Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: January 2013

Timeline of Christianization

Okay, I just read yet another “Asatru for Beginners” book that makes the erroneous claim that Iceland was the heroic last holdout of Germanic Heathenry in Europe against the onslaught of Christianity, and I just can’t take it any more. In the interests of the dissemination of fact, here’s the actual timeline of Christianization in northern Europe. Naturally, dates are approximate in some cases, but these are the accepted dates among scholars.

  • 238-390: Gothic tribes (Visigoths, Ostrogoths), Burgundians, and Vandals are converted to (Arian) Christianity.
  • 591: Augustine becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury. Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons begins with mass baptism of 10,000.
  • 686: Arwald, last Heathen Anglo-Saxon king, dies. 
  • 700: Anglo-Saxons are converted by this time.
  • 718: Willibrod begins conversion efforts in southern Denmark. 
  • 777: Conversion of the Saxons (in modern-day Germany) by Charlemagne begins. 
  • 800: Carolingian (Frankish) Empire is converted by this time, largely with help from Anglo-Saxon missionaries. 
  • 813: Due in part by the preaching of Christianity in the vernacular rather than Latin, Saxons are converted by this time.
  • 830: Ansgar becomes first missionary to Sweden. 
  • 935: Harald Bluetooth allows Christian missionaries in Denmark.
  • 960: Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark, converts to Christianity. Most Danes convert within 20-40 years.
  • 980: Christian missionaries begin to visit Iceland.
  • 990: King Olof becomes first Christian king of Sweden.
  • 995: Olaf Tryggvason becomes king of Norway. Norway becomes nominally Christian, pressure is put on Iceland to convert.
  • 1000: Iceland officially becomes Christian. Public displays of Heathen worship are forbidden. Private Heathen worship is forbidden soon thereafter.
  • 1030: Olaf Tryggvason dies. Norway is now converted by this time. 
  • 1047: Bernhard Sakseren becomes first missionary bishop to the Faroe Islands.
  • 1100: Faroe Islands are converted. Almost all of Sweden is converted by this time. 
  • 1123: Småland in Sweden becomes the last pocket of Heathens to be officially converted by Sigurd the Crusader.
  • 1249: Birger Jarl of Sweden annexes and forces the conversion of Finland.
  • 1386: Conversion of Lithuania begins.
  • 1417: Lithuania is officially Christian by this time. Pagan beliefs and practices survive sub rosa for some time.

So the broad order of conversion is:

  • Goths
  • England / Anglo-Saxons
  • France / Franks
  • Germany / Saxons
  • Denmark
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Faroe Islands
  • Most of Sweden
  • Rest of Sweden
  • Finland
  • Lithuania
Naturally, Heathen practices survived among the peasants far past the year that the king converted, and remnants survived even past the dates given as the time “the rest of the country converted”. But on the whole, that’s the timeline. Iceland wasn’t a particularly staunch defender of Heathenry.

So the next time that someone tells you how Iceland was the last hold-out of Heathenry in Europe, you’ll know the truth of the matter. Iceland converted because it wanted to get in King Olaf’s good graces, but his own country wasn’t even converted for another 30 years. And Sweden came far later!

First-Century Danish Bog Sacrifice – An Entire Army!

ScienceNordic gives us an excellent story on an archaeological dig in Denmark, where an entire army was apparently sacrificed after losing some battle. The bones were dumped in a low-lying area which later became a peat bog, allowing the remains to be remarkably well-preserved.

What leads the investigators to believe that the remains were part of a sacrifice is the fact that they were apparently deliberately moved to the site from whatever battlefield they fell on. The bones show marks of predation, which means they had been left on the battlefield for some time before being moved.

No word in the article as to whether any plainly votive offerings were also found in the peat bog (swords that had been deliberately bent, for example, rendering them useless to mortals and thus firmly and forever in the possession of the Gods), but it’s apparently an enormous site and will take quite a long time to excavate completely.

Pagan Identity, Part 3: We’re All in This Together!

Some individuals during the current wide-ranging discussion on Pagan identity make the argument that, even if there is no consensus as to what Paganism is, all Pagans should stick together for the sake of solidarity. Let us first ask the question, how should that solidarity, if it exists, be expressed?

If all “Pagans” are supposed to feel some level of solidarity with one another, then some level of support should be expected. But what sort of support? Good wishes? Signing a petition? Letters to the editor? Picketing the business? Paying the rent of the Dianic Wiccan until she can find another job?

Expressions and expectations of solidarity can take many forms. Just where are we supposed to draw the line?

There are other examples of instances where solidarity might imply the expectation of action, not in a reactionary way to right an injustice, but in a positive way to advance “Paganism” in general. We do this all the time by buying books that don’t directly relate to our own specific faith, but there are many other ways in which this could be done. Attending a class, or a ritual, presented by a “Pagan” group that has nothing much in common with one’s own. Contributing to a land fund, or a temple fund, to help another group take the next step into respectability and stability. Even joining umbrella groups that don’t really meet our specific needs or match our specific religious concerns, for the sole purposes of expressing solidarity with them and their goals.

But expecting solidarity-for-solidarity’s sake is arbitrary and senseless. Surely solidarity should be based on some commonality. The question then becomes, solidarity in the pursuit of what goal?

The most obvious answer is the freedom to practice one’s Pagan religion. However, as I hope I’ve shown in the previous two installments of this series, coming up with a definition of what Paganism is, that manages to include all of the various specific faiths and paths that are usually lumped in under the Pagan umbrella without so many qualifiers that the definition becomes a meaningless, is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, task. It ain’t all Wicca.

Just what interest does a Celtic Reconstructionist have in helping a Dianic Wiccan who has been fired from a job because of her religion? More to the point, should that Celtic Reconstructionist feel any more responsibility for helping that Dianic Wiccan than, say, a Vodouist or Jehovah’s Witness who has been fired because of their faith? They might have just about as much in common, from a religious point of view.

In other words, why stop at solidarity with “Pagans”?

Do I, as a Théodsman, really have anything more in common with a Gardnerian Wiccan than I do with, say, a Shintoist? I might argue that I have more in common, on a religious level, with the Shintoist than I do with the Wiccan. Why, then, should I be expected to show some sort of solidarity with the Wiccan, because someone else decided we both fall under the arbitrary label “Pagan”?

Now, this also brings up the divide between Pagans and Heathens, which I touched on in the second installment of this series.

Most Ásatrúar, Théodsmen, Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Fyrn Sidu, Odinists, Urglaawe (Pennsylvania Dutch Heathens; it’s actually quite fascinating), and some Celtic Reconstructionists and Druids specifically eschew the label “Pagan” in favor of “Heathen”. There are linguistic reasons for this (the word heathen comes from the Old Norse word heiðínn, which is consistent with the Heathen approach to limit their synceticism to things Germanic), but chiefly many Heathens do so to consciously distance themselves from self-identified “Pagans”. Many don’t want to be associated with a lot of the very eclectic, counter-cultural, less-than-academically-rigorous, and (from their perspective) oddball things that some prominent “Pagans” indulge in. (Note that this is, of course, a huge generalization on both ends, and I do not speak for all Heathens, but rather base my generalization on nearly a quarter century of being a Heathen myself.)

And, boy, do those Heathens love it when Pagans try to say they’re just a path or tradition within Paganism.

So are Heathens to be brought into this solidarity with Pagans, even though many of them consciously choose a different label specifically to avoid such associations? If so, does Pagan/Heathen solidarity extend to a Blue Star Wiccan coven showing up at a town hall meeting to speak up for the rights of Théodsmen who want to perform a swínblót but are facing obstacles from the local police? When it comes to solidarity, just how much do we get to pick and choose who and what we’re in solidarity with?

Perhaps the goal should not be Pagan solidarity after all. Many disparate “Pagan” groups have nothing at all in common, and may even be quite at odds in terms of theology, ideology, and goals. Perhaps a more effective route, rather than trying to lump scores if not hundreds of “Pagan” groups and faiths under an umbrella already straining to contain them all, we might instead move towards focused interfaith outreach.

In fact, I would argue that attempts to create Pagan solidarity are just that, but without conscious acknowledgement of that term and thus lacking in the awareness needed to make it effective. If we shed the “Pagan” label, and do not insist on “solidarity” with faiths and individuals with whom we have little if anything in common other than a mutual desire to practice our faith in peace, we can open up a world of possibilities.

Rather than trying to force some sort of solidarity with Ásatrúar, Dianic Wiccans might find it more effective to reach out to Quakers, or Disciples of Christ, or Episcopalians on some issues, and Seax Wiccans or Reclaiming Tradition for other issues. Ásatrúar might find more in common with Mormons on issues that are near and dear to their hearts, and Druids or Hellenes on others. Reclaiming Tradition Wiccans might make common cause with Deep Ecology Catholics in some instances, and Blue Star Wiccans in others. Much like Patrick McCollum has done with Hindus in India (among many other such initiatives).

That’s when they feel the need to do so, of course; one of the great things about interfaith dialogue is that it doesn’t necessarily carry with it the expectation that just because two groups are talking on civil terms that they will necessarily some to each others’ rescue when one of them runs into trouble. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, depending on how their mutual interests align. But attempting to force members of faiths that really have little beyond a few God and Goddess names in common (and in many cases, not even that!) in the name of “Pagan Solidarity” is ultimately a losing proposition, as there is no commonality upon which to base that solidarity.

I think interfaith dialogue that extends both within and without what is now called “Paganism”, targeted on specific issues and with specific groups, makes a lot more sense than some ill-fitting “Pagan solidarity” that, in some cases, makes for some very odd bedfellows indeed.

Three Video Lectures on the Viking Mindset

Heritage Today has a fascinating article entitled Death, Narrative, and Understanding the Viking Mind, which   describes a trio of lectures by Professor Neil Price of Aberdeen University on the topic of understanding the Norse mindset. This is of particular importance to those of a more reconstructionist bent within Heathenry, as remolding the modern world-view into something closer to that possessed by our spiritual ancestors is one of our goals, as it is key to placing the beliefs and practices of those ancestors into the proper context.

The article also has links to all three of the lectures on YouTube. They’re long, but promise to be well worth the time invested in watching.

Pagan Identity, Part 2: At Least We All Worship the Goddess, Right?

Many people have expressed some trepidation that we, collectively, are even having the conversation about what it means to be “Pagan”. I think that part of the angst comes from the fact that many people who self-identify as “Pagan”, or who place others under the “Pagan” umbrella, don’t realize just how much diversity there is under that umbrella. They are familiar with their own way of doing things, and “all the other Pagans I know do it this way”, so they assume that everyone else does it that way, too. One finds this most often among Wiccans, and it’s difficult to fault them for the attitude, since Wicca casts such a large shadow. But it is most certainly not the only game in town.

First, to answer the rhetorical question posed in the title of this post, no, we don’t all worship the Goddess. Many of us, particularly historical reconstructionists and hard polytheists, don’t have a single “Goddess” or “God” in our cosmology. Freyja is Freyja, Isis is Isis, and Ceres is Ceres. They are not “aspects of the Goddess”, or “emanations of the ultimate female life-force” or anything like that. To us, they are distinct and unique beings with their own personalities, qualities, and complex natures. Still others see the Gods as Jungian archetypes, or merely as useful mythological creations with no objective reality.

Does this mean that dualists, or Goddess-worshippers, are “wrong”? Not at all. It merely means that there is no consensus among those often found under the “Pagan” umbrella as to the nature or number of the Gods, and thus it is insufficient to form a definition of “Pagan” on that basis.

So, too, mere polytheism is not enough to call someone a “Pagan”, either. Many religions are polytheist in nature to one degree or another; Shinto, Hinduism, and even Mormonism have been thus described, but most people would never think to include them in any contemporary definition of “Pagan”.

So just having more than one deity isn’t enough. We must perforce look elsewhere for some sort of commonalities that could be used to come up with a definition of “Pagan”.

Is it a lifestyle choice? Again, while it may be for some people, it’s definitely not for all. Some “Pagans” wear pentagrams and Ren Faire garb, are vegetarians who belong to a food co-op, and flit from barista to bookstore cashier to au pair to pay the bills, but others wear suits to their corporate jobs and come home and grill a t-bone while watching football. (Many don’t even use the pentagram as a symbol!) The “Pagan” tent admits people from all lifestyles, and many of those people don’t feel particularly comfortable around people who don’t share their own particular lifestyle. You don’t get to say “you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable around people who go skyclad” (or who are polyamorous, or who are omnivorous, or who hunt, or who drive SUV’s, or whatever it happens to be). Some people are, and that attitude needs to be recognized as a legitimate choice.

Is there some sort of commonality in ritual, perhaps? Again, the answer is a resounding “no”. Many people follow a calendar based on the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. Many others follow a lunar calendar, doing ritual on the full or new moons (or both). Still others follow an historical calendar, only doing major rituals three or four times a year, at the beginning of winter, in the middle of winter, and at the beginning of spring, as recorded in the Heimskringla and other sources. Still others follow the ritual calendar of ancient Athens, or Rome, or Canaan.

As for the content of the rituals, that forms an even greater tangle. Some “Pagans” form a circle, invoke the guardians of the cardinal directions, and raise energy in ritual. Others invoke Gods and Goddesses directly, sometimes even inviting spirit possession as an integral part of ritual. Still others don’t involve “magic” at all in their rituals; they are purely votive offerings made to the Gods or land-spirits. Some have lengthy rituals with multiple parts, scripts, and elaborate props. Others do their rituals off the cuff. Some do ritual dramas. Some dance. Some share sacred meals, or drinking, as ritual, while others have a more symbolic sharing of food and drink, while others don’t have anything of the sort in ritual. Some use the four elements, some five, some two, and many don’t invoke any elements at all. Some perform animal sacrifices, and others vehemently oppose the practice. It’s the Wild West when it comes to ritual.

Organizationally, the question is just as open. There are formal covens whose members are bound by oaths, there are less formal covens, study groups, individuals (often called “solitaries”), Druid groves, Ásatrú kindreds, fellowships, etc. There’s no common structure; some have strong leaders, some practice pure democracy, some require consensus, others elect leaders. So there’s nothing organizationally that makes a group “Pagan”.

We’re starting to run out of possibilities.

If the definition of “Pagan” isn’t based on cosmology or theology (or theology), it’s not based on specific lifestyle choices, it’s not based on the ritual activities or calendars, it’s not based on organization, what the heck is it based on?

Or, to ask the question another way, what do a Druid, an Ásatrúar, a Dianic Wiccan, a practitioner of the Religio Romana, and a Gardnerian Wiccan have in common? If all they have in common is that “they’re all Pagan”, then the term itself becomes meaningless, as it describes nothing more than an arbitrary grouping of individuals and faiths that would otherwise have nothing in common.

Many have already realized this, and have moved to distance themselves from the “Pagan” label, as it carries with it all sorts of connotations that they don’t want to be associated with. Most Ásatrúar, Théodsmen, etc. consciously use the term “Heathen” rather than “Pagan” precisely to avoid association with people whom they see as very different from themselves. Others avoid such umbrella terminology altogether and simply use a more specific label; they are not “Pagan”, but Khemetic Orthodox, or Théodish, or Religio Romana, or Celtic Reconstructionist, or Druid, or whatever.

And, given the lack of commonality to define what it means to be “Pagan”, perhaps they’re onto something.

Pagan Identity Part 1: Is there a “Pagan Community”?

There has been much talk of the question of Pagan identity of late. High-profile Pagans have given up the label, while others make the case that the Pagan label is still relevant. I would like to begin my own analysis of the subject with some thoughts on one facet of Pagan identity; the question of the “Pagan community”.

Pivotal to the question of whether or not there is a “Pagan community” is the definition of “community” itself. Some people say that Wiccans, Druids, Ásatrúar, Celtic Reconstructionists, British Traditional Witches, etc. form a community based on shared interests in the broader culture, such as religious freedom issues.

Yet one of the landmark Supreme Court cases in that regard, from which Wiccans and Ásatrúar alike benefit, was a case that ended the practice of compulsory Protestant Christian prayers in public schools. That case was brought about by a Jehovah’s Witnesses family. Yet no one would think to include the JW’s in the “Pagan” umbrella of faiths that are striving for religious recognition in a broadly Protestant society (although one which is becoming less so every year). Thus I reject the notion that shared interests necessarily produces community. A community is built on more than just a few commonalities.

I would posit that a true community is composed of individuals who interact with one another on a regular, ongoing basis. From those interactions comes a shared common culture, common institutions, and the formation of long-term associations among members of the community (friendships, business relationships, marriages, etc.).

I don’t think many of those who are often placed under the “Pagan” umbrella (sometimes against their wishes) as a whole have that sort of community experience. Rather, what has happened is the creation of dozens, scores, and even hundreds of micro-communities, each fairly to very insular, and while they are usually welcoming of newcomers, regular face-to-face interactions between members of already-established groups are, if not uncommon, usually fleeting. While there may well be exceptions (and I expect to hear about some of those exceptions in replies to this post), that is undoubtedly the rule.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the varied nature of Paganism itself. Just because you worship many of the same Gods (and it’s entirely questionable whether or not that is really the case, but that’s another discussion for another day) does not mean you necessarily have all that much in common. How many Seax Wiccans regularly go to Druid rituals? How many Stregheria are comfortable in a Blue Star Wiccan setting? And that’s not even getting into the question of oathbound traditions who _cannot_ open their doors to outsiders in all things.

And yet, I think without exactly that sort of constant cross-pollination, the continuous exchange of ideas, shared experiences, and so forth, it’s impossible to speak of a true “community”.

Far too many people confuse email discussion lists and web bulletin boards with true communities. They are not. From such discussion groups, real communities might eventually form, but communities are built on firmer foundations than being able to chat about a few common interests. Note that I am not saying that a true community needs to live together in some sort of commune, but regular face-to-face contact is, I think, essential, as it provides the sort of social glue that mere exchanges of emails cannot.

There are events that manage to cross group lines, of course: the various Pagan Pride Day celebrations, the larger regional and national gatherings such as Starwood and Sirius Rising, etc. But these are annual things, and don’t seem to notably add to the regular face-to-face contacts I think are the backbone of a true community. They are ephemeral, and community is based on consistency.

So too, the fact that individuals from different groups happen to shop at the same specialty stores that happen to stock some things for which they might have a common interest and/or need means little in terms of getting folks together on a frequent and sustained basis. “Patrons of Pagan Store X” is not a community any more than the customers of a particular grocery store are a community.

By way of contrast, Heathens seem to do much better at this sort of crossing of lines (and I’m not saying this in a “we Heathens are so much better than you Pagans” sense, but only by way of contrast). It is perfectly ordinary for someone from one Ásatrú kindred to show up at another kindred’s event, even if it involves a drive of several hours. You see this sort of visiting even between Théodish and Ásatrú groups (for those not familiar with the subtleties of Heathen religion, Théodism and Ásatrú are two very different heathen religions that place very different emphases on various elements, but still have enough in common that an adherent of one can go to the celebration of another and still have some idea of what’s going on); I even know of some people that are members of both an Ásatrú kindred and a Théodish tribe.

A lot of this comes from the fact that Heathens, by definition, base their practices (to a greater or lesser degree) on ancient Germanic religion, and that gives them a huge basis of commonality in ritual and culture upon which community-building exchanges can take place that others who self-identify as pagans, do not have. Even then, there are fault-lines which many Heathens are loathe to cross as a rule; folkish and non-foklish Ásatrúar tend to keep to their own company, for instance. Even commonalities are no guarantee of broad community.

The bottom line is that as long as pagans don’t start attending each other’s events on a frequent and regular basis, attempts at creating (or maintaining) any sort of “community” are going to fail, and those with expectations based on what the “Pagan community” should or should not be doing are going to be disappointed. The trouble, as I see it, is that individual Pagans, following the myriad of faiths commonly held under the “Pagan” umbrella, ultimately have so little in common that such constant regular contact just isn’t feasible, unless they happen to belong to a common micro-community. A Druid, a Dianic Wiccan, and a Hellenic Reconstructionist may all be called “Pagans” in the broad sense, but they just don’t have enough in common to say that they are part of the same “community”.

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