Column: You’re Doing It Wrong

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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.