeneity of thought and values, of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy which can and has led to a division between inangarð (the sacred enclosure of one’s community) and utgarð (everyone else).
  • Grið:          The other side of frið, grið is the state of détente between members of an inangarð and members of an utgarð such as when visitors from another denomination may visit and participate in one group’s religious celebrations or feasts.   The use of this term in online forums within the community highlights the almost xenophobic insularity that has come to define certain aspects of Heathen practice, most particularly within the orthodox community.
  • Hospitality: The open handed generosity with which members of the community are expected to treat each other and visitors. The idea of ‘hospitality’ is spoken of quite frequently in inter-Heathen discourse and it is held up as a high ideal within every branch of the greater Heathen community. At its best, the ideal of hospitality leads to a cohesive, supportive infrastructure upon which Heathen leaders can build. At its worst,   visitors and long-term Heathens who express dissent with the commonly accepted orthodoxy can be met with open hostility and suspicion as even the most cursory exploration of the online Heathen community will show.
  • Recht:             Used primarily within the growing Theodish community (a community which in the last five years has gained a tremendous amount of influence within greater Heathenry), the concept of recht, from the German word for ‘right,’ is often used by Heathen leaders in discussing the hermeneutics of practice and the evolving Heathen Weltanschauung. This goes hand in hand with a certain romanticizing of pre-Christian Heathen cultures because it is believed, in the words of one Theodish leader that

“we have been stripped for over a millennia of our cultural and religious values, and the world has, for the most part, suffered under a Judeo-Christian paradigm. That paradigm has for the most part, repressed our faith, contradicted our worldview, and attempted to trivialize, destroy or hide anything that once composed the elder religious systems of the World.(public email on the Northeastasatru@yahoogroups.com  mailing list by Daniel O., October 6, 2007). “

Daniel goes on to note that “Asatru tends to work backwards from the modern period, incorporating elements of the elder culture through the religion as understood today” whereas “Theodism tends to work forward from the elder period and incorporate elements of modern culture where they are compatible with what would be regarded as lawful (or recht) in elder times.”(ibid).

The above comments regarding the “elder period” of Heathenry aptly illustrate the religion’s ongoing attempts to create what anthropologist Johannes Fabian termed “intersubjective Time” between modern adherents and pre-Christian believers in the same set of Gods. (Fabian, p. 42). There is an overwhelming desire, openly stated in many parts of the community, to develop Heathenry and by extension Heathen culture as though the intervening millennia of Christianity had never occurred. In his work “Time and the Other,” Fabian discusses the idea of time as a device used to create (or in some cases deny) coevalness. This idea of coevalness, a sharing of present time, is precisely what the Heathen community is trying to create with its interpretations of the past.  This holds forth positively in the ancestral veneration which is an important part of the religion, but also in the developing aesthetic as well as (and most importantly to our discussion) the developing attitudes and value judgments that define the religion. Moreover, the way in which most Heathens approach their religious culture depends heavily on the sense of deep connectedness to their “shared” past with its attendant values and culture.  The development of a sense of coevalness ceases to be a problem for the modern Heathen, rather it is presupposed.

Curiously, one aspect of this Weltanschauung is the nearly blanket denial within large swaths of the Heathen community that Norse cultures were ever seriously influenced by any external factors prior to the arrival of Christianity. Despite the remarkably advanced system of trade that so defined the Viking world, Heathen purists persist in insisting that neither the Celtic nor the Saami, nor the Finnish nor the Mediterranean cultures had any lasting or important influence on the development of Norse magico-religious traditions, that there was never any blending of practice. This attitude of adamant insularity permeates not just Heathen attitudes toward the past, but also their attitude toward the development of the modern religion. Any influences not immediately attested to in “the lore,” be they religious, cultural or even aesthetic are met with deep hostility, including many aspects of personal gnosis. This includes not just religious practices such as certain kinds of prayer and meditation but also ritual clothing styles, iconography, gender roles and religious eclecticism. It has contributed in a large part, as we shall later see, to the development of a rather exclusionary attitude within the greater community.

Essentially, modern Heathenry has created what Fabian warns researchers not to do: they have taken both Nordic cultures and modern Heathen cultures and created the religious equivalent of a ‘culture garden.’  This has had the unfortunate effect of trapping the developing modern culture like a bee in amber, slowing down its evolution and fettering it to an idealized concept of the past that rarely if ever actually existed.  In many respects, this has locked Heathenry away not only from external influences of other religions, but also from the evolutionary trends slowly gaining momentum within fringe elements of the greater Heathen community itself. Above all else, by bounding Heathenry off from dialogue not only with the greater Neo Pagan communities but also with different denominations within Heathenry itself, it has created a rigid, exclusionary border across which newcomers to the faith find it very difficult to pass. It has effectively made of Heathen culture a weapon.

Bibliography

  1. Arnal, William, (2000). “Definition” in Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell.
  2. Buckley, Joshua, (2002). Tyr: Myth, Culture, Tradition vol. 1. Atlanta: Ultra Press.
  3. Durkheim, Emile, (2001). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Fabian, Johannes, (2002). Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
  5. Krasskova, Galina, (2005). Exploring the Northern Tradition. New Jersey: New Page Books.
  6. Magliocco, Sabina, (2004). Witching Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Williams, Raymond, (1983). Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press.

This article is part of a forthcoming work titled ‘Essays in Modern Heathenry,” forthcoming in Fall 2010 through Asphodel Press.


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  • Sara A.

    I remember an essay in which a Heathen writer responded to the theory that the origin of Wicca could be a remnant of Saxon worship of Ingvi and Freo, eg Frey and Freya. The author insisted that this *could not possibly be true* because Wicca was obviously influenced by 19th century occultism, not to mention Gardner’s notions, and that a REAL ancient tradition would be free of such influences.

    That’s what a friend of mine calls “the opposite of right.” I can’t say that the theory is correct, but that argument against it isn’t valid. People are cultural animals, and we adopt what we see other people doing. I would be highly suspicious of anything claiming to be an ancient tradition that *didn’t* show any influence…especially if it happened to coincide with currently popular theory and research, which is ever-evolving.

    Similarly, the idea that a bunch of people who were actively trading with their neighbors (and occasionally raiding them) never, ever, ever were influenced by the cultures they were trading with defies belief.

  • Kauko

    “Despite the remarkably advanced system of trade that so defined the Viking world, Heathen purists persist in insisting that neither the Celtic nor the Saami, nor the Finnish nor the Mediterranean cultures had any lasting or important influence on the development of Norse magico-religious traditions, that there was never any blending of practice.”

    As someone whose practice is mostly based on Finnish paganism, reading this just made me laugh. When dealing with all of the Finnish/ Karelian folklore and mythology you have to mine your way through all of the different influences present in the texts from varying time periods (the earliest influences being very typical of the northern shamanic cultures, later Indo-European influences, lots of Germanic influence starting in the Viking era and continuing through Swedish occupation of what is present day Finland and lastly Christian influence). If anyone were to suggest to a scholar of the Finnish pagan tradition that it was ‘pure’ and uncontaminated by outside influences, they’d be laughed at.

  • Kauko, i would love to learn more about Finnish Paganism. Maybe consider doing an article for Pantheon? :)

    as an Academic, I find the idea that there ever was a pure tradition “unsullied’ by contact with other cultures and practices absurd. Nothing evolves in a vacuum, which was, in part, the point that I was trying to bring out.

    Sara, i recommend the work of Thomas Dubois, particularly “Northern Religions in the Viking Age”. He talks about cross-cultural contamination as a natural consequence of trade and geographic proximity.

    thanks for your comments, folks.