Today’s column comes to us from Karl E.H. Seigfried, goði of Thor’s Oak Kindred in Chicago. In addition to his award-winning website, The Norse Mythology Blog, Karl has written for the BBC, Iceland Magazine, Journal of the Oriental Institute, On Religion, Religion Stylebook, and many other outlets. He holds degrees in literature, music, and religion, and he is the first Ásatrú practitioner to hold a graduate degree from University of Chicago Divinity School.
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Berkano Hearth Union (BHU) was founded in spring of last year as a community for Heathens and people interested in Heathenry. Based in Georgia, the organization has now grown to nearly 150 members and has a busy calendar of events. BHU is currently a limited liability company and plans to apply for 501(c)(3) status as a religious organization.
Curious to find out more about the group, I reached out to leadership and was put in touch with four members who provided in-depth answers to my questions: J. Beofeld (board chairperson and clergy), Casey Griffin (board treasurer and clergy), Emily Richardson (board member), and Jenn (board member). Two chose not to use their full names for this column, citing privacy concerns.
The Wild Hunt: The BHU Facebook page description says, “We are here to grow, learn, and deepen our shared spirituality, whether it be Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Sami, or other flavors of heathenry in nature.” Since you’ve moved out of the Germanic language group with this list, what’s your working definition of Heathenry? Where are the boundary lines, if any?
Casey Griffin: For the purposes of our group we aim to focus on Northern European pre-Christian spiritual practices. Our group’s main focus is Norse Heathenry. Most of our rituals are Norse blóts. Most of the gods that we hail are Norse gods.
However, we also have practitioners of other spiritual paths that still fall under the umbrella of Northern European pre-Christian practice. There’s pretty good evidence that they all interacted and influenced one another. Look at the similarities between the thunder gods. Hel, even the symbology. An Ukonvasara looks suspiciously like a Mjölnir, and both at least resemble certain representations of Perûn’s axe.
Personally, I feel like the word Heathen is less a focused term and more a word that has been ascribed a specific meaning in modern times. Its etymological predecessor translated to “heath dwellers” and really just referred to people that dwelled in the heath lands. Later it was made to mean “non-Christian,” more or less, by Christians of the time. It’s equivalent to the word Pagan. To me, it doesn’t really convey a focus on any realm of spirituality other than the fact that it’s from that area of the world.
Jenn: Like Casey said, we focus on European pre-Christian spiritual practices. There are ties between Sami practices and what we think of traditionally as Heathenry – Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Norse, Slavic – so there’s a natural geographic and cultural connection. Technically, you might stretch it to Hinduism, due to the distant Proto-Indo-European connection, but then you’d be connecting to most other European traditions in the same way.
J. Beofeld: Our working definition of Heathenry is more open than merely being about Germanic belief alone. It’s about historical interconnectivity and cultural exchanges. For instance, our historical sources show that the Norse peoples were well in contact with the Sami peoples and that there probably had been sharing of beliefs and ideas with their contact. We also know that the Rus impacted the Slavic peoples and there was an exchange of ideas there – as well as culture – even before the Rus. There was some exchange of ideas with Finnish peoples, as well.
We listed these cultures because there was at least some exchange in ideas in ancient times. We did not make a comprehensive list, either. We left out many regional varieties of Heathenry such as Frankish Heathenry, because there is no in-group interest in it at the moment. We did have to cap it off somewhere, though, or all of the Indo-European religions would fall into the mix. We see Heathenry as something that had a Germanic flair or had significant local similarities or exchanges of beliefs and ideas and culture in ancient times with one of the aforementioned cultures.
All this said, we are primarily a Norse-oriented group. More of our members are Norse practitioners than any other flavor of Heathenry. I am the only Anglo-Saxon practitioner in the group, but a few others are Anglo-Saxon-curious. There are a few Slavic Heathens in the group. Of our ceremonies, perhaps one a year will be purely Anglo-Saxon (usually Ēostre), perhaps one will be purely Slavic, and the rest will be primarily Norse in nature or will feature more than one pantheon in the event if there is some overlap.
And you know what? All our members are pretty cool with the occasional overlap and are very willing to support the other branches of Heathenry our number get into by being present for their rituals as they were present for the Norse rituals.
TWH: What aspects of your local situation – both natural and cultural – give Heathenry there a different character than elsewhere?
JB: I suppose something that gives our approach to Heathenry a different character is that we do not have a single leader by design. We have a board of nine members that are elected from within our general membership to represent BHU for limited terms. We are not under any illusions of grandeur. None of us is trying to claim a kingship here.
Many small groups try to start out with one king or queen or leader or whatever. We are very consciously trying to avoid anything resembling monarchy or a unitary system. We are also avoiding anything resembling oaths of fealty or anything of that sort of behavior. We’re all adults here, we’re all educated and literate, and none of us is trying to secure alliances for mutual military benefit. There is no good reason to revive the ghost of feudalism in the modern world.
J: I think one of our great advantages is that we are in a geographically advantageous area. BHU is in a large metro area that’s accessible by multiple interstates. We have members that drive as much as two hours to attend events, but the fact that the majority of our members are physically near lets us have a strong core group that can interact often.
Emily Richardson: We are a community-led organization built on transparency, consent, and mutual respect and trust. Having a strong supportive community is so important in the Bible Belt.
CG: The culture in the south tends more towards tribal behavior than in other parts of the country. There’s definitely a heavy “us versus them” vibe that influences a lot of Heathens down here that might not be so prevalent in other localities, especially when you factor in the fundamentalist values of a large proportion of the Christian communities around here, how openly they proselytize and how willingly they’ll verbally – and occasionally physically – attack a person that doesn’t share the Abrahamic worldview. I think it makes us band together as friends in situations that maybe we wouldn’t have normally.
Naturally, there are lots of woodlands and mountains not far away, and there’s a big emphasis on homesteading and hunting and other activities of that nature. I think that the hunter-warrior aspect of Norse culture is a big draw in that regard and gets more emphasis – for good or ill – than it might otherwise elsewhere. Then there’s the unfortunate history of the area which gives rise to some of the white supremacist Heathen groups that give us as a larger community a bad name.
TWH: Does BHU have a specific approach to ritual?
JB: Our group is primarily reconstructionist in nature. Our rituals are inspired and informed by an understanding of ritual as it can be sussed out in Norse and Anglo-Saxon sources. When applicable, we have pulled from ritual understandings as were found in Roman and Greek and Slavic sources, etc. We are under no illusions here that we’re super historically authentic, though, any more so than any other reconstructionist group. We’re reconstructing the best way that we can given the sources that we have.
J: One aspect that I really enjoy is the diversity of ritual. We have people from multiple traditions, so we may do a ritual to a Norse god or goddess one month, an Anglo-Saxon deity the next month, and a Slavic ritual the month after. My primary tradition is Norse, with a few outliers from other branches of Heathenry, and I love learning about other traditions.
CG: We try to make the rituals interesting and engaging for our community while still adhering to a reconstructionist format.
TWH: How many individual kindreds belong to BHU?
JB: We have not actually made a point of tracking that, so far. Most of our members haven’t named their hearths but many have over time developed their own unique and individual hearth practices.
ER: I consider BHU to be my kindred in the sense that we are allied and connected by our shared love of Heathenry and desire for fellowship.
CG: I don’t really feel like we have individual kindreds in BHU, honestly, unless you count each family as a separate kindred. We haven’t really had organized groups that were already practicing together join us, unless you count the original core that initially formed the organization.
TWH: In a previous interview, BHU co-founder and clergy Ryan Denison told me that “[t]he 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.” How specifically have you progressed in these three areas since forming BHU?
JB: We’re doing pretty well with the community aspect part. It makes it easier that we’re in the same metropolitan area and can meet each other fairly regularly. We’re trying to be open and inclusive. We try not to cultivate an environment in which bigotry can grow. New research is not a concerted group-driven task but is more one conducted by individuals on their own.
ER: With regards to inclusivity, we do not discriminate against race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender, disability, nationality, etc. All are welcome as long as they abide by our community standards of inclusivity.
For research, we share general resources among each other in the group, conduct group book study groups, and have breakout groups such as the Heathen academy, a clergy college, and a group that studies the more esoteric side of Heathenry.
The community has grown considerably in these first ten months from just a few dozen to nearly 150. Members have the opportunity to participate in the monthly board meetings that shape the direction of the organization. Clergy, board members, and two community liaisons dubbed the “Omsbuddies” build and maintain relationships with the membership through regular surveys and conversations.
TWH: The BHU website lists the following as ways that you seek to accomplish community-building: public blóts, monthly moots, veteran support, community support, and community engagement through social media. How many of these are up and running?
J: All of the above. We conduct monthly blóts and schedule an additional monthly moot. We have a veterans support organization that is just beginning, but they did a lovely job of coordinating a BHU entry in the Disabled American Veterans Run. We try to provide support for community members in need – those who are hospitalized, have a new baby, etc. We currently have a main Facebook page and several special interest groups, such as a group for Slavic Heathenry and a group for academic study.
ER: I must brag for a moment that Berkano Hearth Union raised $380 for the Disabled American Veterans Run. Our veterans committee coordinator has spearheaded charitable work benefiting veterans, provided a system of support for our veteran members, and drives the initiative to recognize an annual Feast of the Einherjar held on or near Memorial Day for BHU members.TWH: Which of these initiatives have the highest priority for development right now?
JB: All of them, in their own way. We have board members, clergy, officers, and group members who participate in developing these aspects of BHU. The highest priority for us to maintain is our monthly blóts. We have been trying to make it a priority to also have monthly moots and other scheduled activities of religious or cultural interest to those in our group. We’re primarily a local group so we’re not actively trying to advertise on social media, but we do try to engage our members regularly. Our veteran support and community support are mostly needs-based at the moment, so we have been trying to keep the priority on what is needed at the current time.
ER: I’d agree that blóts and community engagement are the biggest priorities. Blóts are the premier service for a group that thrives on fellowship. Those two initiatives help build the community’s foundation. The rest is icing on the cake.
CG: The monthly rituals are definitely our highest priority. They carry the largest draw of attendance and interest.
TWH: What are your plans for clergy training?
JB: We are in the process of developing the learning program and working through it ourselves, because it would not truly be fair if we grandfathered ourselves into our own system. It will not be official until after we are actually a 501(c)(3) religious organization. At that time the ordained clergy members could legally perform marriages, etc.
TWH: Within the BHU community, is there a specific process by which an individual member’s UPG (unverified person gnosis) becomes VPG (verified personal gnosis) for the group?
JB: No, it is our general view that VPG is something which is granted either by being something that can be found to be grounded in the historically accepted lore or through being maintained and confirmed through generations and generations of belief and use.
BHU also does not maintain any non-historical, universal dogma for its members. Instead, each hearth freely practices religion as their own hierophany compels them to, but when we come together to practice, we do so in a way that represents our best understanding of the historical sources. In this way we as a group accept that the historical lore supersedes our individual hierophany when we are in group activities.
In other words, we believe that no one should push their UPG on anyone else as fact, no matter how firmly they may believe it individually. Instead, we mutually agree that the lore is the foundation we can agree on, and so it forms the core of our group ritual. Individual ritual is an individual matter.
ER: We do have a safe space for sharing and discussing UPG. The goal there is to find common shared UPG or SPG (shared personal gnosis), and then the community can help research and verify it per the lore, if possible, as VPG.
TWH: The BHU Facebook page says “We operate under Declaration 127. Racism, misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia/transphobia, etc., will not be tolerated.” Declaration 127 (D127) itself is squarely and solely focused on the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA). Re-reading it now, the language is really clear; it’s all about breaking off ties with the AFA. The key line is, “The AFA’s views do not represent our communities. We hereby declare that we do not condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion, and will no longer associate with those who do.” Do your policies specifically forbid BHU members from associating with AFA members?
J: We have a non-discrimination policy in place in BHU, so I doubt that an AFA member would want to agree to our policy and join our organization.
JB: Our non-discrimination policy would preclude membership of an individual in any other known bigoted or discriminatory group from being a member.
ER: We don’t name AFA specifically, but being affiliated with groups like them would raise red flags and we do not see too many of their associates apply for membership.
CG: No, there’s no specific policy that we have on the books which outlaws association with AFA members. We don’t allow AFA members into our group, but it’s not our responsibility or wish to police our members’ friends. How would we enforce that, honestly? Keep tabs on everyone? Scrutinize their visible communications on social media? That sounds like some 1984 garbage that would need to witch hunts.
TWH: Given that D127 was written in 2016 and only focuses on one organization, do you think it’s time for Heathens of positive intent to make a larger public statement against racist versions of Ásatrú and Heathenry?
J: Definitely so. We currently are in a time when there is a distinctly unpleasant resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. I believe all people of goodwill should do what they can to counter racism where it raises its ugly head. It’s particularly important for Heathens to do so, because the bad guys so often get conflated in the media with Heathens of good intent and practice.
We also feel that it is important to resist other forms of discrimination, such as discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQIA community.
JB: Yes. Heathenry, sadly, has a lot of negative history to overcome. Bigots give us a bad name and we must work very hard to ensure we are not lumped in with them.
ER: Yes, several members of BHU would love to offer suggestions on making D127 even stronger.
CG: Most definitely. I can’t express how many times I’ve had to explain that, no, I don’t wear a Mjölnir pendant because I’m a white supremacist. I wear it because I worship the old gods of the Norse people. I suppose it doesn’t help that I have tattoos, long hair, and almost exclusively listen to black metal, though. Ha!
TWH: In her book American Heathens, sociologist Jennifer Snook writes about the “success of the tribal model” of Heathenry over the “steady, grinding bureaucracy of the national organizations,” arguing that Mark Stinson’s Lightning Across the Plains – last held in 2014 – shows a way forward centered on tribalism. Do you consider the BHU to be built on a tribal concept?
J: That’s a tricky question, because the word tribal has so many connotations, not all of which are positive. I’d say we are a close-knit group that shares common values and a desire to practice Heathenry in a positive, supportive environment.
JB: I personally disagree with the terms tribal and tribalism, because they can be used as a cover so easily for negative behavior. We mutually gathered together and opted to create a much more democratic model for our organization.
We’re also so diverse, it is very difficult to see us all as one “tribe.” We have new Heathens and old Heathens. We have reconstructionists and non-reconstructionists. We have plain vanilla heathens and syncretic heathens who hold faith with multiple pantheons. We have Heathens in several flavors: Norse, Icelandic, continental-Germanic, Slavic, and Anglo-Saxon. We have Heathens that are also exploring Sami, Finnish, and Baltic Heathenry.
If we’re a tribe, we’re the most heterogeneous tribe that I have ever heard of. We are totally cool with that, because, on a whole, we have a mutual understanding of what is “group” and what is “individual.”
CG: No, I don’t feel that BHU is built on a tribal concept. I think that, if it was, we as de facto leaders of the organization would have far fewer headaches and fewer members. We built this on a democratic model in order to keep one or two individuals from grabbing the reins and steering it into dangerous cult territory. No konungr, no jarl, no delusions of grandeur, no one person telling the group, “This is how it’s going to be, Bjørn. It’s my way or the highway.”
TWH: What makes joining BHU different from being in a local kindred on one hand and a national organization on the other?
J: We’re more open to new people than some local kindreds. At the same time, being local, we can be more personal and relational than is possible in a national organization. I like national organizations for their wide network of contacts and for the resources they can provide.
JB: We intend ourselves to be a local group. We have members out of state and out of the country, but our main center is located in a few hours radius of each other. Many of us are close enough to meet up with each other a couple of times a month. We just want to build the best local community we can for each other, support each other, and worship together.
CG: We’re maybe a bit more structured than a local kindred but smaller and less resource-rich than a national organization. We do what we can with what we have, but we’re damned organized while doing it.
TWH: What do you think is the future of American Heathenry? National orgs, local groups, tribalism, or something else entirely?
J: I expect to see all of the above. Other religions are successful with a diversity of organizations, so why not Heathenry?
JB: I agree with Jenn. There is not one way forward. There are many paths forward.
ER: The gods’ children are waking up all over, and soon their names will be on everyone’s lips. I see Heathenry growing at all levels. Local tribes, kindreds, unions – whatever you want to call them – will be very important to the survival of Heathenry, because you can’t beat having those face-to-face relationships with fellow like-minded individuals.
CG: Maybe more national organizations, but I think many more smaller local groups, tribes, kindreds, what have you.
TWH: What do you want BHU to look like ten years from now?
J: We would like to have a thriving, diverse, close-knit community with ties to similar Heathen communities.
JB: Us, but older.
ER: Celebrating the ten-year anniversary of answering this question! But seriously, we have long-term goals of obtaining a property to call home base for our functions. We will be a 501(c)(3) serving the local Heathen community. We will continue to be transparent and community-led. I see us emerging as thought leaders for Heathenry as we craft a working and thriving model through trial and error.
CG: Definitely us, but older. Our children. Maybe some of our children will have children.
TWH: What else do you want people to know about BHU that I didn’t ask?
CG: Jenn makes some bomb-ass baklava that she usually brings to Yule. We’re a pretty friendly bunch and we love new folks.