Ben Waggoner is a very busy man. Best known for working full time as an assistant professor in evolutionary biology at the University of Central Arkansas, he also acts as an elder of the Troth, an editor, writer and translator, with over half a dozen books under his belt.
Taking this rather supernatural productivity into consideration, I was not really surprised when, a few months ago, I received a large and heavy package in the mail. Inside said package laid a massively fat volume titled Heathen Garb and Gear: Ritual Dress, Tools, and Art for the Practice of Germanic Heathenry, authored by Waggoner himself and the renowned Kveldulf Gunnarson, with the help of Diana L. Paxson.
Quickly scrolling through this large paperback revealed that the book in question was, in fact, not just a book about the ritual practice of Heathenry, but rather an almost-encyclopedic manual detailing, oft-times in baffling specificity, the material culture of millennia of Germanic civilizations. With well over 500 pages, a dozen chapters and numerous illustrations, Heathen Garb and Gear appeared an equally daunting and fascinating read, something that would likely take me many months to finish.
Now that the reading of said volume has finally come to a close, I could not, in good conscience, deprive the readers of The Wild Hunt from reading my thoughts about it.
The first thing that I noticed when reading this book was how well-constructed it is. Each individual chapter, stretching between 30 to 100 pages, feel self-contained enough that they could easily be approached and consumed, on their own, but the general tone, language, and intricateness of the information displayed remain constant throughout. This is especially impressive when taking into consideration the heterogenous nature of this writing project: indeed, Heathen Garb and Gear did not materialize out of thin air, but consists of essays, articles, and other writings published by the Troth in the past couple decades and updated for the present release.
While I imagine that fervent followers of the Troth might very well have already been aware of some of the information contained in Heathen Garb and Gear (most likely through old editions of Our Troth or Idunna), these texts have nevertheless been reviewed, edited, and updated in a way that makes them a worthy read again. I, for one, had never laid my eyes on any of these texts prior to opening the present volume and can attest to the quality of the editing process carried out throughout the book. This general degree of professionalism is all the more commendable as it permeates the very content, the information presented therein.
To keep a long story short, Heathen Garb and Gear does an absolutely stellar job of communicating, presenting, and contextualizing a very wide range of archeological finds, literary sources, and learned commentary on the subject of ancient Germanic material culture. While you may not find page after page of social theory on exactly why a certain item was used in the way it was, you will instead be met with a seemingly-endless list of examples and illustrations, pretty much all well-sourced and aptly contextualized.
The wealth of knowledge contained in this book is maybe best exemplified in its second chapter, “Jewelry, Amulets, Symbols and Designs.” There, in some 110 pages, the authors round up just about every conceivable symbol, tool, weapon, body part, animal, and more that has ever been depicted or crafted by Germanic-speaking peoples. Ever wondered what the Vikings thought of moose? Or in how many sources the old raven-banner appeared? How did ancient Germanic tribes use firesteels? Which flowers were associated with which rituals? It’s all in there, and more.
What makes this at times almost encyclopedic-looking book much more appealing that simply reading some old reference dictionary is Heathen Garb and Gear‘s very wide focus area. Not only will one read about the material culture of the Vikings, but they will also learn a lot about preceding, subsequent, and neighboring cultures as well.
The source-pool of this volume is also surprisingly diverse, blending skaldic poetry, runic inscriptions, bronze-age archeological finds, classical literary sources, and more, thus creating a multi-disciplinary and dynamic environment within its pages.
Another aspect of Heathen Garb and Gear‘s appeal is that it also refers to contemporary practices, beliefs, and traditions in a tactful and focused way. A number of popular books on Heathenism often suffer from a rather flimsy divide between traditional lore and modern (re)interpretations and innovations. Thankfully, the present volume always clearly presents and refers to its sources, including those pertaining to modern practice and belief. A great number of these are made to feel especially relevant by the fact that they stem from the personal experience of the authors themselves. These numerous anecdotes, humorous commentaries, and personal (yet always relevant, and short) digressions help make Heathen Garb and Gear more than just a stale encyclopedia or copy-pasted info-dump. You truly get the feel that this volume is first and foremost a work of dedication stemming from the deep interest its authors bear for Heathenry.
As such, this book will certainly work wonders for the lone Ásatrúar who wish to develop their own practice based on ancient lore. I can also see Heathen Garb and Gear being used to more freely assist in crafting modern reworking of the old religion. I was especially fascinated by the wealth of information on Urglaawe presented here, as well as the numerous suggestions made by the authors on how to adapt certain practices. In this regard, the reflection on the place of animal sacrifice in modern Heathenry presented in Chapter 8 represents a much more balanced take than most other commentaries on the subject.
While Heathen Garb and Gear’s primary goal thus is, avowably, to be used as a resource for Heathen religious practice, the abundance of information it presents, coupled with its broad focal scope makes it a great resource for non-religious endeavors as well. The book’s very first chapter, focusing on traditional clothing, could very well, in and of itself, justify buying it for someone (including oneself) wishing to get a succinct, yet comprehensive overview of historical Germanic clothing. Know someone who is into Renaissance fairs? Historical reenacting? Who is just curious about the historicity of popular Viking-inspired tv-shows and video games? This book would make for a most fitting gift; and who knows, the (altogether short) passages on modern Heathen practices and belief might even help introduce them to Heathen faiths as well.
Now, if Heathen Garb and Gear shines in many aspects, it is not by any means immune to at least a limited dose of criticism. First of all, the referencing system used in this volume can significantly impede the reading experience. Instead of making use of a more academic (and thus succinct) style to refer to the numerous sources presented therein, Heathen Garb and Gear instead cites authors as well as publication titles, which can make for rather extensive parentheses. This rather unappealing and somewhat confusing word-salad is sometimes made worse by the editor’s choice not to use any footnotes and thus pour even more information at the end of already crammed paragraphs. Add to this maybe one or two pictures on certain pages, and it all makes for a rather confusing read at times.
As far as typography is concerned, the punctuation of Heathen Garb and Gear is also far from perfect. Commas, and even more so full stops, are often found at odd places, especially in relation to parentheses and quotation marks. A few are even missing altogether. While this will be but a very minor aesthetic issue for most, it disrupted my reading enough that I never dared open the book without a pencil in my hand, ready to note and correct these troublesome inconsistencies. The volume otherwise appears almost entirely free from typos and misprints, even though a couple terminology errors (writing “the Ukraine” instead of just “Ukraine,” using the word “Lapp” to refer to Sámi people) can be found here and there. These small qualms are, all things considered, not much to worry about and won’t detter most readers from thoroughly enjoying an otherwise entertaining and truly informative volume.
To conclude, I can safely say that Heathen Garb and Gear would make a great addition to the library of just about anyone interested or involved in Heathenry, the Viking Age, and even history in general. As an academic, I wish I had a book like this when I started my journey through the world of Viking and medieval Norse studies, to use as a handy reference book when approaching new subjects. As a writer, I praise the execution and presentation of such a massive amount of information, which likely will make even the lay-est of the lay people interested in an otherwise complex subject. Finally, as a Pagan, I can only respect the dedication of the authors, who have made a most valuable offering to the cause of the old religion. Get this book now, there is simply no way you will regret it.