Column: Heathen South – Interview with Ryan Denison

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Pagan Perspectives

For three days beginning on July 13, Atlanta hosted Mystic South: Theory, Practice, and Play. According to the convention’s Facebook page, the Pagan event “highlights the Southern flair and mystic spirit of our own part of the country.”

Headliners this year included John Beckett, Ivo Dominguez, Yaya Nsasi Vence Guerra, Sangoma Oludoye, Mama Gina, and the Night Travelers. The conference schedule included rituals, workshops, papers, panels, presentations, and a live podcast.

Several events centered on Norse material and Heathen religions. To get a sense of the conference from a Heathen perspective, I spoke with Ryan Denison of the Mystic South organizing committee.

Ryan Denison [courtesy photo]

In addition to his planning work for the conference, Ryan is deeply involved in local and national Heathen communities.

As the Troth steward for the state of Georgia, Ryan represents the international Ásatrú and Heathen organization to the public, potential members, and current members. He also serves as chairman of the Troth’s Scholarship Committee program.

Ryan is also co-founder, secretary, and a member of the clergy for Berkano Hearth Union. The relatively new group describes itself as

a community of Heathens who are working together to create an inclusive group to learn, grow, and deepen our shared spirituality. We seek this whether it be toward Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Sami, Finnish, or other flavors of Heathenry. The organization desires to provide a safe environment where everyone has a voice and members can turn to this community and have other members there for help or someone to listen to them.

Ryan is also co-founder and administrator of Heathen Men United, a Facebook group dedicated to fostering “affirmative productive change in the Heathen community by focusing on positive, supportive examples of masculinity.”

The Wild Hunt: Were you the only Heathen on the Mystic South organizing committee?

Ryan Denison: Actually, no. Gypsey Teague is also an Icelandic Heathen. So two out of the seven organizers are Heathen.

TWH: How do Heathens function (or not) within the wider Pagan communities of the southern United States?

RD: From my experience, I feel we function and interact well with the communities in the South. Berkano Hearth Union hasn’t been around long enough to interact with other communities yet, but we would definitely be willing to do so.

TWH: What makes Heathenry qualitatively different in the South than it is in other regions of the U.S.?

RD: A lot of characteristics of Heathenry – such as hospitality and honor – are also stereotypical Southern characteristics and are emphasized in Southern Heathenry.

Being from Appalachia, I grew up in the hills and playing in creeks, so the animism of Heathenry also came easily to me, although I don’t see that as being specifically Southern.

There are of course the negative stereotypes of the South – namely, racism – which I have run into in Southern Heathenry, as well, over social media. Luckily, the groups I have become involved with have been very quick to dispel any person that showed racist tendencies.

TWH: I’d love to hear about the Heathen presentations at Mystic South. What did Birna Isleifsdottir discuss in her presentation on Norse cosmology?

RD: This was actually an amazing presentation discussing the cosmology as seen in the Eddas, with the use of Legos! Essentially telling the story of creation using the Legos.

TWH: How did Gypsey Teague’s discussion of early Norse navigational tools go?

RD: Gypsey’s presentation was pretty amazing, discussing the historical use of Norse navigation tools, including the famed sunstone. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as I am hoping to get the papers published in an annual journal edition.

TWH: I’m especially curious about Morgan Daimler’s talk on Wodan and the Wild Hunt.

RD: Morgan is an amazing presenter who is very academically oriented, which I love.

She discussed the many varied stories of the Wild Hunt over Europe and how each of those stories had their regional details – i.e., the different leaders of the hunt from various regions. She discussed the participants of the hunt also being varied a bit by region, but all are hunting for new members to join the group.

She also spoke to the fact that the hunt was a terrifying experience, and yet in some regions there are tales that if you treated the hunt with respect and hospitality, you could be rewarded greatly.

TWH: What were the central issues in J. Beofeld’s talk on the multi-part soul in Anglo-Saxon paganism?

RD: Joseph talked about the fact that the idea of the singular soul is an oddity in religion and discussed the idea that each person has a multi-part soul that can also be split up on death.

TWH: Were there any other Heathen presentations?

RD: There was a workshop on land wights, but it wasn’t specifically Heathen in nature.

TWH: You moderated a panel called “Reconstructing a Faith.” Can you explain the subject and talk about how it went?

RD: The idea of the panel was to discuss the basics of reconstructionism within Paganism and how we bring those researched findings into the present day. The panel was well received.

We began the discussion by defining reconstructionism. The participants defined the term in their own words, but there was general consensus that the idea is to base worldview and actions on those that we can find through holistic research.

We then discussed good versus bad research. We had a long discussion on source criticism, bias, historiography, interpretatio romana, and the dangers of not being thorough in your research and/or basing too much on a few sources – for example, using a text that only uses philology, and not taking into account other findings of archaeology.

We finished the panel by discussing the fact that we don’t want to reconstruct everything from the past. There are many things that need to be left in the past and do not fit in to our modern world.

Altar for opening ceremony at Mystic South [H. Greene]

TWH: What was the thought process in designing and performing your welcome ritual?

RD: The idea was to ask the appropriate gods to help foster learning, magic, and frithful communication amongst the diverse paths represented, as well as provide a level of protection for our conference. With that in mind, we asked for the assistance of Odin (esoteric knowledge), Freya (magic), Thor (protection), and Tyr (frith, grith, and god of the Thing).

There really isn’t anything in the historical record that we could base an opening on, so we based the ritual on the standard blót found in the second volume of Our Troth.

We also had to take into account that there would be many paths represented that may not wish to drink alcohol or may not want to drink from the same horn. Therefore, we decided to use locally obtained spring water in lieu of mead. We also had a separate bowl from which water could be poured into paper cups. We also could not use fire – big hang up for a Heathen blót! To that end we used fake fire made from paper and pipe cleaners on a torch that had previously been burned.

As we passed the horn, we had each participant say a sentence or two about what they wanted to take away from the conference. We received many compliments that this set a fantastic tone for the nature of the conference as being one of the reception and dissemination of sacred knowledge.

TWH: What’s the Polytheist and Pagan Educational Symposium (PAPER) that you started at Mystic South?

RD: PAPER was born out of the fact that I can’t afford to travel. Ha!

Seriously, I wanted to attend religious academic conferences and could never find the time nor money to attend. So I thought, why not start one in Atlanta and bring these great minds here? From that came PAPER and attaching onto Mystic South.

The idea has evolved into bringing academia to the masses – allowing thorough and original research to be presented by these fantastic minds to groups of Pagans and polytheists that have never experienced this type of setting.

The past two years have been very well received, and I hope the idea continues to grow by publishing the PAPER presentations in an annual journal.

TWH: Now that it’s over, how do you think the Heathen portions of the conference went?

RD: I believe that Heathenry was represented with honor and honesty. We will know more when we have the survey data available, but I feel the Heathen portions went incredibly well.

TWH: Are the any Heathen events or presentations you particularly want to include next year?

RD: We have talked of having a sumbel. I would love to see that happen.

Berkano Hearth Union logo

TWH: I’d like to talk a bit about Berkano Hearth Union. What led to the creation of the organization?

RD: The creation of Berkano Hearth Union was prompted by several Heathens in the local groups coming together to form a union of various hearths that would focus on inclusivity, research, and community.

TWH: What are your goals for the group?

RD: The goal is to foster community and provide knowledge to our members. We will shortly be incorporated as a non-profit and seek 501(c)(3) status, which we hope to use to better our community through fundraising for groups such as veterans and volunteering in our local community.

TWH: How do you see local, regional, national, and international Heathen groups interacting? Should they interact?

RD: Yes, I think they should. From my perspective, I feel any interaction between these groups would be a huge positive with the potential to grow and learn.

TWH: In addition to your official roles as Troth steward for the state of Georgia and chairman of the Troth’s Scholarship Committee Program, you recently ran for the Rede, the organization’s board of directors. Sorry you didn’t make it! What new directions or initiatives would you like to see happen?

RD: It was an honor and very surprising to even be nominated. Congrats and hail to those who did win!

I think the Troth is heading in the right direction, and I hope the future is to continue to fight racism and bigotry in Heathenry both in America and the world at large.

We here in the United States suffer from the unfortunate people and groups who “founded” Heathenry here in the 1970s. I hope the Troth continues the mission of righting those wrongs.

TWH: You spoke to The Wild Hunt in April about the Heathen Men United group. Has anything developed since then, and do you have plans for action outside social media?

RD: Heathen Men United is continuing to grow online with some very tough but positive conversations happening. Because we have members all over the world, we are encouraging those who live close to come together once a month for food, drink, and fellowship.

Here in Atlanta, we have done so for several months, with really positive responses. We have had as many as fifteen men come together for dinner, discussion, and support of each other.

TWH: Thanks for agreeing to discuss all of this, and good luck with your work!

RD: Thank you for all your work with your research, blog, and writing! I truly feel that we need to be more open to show the world the great and positive impact of our faith.

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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.