Column: You’re Doing It Wrong

Karl E. H. Seigfried —  January 28, 2017 — 17 Comments

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“You’re doing it wrong” is a battle cry that regularly rings out throughout the Ásatrú and Heathen communities; among those who practice one of the various modern forms of Germanic polytheism. In a cluster of religions without central authority or dogma, there is a paradoxical and continual struggle to assert authority and dogma while positing one’s own perspective as the proper one.

Especially in America, such assertions often turn to academia for authentication and justification. Perhaps surprisingly to those unfamiliar with the Heathen subcultures, practitioners sometimes adjust their religious beliefs to accord with academic works written by secular scholars who are openly hostile to modern Heathenry.

Whether seeking to justify their own beliefs or to critique the practices of others, Heathens often turn to academic writing on ancient Germanic paganism as the fundamental arbiter of modern religious authenticity.

Secular scholarship on ancient Germanic paganism is widely seen as the fundamental ground of authority on what Heathen religions are in the twenty-first century. This belief in the primacy of non-Heathen scholarship as bedrock of belief, practice, and theology can be found in multiple iterations of Heathenry. The deference to academia cuts across divisions within the wider Heathen community.

The scholars most often cited as sources for modern Heathenry do not focus on any of the Heathen religions that have been developed as living traditions since the founding of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) in 1972. Instead, they are mostly specialists in medieval Germanic (largely Old Norse) literature, medieval and pre-medieval Germanic religion, and archaeology of related areas and periods.

odin thor freyr tapestry sweden norse mythology

Odin, Thor, and Freyr on twelfth-century Swedish tapestry [Public Domain]

The literature covered by the scholars is of the post-conversion period, given that the writing down of long texts (i.e., not short inscriptions on stone or wood) arrived in northern Europe with the coming of Christianity. Although poetry may have been composed by pagan poets and passed down via oral transmission, the major mythological poems were not codified in writing until over two hundred years after the conversion of Iceland. The Icelandic sagas, often mined by Heathens for descriptions of belief and practice, are works of historical fiction composed by Christians centuries after the events they purportedly record.

A Hostile Witness

Some of the major scholars of this literature have made derogatory comments about modern Heathen religions. In John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, the University of California, Berkeley professor of Old Norse and folklore “explores the magical myths and legends of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Viking-Age Greenland – outlining along they way the prehistoric tales and beliefs from these regions that have remained embedded in the imagination of the world.” Although his subject is the mythology of the Nordic countries in pre-Renaissance times, he ends his introduction with snide remarks on Heathen religion in the postmodern era:

There was a revival of “belief in the æsir” some years ago in Iceland, which seemed to have to do at least in part with tax breaks for organized religion, although partying is also important. That revival had its counterpart in Norway, where a group of students announced themselves to be believers in the aesir. In celebration, they drank some beer and sacrificed a sausage.

“Belief in the æsir” is a translation of Ásatrú, the name of the Heathen religion founded in 1972 in Iceland. The establishment of the Ásatrúarfélagið in that year was the first major event in the worldwide revival, reconstruction, and reimagining of Germanic polytheism. Today, the organization continues to thrive, and Ásatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland.

Lindow’s work was published in 2001, nearly thirty years after the Icelandic government officially recognized the Ásatrú religion. There were decades of media coverage by this time. In 2000, a major conflict occurred between the Ásatrú group and the National Church of Iceland over events surrounding the thousandth anniversary of the nation’s conversion; over one thousand people attended the Ásatrú event.

Given the seriousness of Lindow’s scholarship, it is odd that he chose to minimize the history and practice of the Ásatrú religion by referring to it as some strange thing in the past and making dismissive comments about tax breaks, partying, and sausage. It is difficult to imagine a Berkeley professor writing a guide to historical Judaism or Islam turning aside from their ancient sources to make a derogatory remark about today’s Jews or Muslims in their published work.

We all pick and choose what we want to use from problematic sources. As adults, we are capable of noting the bias of authors as we evaluate their work. The important question here is this: why would Heathens privilege the work of an outsider who openly slanders their religion over the writing of those within their tradition? What other world religion sets up such a hierarchy?

Imagine practitioners of Judaism today basing their theology on works by non-Jewish archaeologists who include anti-Semitic statements in their texts. Imagine Muslims around the world privileging non-Muslim literature professors who take Islamophobic positions in their studies over books by their own writers. Imagine members of any minority faith fundamentally altering their spiritual beliefs to line up with theories of scholars who openly denigrate their religion.

Some Heathens may read the passage quoted above and say, “He’s right! The Icelanders are doing it wrong. Only those of us who practice _________ are true Heathens.” Such attitudes are similar to those of the Germanic or Celtic tribes who allied themselves with Rome in order to gain power over local rivals. Such willingness to celebrate public disparagement of Heathenry in order to move up in the pecking order is closer to rivalry in subcultural online communities than to thoughtful theological discourse. Even worse, the desire to declare one’s own denomination superior to all others sometimes feels like fundamentalism.

vercingetorix caesar throws down his arms at the feet of celt celtic painting illustration

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Royer [Public Domain]

None of this is to say that the study of scholarship is unimportant. In order to revive, reconstruct, and reimagine Germanic Paganism today, a deep engagement with the heritage of Heathen history is of great importance. The issue here is how practitioners of living religions engage with academic work on ancient sources as the primary authorities for today’s belief and practice.

Scholarship vs. Experience

There is not an equal sign between modern Heathenry and pre-Christian Germanic polytheism of the Long-Ago Time. Academic work on one does not necessarily transfer onto the other. A medievalist’s theory regarding the portrayal of women in mythical poetry of medieval Iceland is interesting. It’s fascinating. It can provide us with insights into ways in which male poets of that particular time and place portrayed idealized or stereotyped images of women on the mythic level. It can enrich our understanding of the changing status of women on the island during the age of conversion. But to use this sort of literary study to determine the nature of one’s experience of deity in twenty-first-century America is a very strange thing.

There is a strong division drawn by many Heathens between secular scholarship on one hand and unverified personal gnosis (UPG) on the other. Academic writing by non-practitioners is portrayed as definitive. There may be arguments between scholars, and there may be changes in scholarly approaches over time. However, the ability to footnote one’s belief and practice by citing a passage from a publication of a university press is widely valorized. Personal experience of the spiritual is seen as (at best) something one should keep to oneself and close relations or (at worst) a bunch of nonsense that deserves the harshest ridicule.

This portrayal of religious experience as something to be hidden and mocked is deeply problematic. Yes, if someone insisted to me that the only true Heathen belief is of Loki’s son Narfi as the light of the world and savior of mankind, based upon a dream he had after eating an anchovy pizza before bed, I would smile and back toward the door. However, I would have a similar reaction if someone told me that she could undo a lifetime in modern society and alter her consciousness in order to erase all of her experiences and replace her worldview and causal belief system with that of a warrior in a first-century Germanic tribe, based upon her reading of journal articles downloaded from JSTOR.

The old mythological poems that survive are — if not written as antiquarian works — based on UPG. The old representations of mythical figures in art are — if not simply made to order — based on UPG. The religious objects found in religious settings are — if we accept the interpretations of archaeologists that they are indeed driven by religious belief — based on UPG. Religious experience cannot, by definition, be verified. The situation is made murkier by the fact that our theoretical understanding of past Heathenry is mediated by centuries-later (sometimes hostile) Christian writers and millennia-later (sometimes hostile) secular scholars.

To assert that the supposed beliefs of the past are somehow verified is to go against the very academic system that is cited for support. Interpretations and explanations of the textual and material sources change with the generations. Compare the old scholarly works insisting that every myth is really about the return of the sun to new scholarship insisting that the trolls of lore are simply racist representations of Sami people. The idea of changing one’s religious belief and practice with every new theory published is simply bizarre and, in fact, not what is done; practitioners hold on to the scholarly works that they feel reflect something real and authentic, even if they have long been rejected by subsequent scholars.

Valorizing past religious experience as more valid than present ones fetishizes the past in a way that it is hard to imagine those living then would have themselves done. Literary and material evidence suggests that beliefs and practices changed greatly over time, even in a specific location. New ways arose, whether from outside pressure, internal dissent, spiritual experience, or any of a host of unknowable causes.

loki as a salmon by gordon browne illustration drawing

Loki doing as Loki does by Gordon Browne [Public Domain]

The very distinction that is made between academic sources and UPG sets up a dichotomy that unfairly favors secular academia as authoritative in a way that denigrates actual religious experience. Those who champion scholarly authority parody anyone who disagrees with their own positions as hopelessly unintellectual and goofily mystical. Those who question the hegemony of outside scholarship and insist on their own personal experience fight a losing battle that is not helped by the prevalence of the most extreme visionary claims in the online world. Posting on social media that “Loki loves me! This is know, for I drank an entire bottle of Tequila last night, he manifested as Heath Ledger’s Joker in my shower, threw pistachios at me, and told me so,” then calling anyone who questions your reliability a Nazi is not forwarding the cause of serious engagement with the numinous.

A Path Forward

There is another option. We can respect academics for their diligent scholarship and learn from what they write without treating their work as cudgels with which to beat down those whose views don’t line up with our individual and idiosyncratic positions within Heathenry. We can accept that religious experiences today are not different in kind from those of the past and resist lumping in anyone who speaks from the heart with the most outrageous elements of online testimonials.

A third way is clear. We can avoid the false opposition of academia-as-authority and experience-as-nonsense and turn to Heathen theology. We can create deep, thorough, passionate, quality work that combines the best of what we have learned from the secular academics with the most powerful of personal experiences. Rigor of study and depth of experience are not mutually exclusive.

We simply have to widen our horizons. To academic study and personal testimony we must add a thoughtful theology. By theology, I do not mean dogma. Perhaps it would be useful to call for theologies (plural), because what I am suggesting is a deep engagement by Heathens with both scholarship and experience that leads to a rich body of works that exist in fruitful dialogue with each other.

Many are already doing this and have been doing this. The massive two-volume edition of Our Troth brings together a wide variety of Heathen authors from a multiplicity of perspectives as it bridges the scholarly and the spiritual. Sacred Gifts by Kirk S. Thomas may be written by a Druid, but it is valued by Heathens and is a model of combining dedicated research of primary and secondary sources with an open discussion of personal religious experience and spiritual insight.

The creation and reception of texts like these suggests the possibility of overcoming factionalism and engaging with thinkers and writers within our own and related religious traditions. Perhaps we can break the habit of reflexively telling those whose version of Heathenry differs from our own that they are “doing it wrong.” Maybe we can respect those who work within Heathenry as living practitioners of a living religion and disagree with them as we evaluate their theologies rather than bury them with academic citations or deny the validity of their experiences.

If we do, together we can raise the tone of dialogue within Ásatrú and Heathenry as we develop modern Heathen theologies and build truly communicating communities.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Karl E. H. Seigfried

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Karl E. H. Seigfried is a writer on mythology and religion in Chicago, where he teaches for Newberry Library's Seminar Program. His website, The Norse Mythology Blog, was named the world's Best Religion Weblog in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His writing has been broadcast on the BBC and published in Herdfeuer, Iceland Magazine, Interfaith Ramadan, MythNow, On Religion, Religion and Ethics, Reykjavík Grapevine and the Religion Newswriters Association's Religion Stylebook. He is currently working on his third graduate degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
  • I fully appreciate this article and it couldn’t have come at a better moment. I was just doing some research on the topic and I started to question some of information I was reading. I was thinking that anyone who did these prescribed sacrifices in this day and age would be hard pressed to do so. Also, when it stated that great finical sacrifices would have to made as well, that was when the the warning bells really started going off. I have to come to realize that I am to follow my path alone.

  • Tauri1

    The whole “you’re doing it wrong, we’re doing it right” and/or “my god/goddess” is the right one, yours is wrong” concept smacks of tribalism, and tribalism is what is destroying this planet.

    I will reiterate my comment from a previous article: “tolerance and compassion should be the basis of every religion and philosophy on this planet.”

    • Brian Smith

      Wow… It’s not as though ancient heathens were triba… oh wait, they were.

  • Arakiba

    Excellent article.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Though as a non-Heathen I am somewhat outside this argument, I do appreciate the full-throated valoration of UPGs. The one I had in Golden Gate Park in 1987 is why I’m on this blog today.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    Wiccan myself, but I have certainly seen the same game in Wicca, and we have even less lore to go on. But I remember the struggle when people began to queestion those of our our various founder’s beliefs and practices and the that inspired them. We have seen the argument of who can become Wiccan and under what conditions.

    Some how I really don’t old Witchcraft was so organized. If there were ever traditions, it would only have been family after it was driven underground. Even then, I would imagine it would changed based on the experience of each practioner, and much woud be both lost and added over time.

    So the only thing I am interested in when I meet a Wiccan is how it affects their life and does their practice seem to work for them. If it does, then it does not matter what I think of it, and it also does not matter what not matter what another Wiccan thinks of mine.
    Only from your results can you know if it works right for you.

  • Ingeborg Nordén

    Without some grounding in lore and history, pagans of any kind are just ad-libbing a personal theology with a pick-and-mix pantheon. Without enough common sense to spot secular/Christian bias, reconstruction turns into role-playing a culture as seen by third-party observers. And without personal experience of the gods, lore feels like just another collection of stories that happened to somebody else in a faraway place — not like part of a living religion. The way to do any pagan religion “right” is to balance those three aspects reasonably.

  • Brian Smith

    Hey Karl,

    You’re doing it wrong.

  • Jonathan Knoche

    As someone who firmly believes that there’s a right and wrong way for the group I’m a member of to practice, I have to ask…

    I mean, seriously.

    What actual power do we wield here? We have the ability to tell you you’re wrong, and the ability to question your practices in the public marketplace of ideas, should you choose to share said practices there. We have the power to *not* adopt or permit your ideas in our own practices if we find them inimical.

    Do we have the power to force you to stop them? No.
    Do we have the *desire* to force you to stop them? No.

    So if you aren’t insisting that we approve your practices, why does our disapproval hurt you so much?

    Is it that we challenge your ideas and practices in the public forum *where you chose to discuss them in the first place* ? Is it that your ego cannot bear being called wrong by someone’s opinion who has no meaning to you?

    Or is it that you think *we* should practice *your* way and are offended that we do not?

  • gary p golden jr

    Hey Karl? Remember this? Pepperidge Farms remembers…

    “Between this and the pig sacrifice I read about in Odreirir,
    I’m not sure if heathenry in the US is ready for prime time.”

    “Then this will always be a secret cult and never
    a religion on equal footing with others.”

    “It’s seems pretty
    Wiccan to me.

    “Working with
    blood.”

    “I see absolutely no reason to bring back
    barbaric practices. We takr(sic) the positives from the worldview.”

    “Nope. And I don’t think sprinkling blood on
    people is a spiritual experience.”

    “But blood rites are like 1980s Wiccan Satanism.”

    “It’s the fetishizing of it. The sprinkling. It’s witchy and
    out of place in positive heathenry. It belongs with bogging gays and human
    sacrifice and slavery and all else we leave behind. My opinion. But I think it
    is something that will make good people who want to understand come to the
    conclusion that this is a bloody witchcult.”

    I could go on but I am sure you remember the conversation.

    • Jonathan Knoche

      So wait, this guy insists that *someone else* is doing it wrong, but when someone tells him he’s doing it wrong that’s out of bounds?

  • Brian Smith

    Hey Karl,

    You’re doing it wrong.

  • Brian Smith

    Hey Karl,

    You’re doing it wrong (and deleting my comments won’t change that).

  • gary p golden jr

    Why delete the post Karl?

    Oh wait…

  • Toby B.

    While I have little doubt this comment too will be deleted, I want to give you a half-kudos for at least recognizing that what you do is not the same religion as me. I’m a little upset that you choose to use my word, Heathenry, for what you do when you have a perfectly good word to use: Asatru.

    I, too, am tired of the constant struggle to distinguish myself from the people who choose to follow Asatru, and think its very important that we allow Asatru and Heathenry to go their separate ways.

    Heathen is an ancient word for an ancient religion we are trying to reconstruct and reclaim. Asatru is a modern word for a modern religion. I think one trying to destroy the other is unproductive.

  • Brian Smith

    Hey Karl,

    You’re not doing it wrong, because that would have imply you’re a real heathen with a real community, and you aren’t.

  • Heather Greene

    Per our comment policy, The Wild Hunt supports open dialog, civil discussions, and lively debate on the subject matter presented in each of its articles. However, TWH does not support. “personal attacks and aggressive behaviors.” We are now closing comments on this article. Thank you.