Unmistakable Connotations of Groveling

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Sometimes Pop would arm wrestle with me and my brother. My brother was older, so the arm wrestling between the two of them was more interesting. Pop always won, and he always smiled about it afterward. These little bouts became increasingly interesting as time went on and my brother and I grew.

Then came the day when Pop really had to work at winning a bout with my brother. He still smiled about it afterward. He also said that he would never wrestle with my brother again. And he never did.

That left me to wrestle with Pop, and that went on for another few years. Then came the day when he smiled his victory smile and said that he would never wrestle with me again. And he never did.

This didn't stop him from smiling and telling people proudly that his sons had never beaten him at arm wrestling.

He also boasted often that both of his sons were better than he was on the range or in the field with a shotgun, or that my brother was a much better golfer, or that I could do things with math, or with words, that he couldn't approach. If there was any envy of the green variety in him over these things, it was invisible. I think it was invisible because it wasn't there. Some of these things we had done on our own, and some he had helped us to attain. The smile he had when telling people about these things was different from his arm-wrestling smile.

Several years ago, after Pop died, I received some spam from an internet evangelist. I didn't just flush the message, but replied to tell the sender that I'm Heathen and spammers are scum and did he really want to be in that category? From this inauspicious beginning, we managed to become friends. Of course, he tried to convert me along the way, and we had some interesting email conversations about that.

In the course of our conversation, it became more clear to me than usual that there was a basic difference in viewpoint at work here. One thing that sticks in my mind was his description of what his god wants from people: a perpetual sit-at-my-feet adoration and deference that he likened to what every father wants from his children. I asked him about this from several different directions, because I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and I wanted to be sure I had it right.

I need to make two caveats here.

First, people complain of discussions about Heathenry that they often involve a contrast with Christianity, or with the Abrahamic religions in general. But let's be real: these religions are the atmosphere we breathe these days. Even people who have had no formal instruction in them, and Christianity in particular, implicitly know a lot of what they're about because we grew up in this culture. Christianity is the default religious comparison in this and many other parts of the world today. It wasn't always so. Back in the 600s in Britain, after the conversion there, "Caedmon's Hymn" was composed as a paean to the Christian god, in which that god was compared favorably to the Heathen god Frey. Presumably, people hearing this poem at the time were assumed to know what that meant. Now, it's the other way around.

Second, one cannot necessarily generalize or equate the outlook of one person to that of any group as a whole. But the attitude my friend described is easily found to varying degrees among Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, to the point of being a stereotype that is useful and not easily dismissed. The specific words may differ, but the feel of it is at least similar.

I told my friend that the expectation he described was not what either of my parents wanted: that this attitude was not only foreign to my experience, but repugnant. My father expected respect, and he deserved it in spite of whatever shortcomings he had, and he definitely had some. But I'm sure he would have thought something had gone very wrong between us if we operated on the model my evangelist friend described as natural and obligatory. Still, my friend continued to insist this kind of adoration and deference was what every father, and especially his god, wanted, expected, demanded of his children. This was a Lightbulb Moment for me, in which something shadowy and vague suddenly became bright and clear.

The Heathen gods are nowhere described as overbearing masters or love-hungry parents. They are our distant relatives, and our friends. We neither kneel nor bow to them, either physically or spiritually. When I think of Aske and Embla, the prototypical people in our creation story, at their first moments of consciousness, I can't imagine them doing anything but getting to their feet and looking their creators in the face. I can imagine them doing several other noteworthy and important things, none of which involve any form of obsequiousness or self-abasement. If you know this story, which contains very little detail as it has been handed down to us, I suggest that you play it out in your own mind with as much detail as you can muster. This relationship matters, and it is nothing like what several billion people on this earth believe a relationship between humans and gods must be like. The nature of this relationship is a principal ingredient in what makes us Heathens.

A frequent discussion among Heathens centers around the words we use to describe our interactions with our gods. The word worship always appears in these discussions, and it always takes a beating. Someone will come to its rescue and remind us that, originally, it meant an acknowledgment of worthiness, and there's nothing wrong with that. But someone else will point out that, in our time, the word carries unmistakable connotations of groveling. We don't do that. We have no reason to. And I'm pretty sure our gods, in all their greatness and power, would be annoyed if we did.

Hail Odin! Hail Vili! Hail Ve!

1/5/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Steven Abell
    About Steven Abell
    Steven Thor Abell is a storyteller and the author of Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On, a collection of original modern stories based on Heathen myths. As of 2013, he is also Steersman of the High Rede of The Troth.