I’ve been learning more all the time about how to be a Very Very Bad Heathen, or in fact, how not to be a Heathen at all. It’s easy to be a terrible at being a Heathen; it’s impossible to be good at it, because rest assured, however you practice, it’s wrong and you’re a bad person for it.
Roughly twenty years ago I completed a year-long Pagan study group. I recently found some of the notes from that long-ago class when sorting through old belongings, one of the pages of notes listed different Pagan traditions, and Asatru was listed among them.
I was excited when I read that (other than the White Supremacy part, and we’re still fighting that); since I had read the Trumpet of Terror as a child I had been reading whatever I could find about the Northern Gods. I looked around quite a bit and the closest thing I found in the local community was Wiccan group that sometimes called on the Norse Gods. That was until I found out that someone was holding a blot at a local UU church.
I went there, excited. I sat as the Godi spoke and listened as he filled his horn and spoke good words about the Gods. He poured, and he drank, and then he explained to the audience why they were not allowed to participate. Asatru was for warriors, he explained. Only folks who were involved in law enforcement, the military, or had some fighting art as a living could honor the Gods (I haven’t run into that particular brand of stupid since, fortunately). After the end of the rite, I stuck around and heard him explain why people who weren’t as blond-and-blue as he was couldn’t either (Sadly I have run into that brand of stupid since). I matched his complexion (and at the time, hair) but that still made me ill so I withdrew.
I found books. There was nothing like Diana Paxson’s Essential Asatru or Patricia Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru; there were some pretty rough Llewllyn books and then books not written by Pagan folk that talked about the practices of the old European Heathens (There were some better books, but the internet was not what it is now). I hodgepodged rites in private and with small groups of people while maintaining my Eclectic Pagan group in a more public fashion. I thought I was super clever, too: I wondered if there were Asa-tru if there might be Vana-tru and assumed that I was the only one who had ever thought about that and quietly stuffed that away while occasionally using the label among folks who understood what it meant.
I tried dipping my toes into the broader Heathen community again, later on, and encountered more of the same, with new elements. While the folk I ran into had no issue with people who weren’t “warriors” practicing the religion, the groups were very negative towards people of mixed race (and I know enough of my geneology to know that while I am white, I have black and native ancestors in my tree), queer people, and of course Wiccans. The fact that I was coming from Wicca was enough to earn me shame, even those among this particular group who had once been involved with Wiccan and Eclectic Pagan practice were quick to point out how in my case I had been permanently wrecked spiritually by it.
In the mid-2000’s I started encountering Heathens who were different (unsurprisingly, at a local Pagan festival, Sirius Rising). Sure they seemed more serious than most of the hippy-dippy folks I was surrounded with, and more scholarly, but both of those things appealed to me (I wanted to know more, and while I’m a friendly person I’ve always been kind of snarky). They were spiritual, and while they worked with the Gods they introduced me to the idea of Ancestor veneration as well. They weren’t racist or queerphobic. They spoke of supportive and interactive communities, of the importance of family and home (while acknowledging that many of us must choose our families in this day and age), and of the love of and frustration with the Gods. They talked about all of the sort of weird esoteric things that I had been curious about for so very long. I remember coming back from Sirius and having a brief conversation with a friend where I tried and failed to convince him that I had genuinely met cool Asatru folks. He simply refused to believe me.
I found new books and better. I had read the Poetic Eddas as a teenager; now I found books on history and archaeology. I realized that I had only scratched the surface and began to dig deeper.
My deeper digging lead me to different conclusions than some other folks. That lead to arguments and fights online (it’s usually online) and in my dejection a friend explained the two Real Rules of Heathenry to me: You’re Doing It Wrong and You’re Not The Boss of Me. We’re all trying to figure this out, we all feel passionate about it, and when we see something that doesn’t match what we’ve figured out (or nowadays, in many cases, simply heard from others) we get upset and tell people that they’re doing it wrong. Because we tend to be fiercely independent people with a lot of personal pride (which is interesting in light of the recent movement to banish the concept of individuality from Heathenry) we are happy to tell people who say that we’re doing it wrong to bugger off, because there is no hierarchy outside of established groups.
The Sand Vikings Disapprove Of Your Heathenry
(Image courtesy of Pixabay)
I lurked around the edges of Heathenry for a long time, and my personal practice came more in alignment with what I learned. Still, I struggled with claiming that identity, because of years of exposure equating it with bigotry or indifference to the same, because of being yelled at by different people claiming different, contradictory opinions all saying that all of the others were wrong, because I wasn’t a terribly confrontational person back then. I internalized that Heathens were hostile bigots who just loved yelling at each other, and it took many years of exposure to good fellowship and deep spiritual practice and tasty mead to start to feel comfortable with it. People started lumping me in with the Heathens, despite my feeble attempts to protest. I started to feel brave enough to use the label for myself. I joined ADF and gravitated straight towards the Norse Hearth.
I went through this wringer of stupidity over and over again, trying to get my Heathenry right and finding that someone else inevitably complained that it was wrong. I would talk about it with people I knew, I would post about it, and I’d get lots of responses that said things like, “I’m all of those things and Heathen too!” Then, in a Zen-like (see, Wiccan!) moment, I understood You’re Doing It Wrong on a deeper level. The world was silent, and then it sang. I went and frolicked in the fields as I became as one with the Wrongness. You see, if you’re wrong, you might as well be beautifully, spectacularly, fantastically wrong.
(Image courtesy of Quickmeme.com)
The Heathens whose opinions I respect call me Heathen. The folks I don’t can have opinions on the subject, and that’s just jolly. They can call me wrong, and it won’t bother me, and if it does, I’ll do what I usually do and transmute it into snark for fun and catharsis. If they provide me with a perspective I haven’t encountered I’ll explore it but there’s no guarantee I’ll embrace it. The people who I respect tend to respect my practices, even when they don’t agree with them. Everyone else? Doing It Wrong.
The Heathen label is a broad umbrella that a lot of folks use to cover a wide range of tribes and practices. Attempts to narrow its definition will only be as successful as attempts to convince many folks who disagree and have a vested interest in that label to drop it. Many people keep that label to mean that the honor the Gods of the North, and are unlikely to be separated from it regardless of how Wrong they are or are not Doing It. Our ancestors had many tribes and many practices, and not one single unified world-view that they were based on, either. You can (and all of us do) cherry pick out whatever bits of the lore that you find useful or good, that resonate with you, that bring you luck, etc. At the base level even the most Reconstructiony of the Reconstructionists is well aware that not everything that they find will map to modern life, and so generally only choose to harangue people about about not following the bits that they have carefully picked out.
The ancestors had many tribes and practices. Those tribes fought, shared information and occasionally hospitality, traded and intermarried just like our tribes and individuals today. They probably each thought everyone else was Doing It Wrong too.
You’re Doing It Wrong. It’s okay, though, because so is everyone else, and if you don’t respect them, why do you care what they think? What practices make your life better? What practices help your family and loved ones? What practices please your Gods and Ancestors? Those are the ones for you and for your tribe. Remember, we’re reconstructing a set of practices and beliefs that lead to, in one case, dinner time prayers to Giantesses recited while holding a mummified horse penis (WHY HAS NO ONE RECONSTRUCTED VOLSI CULTUS?!), so it’s hard to take it seriously when someone tells you that offering to Loki or doing a Blot online is wrong.
Don’t take it seriously. Take yourself, your Gods, your community, your loved ones, and your life seriously (but not too seriously or you might strain something). If you do, and if you research this stuff, you will come to different conclusions than the rest of us have. Or you can even read the stuff that living, practicing Heathens have written about it. I may be the first Heathen ever to say this, but that’s really okay. That’s actually kind of cool. Strength comes from diversity.
You’ll never be right. You’ll never be a good Heathen according to strangers from your outer-yard who don’t have influence over your life. But, by the logic of most Heathens, their opinions don’t matter. We do tend to be community-centered and if someone from another community gives you trouble remember that they wouldn’t care what you have to say about their practice – and they’re Doing It Wrong.
(Note: I know exactly the sort of unpleasantness that this post will be likely to generate, and while I am not the boss of you I am the moderator of my own comments section. I’ll abide disagreement but I won’t abide hostility. This post isn’t for you, anyway, since you’re not going to stop Doing It Wrong. This post is for all the folks who are Doing It Wrong and don’t realize that they aren’t alone, and it’s okay.)