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What is heathenism?
The term heathen covers a multitude of meanings, from religious slurs to non-monotheistic religious identifications. In modern English, the word exists as a cognate of the Latin paganus, or ‘pagan.’ However, the origin of the word heathen goes back to Gothic and seems to be older than the current use of the Latin word pagan. When the first Gothic bishop Wulfila translated the New Testament from Greek to his own language around 348 AD, he chose the word haiþno as a translation of ‘gentile,’ or non-Christian. From Gothic, it seems to have spread into the other Germanic languages and eventually reached the Old English language. In Old English, the word was used to describe non-Christians negatively, and in the English Viking Age (793-1066 AD), the word hæðen was used interchangeably with Northman or Dane to describe Scandinavians who did not acknowledge the god of the bible. In the Gothic language, it seems that the word came from a common Proto-Germanic word, *haiþana-, which was a neutral term that designated people who live on the commons. In the old Germanic tribal system, the commons were the area that belonged to the tribe, and a person living there was therefore a person of the community. A heathen, in its old neutral form, is someone who belongs to the community and practices the social rules and culture of the community. Consequently, modern heathens denounce the use of this word as a slur. Instead, it is reclaimed in its original meaning as ‘someone of the people.’ Heathenism is a modern religion with ancient roots. Its roots are in the people, as a religion that evolved with the people through their realizations about the world around them.
Heathenism can be defined as a bio-sacral, non-doctrinal, community religion that existed before Christianity. That it was bio-sacral means that religious practice was centered around the important aspects of living: sowing crops and harvesting them, fishing, hunting, partnership and procreation, birth, death, and transitions in life. The rituals of crops pertained to calendrical rites, which would take place at fixed times during the year; some rituals would also take place in yearly intervals, in accordance with the calendar. The calendar had been developed over centuries, even millennia, through careful observations of the sky. Rituals for hunting and fishing would take place when needed, and this would also be the case for other parts of life, such as travel and trade. There would also be rituals for transitions in human life. This means that there would be rituals for partnering with someone, for being born, for coming of age, for choosing a trade or becoming a warrior, and there would be rituals for death. All these rituals would have a communal dimension. They would be celebrated in the village, the tribe, or in the family and clan. There were also personal rituals. Each individual would have personal rituals that took place in accordance with their needs. Some had many while others hardly ever performed personal rituals. That this religion was non-doctrinal means that it did not have a set of fixed rules that everyone must abide by. Each community had its own rules but was capable of recognizing the religious practices and gods of their common human beings. Public rituals were performed in accordance with a long-held tradition, and people certainly had an idea about the right way to do that. In a similar manner, each community would have social rules that everyone was expected to follow. These rules controlled the behavior of the individual, but they were not codified and written down as law. Each community would have taboos and ideas about unforgivable acts, and a person who broke these would be subject to punishment. The tribal council, the elders, would decide in each case, and each decision would be for the benefit of the community.
There was no fixed doctrine, like in Christianity or Islam, which passed judgment on others and defined their actions as “sin.” As a community religion, heathenism had grown from generations of people who had passed down its tenets in the form of myths, rituals, and oral history. The first setting for learning about heathenism was the kin-group, your family. Parents and elders would teach you the things you needed to know. The second unit would be the tribal community in which public rituals would take place in accordance with what everyone agreed on. The third unit, if there was one, would be the federation to which your tribe belonged. This structure would be distant to most people in society, but it would play a significant role in the geopolitics that would eventually reach even the smallest community. People were bound in these communities through various social ties and alliances. The individual was bound to their kin-group through blood-relations. The kin-group was bound to the tribal community through a sense of common identity, and the tribal community was bound to the tribal federation through shared goals and territory. All these ties relied on myth and ritual as their foundational structure. Essentially, what this means for heathenism as a religion is that it was the fabric that held social life together through generations of human development with environment and outside political, cultural, and social influences. Every time a new event occurred, either environmental or human-made, the community adjusted its worldview and made religious changes accordingly. This was based firmly in the recognition that the world is imbued with spirit, and that everything is connected in a holistic sense. As such, heathenism was a polytheistic religion with many deities.
Heathenism in the medieval period
A lot of time has passed since heathenism formed the basis for social interaction in a tribal community in northern and central Europe. The Germanic Goths converted to Christianity already in the 3-400s AD. The Germanic tribes in France and the Rhineland in Germany converted in the 500s AD, and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in Britain converted in the 600s AD. The Saxons and Frisians in northern Germany and the Netherlands were forcibly converted in the late 700s AD and from this time onwards, Christianity was slowly seeping into Scandinavia. The Danes converted in the middle of the 900s AD, while the Norwegians followed suit in the late 900s AD. Iceland converted in the year 1000. Sweden held out longer but was officially a part of Christian Europe by 1080. Although these tribes and countries all have official dates of conversion to Christianity, it is notable that in many cases, for several centuries after conversion, heathenism existed in the communities in various forms. In Iceland, the new Christian law stipulated that heathens could still practice their religion in secret for some time after conversion. In Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, there were heathen uprisings against the newly converted kings, and in several places, pockets of “old believers” still existed for centuries after conversion. Although the medieval laws stipulated prohibitions against heathen rituals, it does not seem that the church in Scandinavia was particularly worried about the old myths about the gods. The Christian attitude to the myths was that they were misguided and fanciful stories that should be defeated in an intellectual war. This means that the church was only vaguely interested in the beliefs of the people as long as they attended church rites and refrained from doing heathen rituals.
As a result, many myths and stories about the gods lived on in poetry, history writing, and folklore. The cultural importance of skaldic poetry after conversion, a heathen Scandinavian art form at its core, secured the survival of many heathen concepts, deities, and myths. The same was the case for Eddic poetry. Eddic poetry is the oldest Germanic artform, and it had great significance in heathen rituals. Ritual specialists, the goðar, þulur, and völur, would learn this poetry by heart and perform it in ceremony. In the 1200s, it seems that the surviving Eddic poetry was being used in dramas for entertainment in Iceland and possibly in Norway. For this reason, it was written down in books. Stories and tales in prose circulated among both scholars and lay-folk in the medieval period. Some stories were euhemerized by scholars and combined with Christian writing to function as history. Euhemerization is the Christian interpretation of heathen gods as merely humans with magic capacities. This allowed the Christians in medieval Scandinavia to treat gods like Óðinn, Þórr, and Freyr as ancestors of the Nordic kings, and include parts of their myths in sagas. Snorri Sturluson was the prime master of this. He wrote down the bulk of myths in his book Edda, not to ensure the survival of heathen mythology, but to make sure that poets in the 1200s would be able to understand the ancient skaldic poems that still circulated. Another author who applied a similar approach was the Danish historian Saxo. He also included the Nordic gods as ancestors to the kings in his History of the Danes, even though he tended to see these gods more as demons than as humans. Although the medieval Christian authors in Scandinavia did not intend for it, this literature has now become the foundation of modern heathenism.
Heathenism in the early modern period
During the medieval period, the stories about the Nordic gods circulated among intellectuals and lay-folk alike. For intellectuals, they were flawed descriptions of historical events, and for lay-folk, they were popular songs, exciting tales for the evenings, and, in some cases, useful anecdotes about bygone days. Despite popular myths now, the Catholic church was surprisingly lenient towards the heathen past, as long as it was represented as a bygone era and the mistakes of the ancestors. This changed with the Protestant Reformation and the European Religious Wars in the 1500-1600s. Using the Protestant Reformation in 1517 as a pretext, several German principalities revolted against Papal Rome, setting off a string of rebellions and wars in Europe. The Scandinavian countries quickly followed suit, and so did England. This led to a counter-Reformation in Spain, and intensified the activities of the Inquisition, which had existed since the 1100s. All over Europe, beliefs and ideas, rituals and practices that were deemed heresy, anathema, or heathenism, were persecuted by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians alike. The last remnants of heathenism among the common folk, from daily rituals in the peasants’ kitchens to cultural knowledge about medicine, were persecuted as witchcraft. Witchcraft had been persecuted since the conversion. There are several cases of witchcraft from Scandinavia in the medieval period, which prove that a small segment of the population still had the heathen gods in mind. As late as the 1400s, there are cases brought against people in Sweden, who seem to have worshiped Óðinn. However, in the Burning Age in the 1500-1700s, the vast majority of those trialed for witchcraft can not be said to have had a relationship to heathenism. Most were ordinary people who thought of themselves as Christians, but perhaps practiced an ancient custom that they had learned from their community. Many were also Jews and scientists, who happened to believe or discover something that did not sit well with the Christians.
However, this process of genocide through war and inquisition led to the complete disruption of indigenous culture throughout Europe, and therefore also any remnants of heathenism that had grown from the human communities of the past and lived on despite the conversion in the medieval period. While the ruling classes in northern Europe were persecuting peasants and townsfolk for anything remotely resembling heathenism or Catholicism, another development was taking place among the elite. After the split of the Kalmar Union, where all Scandinavian countries were united for more than a century, there were two rivaling powers in the region: Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Finland. The kings of Denmark and Sweden were eager to prove to the world that they were historically the supreme masters of Scandinavia, and this led to an intellectual propaganda war based in Nordic mythology and the Viking Age. This was, in fact, the dawn of modern scholarship in Viking Age history and Old Norse mythology. The medieval sagas from Iceland, detailing heroic deeds of ancient warriors from Scandinavia, were used by Danish and Swedish scholars as proof that their respective empires were superior. Throughout the late 1500s, the 1600s, and the 1700s, Danish and Swedish intellectuals prowled the Nordic libraries for historical material about the earliest times in Scandinavia. Books were sent from Iceland to the king in Denmark, so that he could build a national library full of great epics about heathen heroes. Meanwhile, whenever the Swedish armies would take a Danish castle or city, they would loot the libraries and bring home these books as trophies. No other countries in the world have fought as many wars against each other than the Nordic “brother nations.” In this period, the remnants of heathenism in northern Europe moved from the hearths of the people to the libraries of the elite.
Heathenism in the 1800s
Already in the 1700s there are indications of a kind of revival of heathenism. Intellectuals in Iceland, in particular, begin to express spiritual alignment with the heathen past. In Germany, Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) formulated his theory of the folk spirit, advocating for a unified German culture. In Herder’s mind, the folk spirit can be found in the medieval literature and folklore as a true expression of a shared German worldview. Language was also a strong component of the folk spirit, and by theorists on culture in the 17-1800s, the peasantry was seen as the keepers of true German culture. These ideas led to nationalism and the notion that a nation must share common language, culture, and territory. The people of a nation share a common destiny and past. In a sense, this was the modern world attempting to bring back the tribal community structures of the distant past. With this theoretical perspective, the brothers Grimm collected folktales across the German realm. They argued that the Nordic peoples took part in this folk spirit and included Old Norse mythology in their canon of expressions of Germanic culture. Herder and the brothers Grimm had immense influence on Scandinavian intellectuals. In the early 1800s, the former Nordic empires broke apart. Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809, Denmark had lost territory to Sweden during the preceding centuries, and finally lost Norway too in 1814. Norway became part of a union with Sweden that would last until 1905, while Iceland remained in the Danish realm until 1918, and finally fully severed its ties in 1944. Across Scandinavia, dissent was brewing and claims of national identities emerged. The Norwegians used their ancient history about Viking kings to argue that they had a right to sovereignty from Sweden. The Icelanders used the Icelandic sagas to argue that they should be independent from Denmark. Sweden and Denmark, on the other hand, used the old Viking history as a way to look inward and strengthen a national character in face of defeat.
In Finland, the Russian government used the Kalevala mythology to convince the Finns that their identity was fundamentally different from the rest of Scandinavia, despite more than 700 years of close association. This was a ploy to undermine the Swedish influence in the area and create a buffer between Sweden and Russia. However, it resulted in the establishing of a fully viable and separate Finnish identity. Across the region, scholars would venture out among the peasantry to record their dialects, folktales, and local customs, in accordance with Herder’s ideas of the folk spirit, to demonstrate the special national character of their respective nations. With this, Old Norse mythology and the stories about Vikings and ancient Germanic heroes became the earliest expressions of this folk soul, which the elite scholars now assumed lived on in the peasantry. As public schools became commonplace in Scandinavia in the early 1800s, the elite began to ponder how best to educate the peasantry and lower classes. The Danish pastor N.F.S. Grundtvig devised a pedagogy based in Herder’s ideas of the folk spirit. He argued that in order to teach the people school subjects, one needed to speak to their folk spirit. His method consisted of mixing intellectual pursuits with the teaching of Old Norse mythology, Viking history, and tales about ancient Germanic heroes. Soon, his methods were adopted in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, too. In this way, the old heathen myths once again became common knowledge across Scandinavia.
The “occult” societies of the 1800s
From an early time in the 1800s, societies with an interest in another kind of world-order than whatever prevailed at the time, emerged in Scandinavia and Germany. These societies can be defined with the umbrella term “occult,” for the lack of better. This means that they are not founded on Christian doctrine or that they reject central aspects of Christian doctrine. It also means that their objective was an alternative world-order that they often claimed was sourced from the pre-conversion era. Some of these societies were political, some were not. Some had racist agendas, some did not. For the great diversity of these societies and groups, the unifying aspect is that they all claimed some form of inheritance from ancient heathenism. Although some of these groups and societies existed before, the 1880s mark the beginning of such New Age spiritualities. The European expansion into Asia, Africa, and the Americas had brought new ideas and insights to the European elite. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Taoism were some of the new religious ideas. In addition, clairvoyance, tarot, and other divination ideas with some aspects of home-grown European influence gained traction in the public. This was the beginning of the European search for a separate religious identity from Christianity. Science fiction also became part of this. Novels that purported that the world was hollow and inhabited by a superior, alien race, for instance, found their place in this new worldview. Additionally, scholars and semi-scholars, dreamers if you will, were searching for the ancient mystic origins of pre-Christian Europeans. Scandinavians, Germanics, and Celts in particular became the object of this search for mysticism, and many new ideas about ancient European spirituality were included in the New Age movements. The witches that were persecuted in the medieval period and particularly in the early modern period were additionally considered the last remaining heathens in this construction of an occult history of Europe. Satanism became an interest too, and it is in this period that we see the emergence of a movement that outright rejected Christianity as a whole.
In the early 20th century, vitalism also became a subject of interest for several of these movements. The idea that a healthy mind goes hand in hand with a healthy body and a healthy ecosystem emerged as industrialism encroached on Europeans and North Americans. Movements with the specific aim of redefining the relationship between humans and nature emerged, as people were becoming more and more estranged from the natural world. These movements were called Völkisch, from the German Volk (people). Fascism took hold of many who were involved with the revival of Germanic and Scandinavian heathenism. Much of this way of thinking relied on the old nationalist idea of the folk spirit. Soon, these people and groups found themselves involved with rise of National Socialism, believing that this was a true expression of the ancient values of heathenism. The occult aspects of heathenism also had a place in the Third Reich, but for the most part, National Socialism was centered around a fervent Christian doctrine and did not care much for alternative understandings of the world. Most of those who identified with heathen though found themselves disenfranchised, imprisoned, even executed by the National Socialists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
The emergence of Neopaganism
In the 1950s, two Neopagan movements emerged from the dust of World War 2. One was the Odinist movement, which laboriously kept the pre-war associations of heathenism and racism alive, another was the wicca movement, which had not abandoned the older ideas of a close relationship between humans and nature. These two movements, both in their own way, kept the romanticizing of the ancient past and the idea of a more natural state of existence alive, which had grown from the experience of industrialization in the late 19th century. They formulated thoughts and theologies that can perhaps be said to be the weak cousins of what once was in the distant past. Under the influence of both these movements in the 1970s, including Satanism and other “witch” movements, the revival of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian religion emerged under the name ásatrú. Ásatrú is an Icelandic word, which means “belief in the æsir.” The emergence of this movement is obscure, but in the beginning of the 1970s, we see two groups being formed: Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland, and the Asatru Free Assembly in the New Age hodgepodge of California. Tendencies towards larger groups being established in mainland Scandinavia can be detected from the 1980s, but it was really in the 1990s that Norway, Denmark, and Sweden emerged with single, unified ásatrú organizations. Forn Sed in Norway, Forn Sed in Sweden, and Forn Siðr in Denmark materialized as national organizations in that period. Forn Sed in Norway eventually split up and a new group emerged called Bifrost. In USA, the Asatru Free Assembly split in two. This resulted in the creation of the Troth and the Asatru Folk Assembly. When Ásatrúarfélagið was formed in Iceland, it quickly received official recognition as a religious organization. This came in the late 1990s and early 2000s for the groups in Norway, Sweden, and, lastly, Denmark. Today, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark, in particular, are experiencing a considerable growth in people interested in ásatrú. Groups have also been formed in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Canada. Outside of Europe and North America, there are ásatrú groups in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
21st century Neopagans
By and large, people who subscribe to ásatrú are still heavily influenced by the so-called occultists in the 1800s. This is especially seen in the use of runes for divination. In the late 19th century, runes were popularized as a “Germanic” form of divination comparable to tarot cards. With the vitalist movements, a form of “runic yoga” was also invented. The proponents of these inventions would often claim that they received their knowledge from the distant past, kept alive in some form through oral traditions in their families or in obscure works of literature that only they had access to. The likelihood of that being true, is minimal. They are inventions of the modern era, based loosely on ancient ideas and practices. Runic divination and mysticism still lives on with publications that come mainly from a group called the Rune Guild. The popularization of these books has made the use of runes and runic symbolism an important part of neopagan practice, even though this was not the case in pre-Christian times.
Rituals that are performed by modern heathens, are often an amalgam of New Age practices, wicca rituals, and borrowings from indigenous peoples’ traditions to the extent that these are available to ásatrú, such as native American traditions. Using sweat lodges is common in ásatrú, a ceremonial aspect that has been collected from native American traditions, which, nonetheless, has a strong counterpart in the Scandinavian sauna tradition, although the spiritual underpinnings of the sauna tradition in Scandinavia are vague. The most common ritual practice in ásatrú, aside from personal actions in private, is blót. This is a communal ritual that has been created on the backbone of wicca rituals. However, in ásatrú, it has developed considerably to address the specific needs of ásatrú theology. There is no standard dogma on how blót should be performed. This follows the needs and interests of the individual groups. Another ritual is sumbl, a communal drinking ritual that is often centered around swearing oaths. Like the blót, the sumbl has a vague relationship to medieval sources mentioning these ritual acts. Both words are mentioned in the Icelandic saga literature in multiple instances, but the descriptions of the ritual acts are minimal, leaving modern heathens to fill in the blanks with elements that are typically perceived as different enough from Christian ritual to be acceptable. Ironically, however, since most modern heathens have grown up in Christian cultures and largely lack alternative references, rituals in ásatrú will often service similar spiritual needs as those people are familiar with from church.
Components of beliefs
In terms of beliefs, it is notably still the 19th century ideas of higher and lower gods that permeate mainstream ásatrú theology. Medieval literature on the Nordic gods, such as Snorri’s Edda, did fashion this image of the Nordic pantheon, mainly under influence from parent works on Greek and Roman literature. Seeing these commonalities in the literature in the 19th century, scholars of Nordic religion treated Snorri’s pantheon as a dogmatic reflection of beliefs held by pre-Christian Scandinavians. This notion persists today, and the gods that are given most attention in the literature are also the gods that are given most attention by modern heathens. Odin and Thor are popular, so are Freyja, Frigg, and Loki. Gods whose stories are vague, play by-roles in the myths, or are simply mentioned by name, often receive very little interest from ásatrú practitioners. It is doubtful that many neopagans have ever heard the names of Fjørgynn, Snótr, and Gná, or chosen these as their patron deities. Patron deities are common. Individuals associate their personal character with the character of a god in the literature. The phenomenon initially came from wicca, but in the Icelandic saga literature, there are two words that seem to designate the same notion: fulltrúi and ástvinr. It is unclear if this was a common practice in pre-Christian times, but the post-conversion, medieval literature with its Christian influences, postulates this. As a post hoc assumption, many neopagans have found a wiccan practice that was inherited by ásatrú confirmed by what they perceive as a dogmatic literature on their religion from the distant past. Modern heathens tend to form very personalized connections to one or more gods, but there is also a counter-movement in ásatrú, arguing that the gods (with capitalized “G”) do not care about the lives of regular humans. Based in the saga literature, the argument is that the gods only take an interest in heroes, kings, and other notable figures. While ásatrú seems mostly egalitarian, with groups that largely have flat hierarchic structures, some groups adopt steeper hierarchies. The most developed hierarchies are found among groups that call themselves theods, and and subscribe to ideas of tribalism. These have adopted a spiritual hierarchy that reflect the French scholar George Dumézil’s indo-europeanist theory. Gods and people are divided into at least three classes that correspond to functions. Odin is typically envisioned as the god of kings and priests, while Thor is the god of warriors, and Freyr is the god of the peasantry. Such groups will usually also adopt a particular tribal identity based in the more or less elusive tribal names associated with pre-Christian Germanic peoples.
The greatest divide in modern heathenism falls along vague political boundaries, captioned in ásatrú as “universalism vs. folkism.” The folkist perspective on ásatrú attaches itself to a more or less defined group of peoples originating in Northern Europe. The clearest definition of this idea, obviously derived from the 19th century Völkisch movements, is the concept of “metagenetics,” which argues that people of Northern European descent have the blood of the Nordic and Germanic gods coursing through their veins. With this blood comes a spiritual component that makes them prone to worship of the Nordic-Germanic gods. This pseudoscientific idea was coined by Stephen McNallen, the founder and former leader of the Asatru Folk Assembly. Neopagans who identify as folkish ásatrúar have, to varying degrees, adopted ideas of racial exclusivity. Stephen McNallen has since stepped down from his role as leader of the Asatru Folk Assembly and now makes videos about saving the white race in America. On the other side of the spectrum we find so-called universalists. These individuals are called that because they accept inclusion in ásatrú. While being a universalist may mean that one does not apply a racial idea to the theology of ásatrú, it often also implies that universalists are non-discriminatory when it comes to recreating the modern heathen tradition. Universalists are, if nothing else, perceived as Nordic-flavored New Agers who adopt components of perceivably foreign traditions. On both sides of the divide between universalism and folkism, the variations in perspectives and self-perception are as plentiful as there people, and someone who considers themself folkish cannot immediately be labeled neither racist nor far-right, no more than someone considering themself universalist can be said to be non-discriminatory in their heathen practice and beliefs. Quite often, these labels of self-identification come with a person’s initial entry in ásatrú, as they are making personal choices and developing their ideas on what it means to be heathen. For the small but growing number of second, third, and now fourth generation of modern heathens, these components of self-identification, much like ideas of patron deities, are inessential.
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