Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: August 2013

Is this Pagan? (Part One)

As many regular readers will know, the question of how we define “Paganism” is something that I find fascinating. On a practical level, the definition of contemporary Paganism (or Neopaganism) has implications in academia, the law, and how those under the “Pagan” umbrella are viewed by society at large.

One of the great failings of many attempts to come up with a definition of Paganism is that the definition is too broad. Like some vast spiritual fishing trawler, such definitions snatch up faiths and practices whose adherents would find the notion that they were being called Pagan not only inaccurate but insulting, as the word has definite negative connotations. While many within the contemporary “Pagan community” use the term deliberately as a way of reclaiming it, these other faith, ethnic, and cultural groups are not invested at all in such an enterprise, and resist such labels vehemently.

Take, for example, the Japanese religion of Shinto.

Shinto, the traditional faith of the Japanese people, certainly fulfills many of the criteria of the various definition of “Pagan” religions that have been advanced. It is both polytheistic and animistic, with both Gods and place-spirits abounding. It predates Christianity (stretching back to at least the 8th century CE). There are rituals and shrines. It grows and evolves, morphing in response to the needs of the Japanese who still follow it, many of whom practice a sort of mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, and Shinto, which most forms of Shinto fully allow and embrace. It forms a basis by which its adherents can relate not only to one another but to the world around them, with healing traditions, rituals of purification, and worship of spirits of place such as Mount Fuji.

Shinto is incredibly diverse, with hundreds of different sects. There is a regular calendar of festivals. There’s even a Koshinto (“Old Shinto”) movement that attempts to “reconstruct” pre-Buddhist Japanese religious beliefs and practices in much the same way that modern “Pagan Reconstructionists” attempt to reconstruct pre-Christian Pagan religious beliefs and practices. It’s like modern Paganism looking in a mirror at times.

But do Shintoists consider themselves Pagan? The answer is no.

The term “Pagan” was used as a derogatory term by Christian missionaries in Japan, as it was in most other places. Pagans were, in Japan as elsewhere, poor benighted fools who were in need of the Good News of the Gospel.

In fact, the Encyclopedia of Shinto actually refers to Christianity itself as “Pagan”, in the sense of “any religion that isn’t my own.”

It is very easy to find interest in Shinto from the (Neo)Pagan side. Contemporary Pagans and Heathens are very fond of using Shinto as an example of a successful, contemporary polytheistic faith in the modern world. But the love is one-sided. In researching this article, I was unable to find a single Shinto organization that embraces the term Pagan to describe themselves and their beliefs and practices. They are not interested in being brought under any sort of “Pagan” umbrella. They are Shinto, and prefer to be dealt with on those terms and using that label.

It is also a fact that the overwhelming majority of Shinto practitioners are themselves Japanese. While it is not impossible to find Shinto shrines outside of Japan (Hawaii, for example, has no fewer than seven such shrines), they are almost exclusively attended by people of Japanese descent. Indeed, only seven non-Japanese Shinto priests had been ordained as of 2011. It takes more than just self-initiating after reading a Llewellyn book.

So does Shinto, which has a lot of similarities to modern (Neo)Paganism, count as “Pagan” even though they don’t want to be so counted? Is it to be held under the same umbrella as Wicca and Druidry, even though they eschew such associations? Is a faith that is almost exclusively the province of Japanese people open to gate-crashing anime fans, or does it have the right to set its own bar so high that only the most serious of converts, a total of seven, are ordained in the tradition?

I submit that any definition of Paganism that is so broad as to include a faith that doesn’t want to be called Pagan, fails. More examples and analysis to come.

The Ins and Outs of Heathenry

One of the basic principles of Heathenry is the concept of the innangarðs and the útangarðs. Literally, these two Old Norse terms mean “inside the enclosure” and “outside the enclosure”. The concept is applied more broadly to kinship and kithship. There are those who are “in the group”, and those who are “outside the group”.

The distinction between that which is within the boundary – that which is civilized and known and safe – and that which lies outside the boundary – that which is wild and (potentially) dangerous, penetrates into the very conception of the Heathenry cosmos. As Swain Wodening puts it:

The innangarðs (ON) is all that is within the nine worlds. Outside is the útangarðs (ON), the wilds where man has no control. Thus you have the nine worlds, and then Útgard; that outside the sphere of both Man and the Gods (as well as the giants, elves, and dwarves). It is a place where creatures such as Útgard Loki dwell.(1)

This is most obviously seen in more tribalist forms of Heathenry such as Théodish Belief, where the distinction between a member of the tribe and an outsider is sharply defined and has implications for both ritual and social interactions. It is also seen, however, in most other forms of Heathenry, where the basic group, the “kindred”, is very specifically defined. Whether membership in the kindred is formalized by the taking of an oath, or by the consensus of the other members of the group, or some other formula, we see a drawing of the boundary. One is in the group, or one is not. To once more quote Swain Wodening on the subject:

The ancient Heathens applied this reasoning to their social units as well as Mankind as a whole. They viewed the world of man as a farmstead with its enclosing fences. All inside the world of Man was inside the fences. This applied to tribes, who were viewed as their own enclosures. The law of Mercia did not apply to someone from Northumbria even if the crime was committed in Mercia. Each tribe was its own innangarðs.(2)

This is not to say that there is a velvet rope around every Heathen group. The major international groups have a membership that is obtained by paying dues. But where it counts, in the everyday local groups, there is almost always a standard that must be met in order to become a “member”. More than just showing up to a ritual.

Too, it should be remembered that the distinction between the innangarðs and the útangarðs does not mean that guests are unwelcome at Heathen events. Far from it. Théodish groups, generally considered to be on the more exclusive end of the spectrum, specifically have “goodfolk”; friends and guests of the tribe who, while not members, are treated with great respect and goodwill when they attend a gathering of the tribe.

The situation is somewhat analogous to initiatory faiths such as Wicca, but relies more on social cues than initiatory rites. The thought is generally less “you have worked hard and earned the right to participate in our rituals” and more “we like you, you fit in well with our group, and we are ready and willing to take our social bond to the next level.”

As might be inferred, the line between innangarðs and útangarðs is a permeable one. The lore is replete with examples of individuals who were adopted into a tribe, raised as a foster-child in a tribe, or married into a new tribe. But even so, the differences between the in-group and the out-group are best thought of not as a single line, but as a bulls-eye. In the center of the bulls-eye is you and your immediate family. The next ring is your extended family. Then your tribe. And so forth. This is one reason (among many) that the majority of Heathens don’t tend to associate with or identify with neo-Pagans. They are simply way too far out in the rings of the bulls-eye to warrant a lot of attention. There are a lot of folks who will be closer to the center of the bulls-eye, regardless of faith. The relationship is both subtle and situational, but the distinctions between the “in” and the “out” are very real.

(1) Wodening, Swain. Þéodisc Geléafa “The Belief of the Tribe”, p. 80. Miercinga Theod, TX, 2007

(2) Ibid, p. 81

Mine is not a religion of peace

Many Wiccans and Pagans make a point of saying that they are interested in “harmony”, or that they are pacifists, or somesuch. There’s lots of woo about living in peace with our neighbors, or seeking to resolve our differences like reasonable, modern, peaceful people. Some make a great show about how they would never practice “black magic”, never harm another living soul, never coerce anyone into anything, agonize about doing a love spell because it involves forcing someone to do something, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Not me. That is not my religion. Is that yours? Awesome. You don’t practice my religion. Don’t judge me by your standards.

 My religion teaches that strangers are fundamentally untrustworthy. My religion teaches that I look out for my family first. Then my extended family. Then my tribe. And then… maybe… my neighbor. You’re not my relative or a part of my tribe or someone I’ve lived next to for ten or twenty years? You’re a stranger. I refer you to the first sentence in this paragraph.

My religion teaches that if someone hits me, I hit them back. Hard. I hit them so hard they never, ever, want to hit me again. If they’re even able to. And I train myself so that I’m able to make that happen. Physically, intellectually, and magically. We each have our strengths, and we each use what we have to help our friends and harm our enemies.

My religion doesn’t shy away from “black magic.” Hel, much of one of the most prominent types of magic in my religion, seiðr, is black magic (no matter how it’s whitewashed by modern writers). And I practice it. I revel in it. And the people I targeted are going to have their lives ruined, or ended, if I did it right. And good. Because they were enemies.

Enemies aren’t to be respected. They’re not to be turned into friends. They’re not just misunderstood, and they’re not just the products of their environment. They are enemies; enemies of me, or my family, or my tribe. And they deserve to be destroyed. Ruined. Obliterated. And I’m okay with that. More than okay. I actively try to make that happen. My religion says “go for it!”

Mine is a religion that isn’t just okay with war and battle. It embraces battle. The highest honor one can receive is to be taken up to Valhalla to dwell with Odin until the final battle. And how do you get there? You’re a kick-ass warrior who dies in battle fighting your enemies and the valkyries notice you and select you for Valhalla. And what do you do in Valhalla until Ragnarok? You hone your warrior skills by fighting, each and every day, sometimes dying and then being raised again so you can fight tomorrow.

Odin needs warriors at the final battle against Loki and the Jotuns, not peace-makers, not couch potatoes, and not pacifists. That’s my religion.

The Varieties of Heathen Ritual

The rituals most typically celebrated by Heathens such as Asatruar and Theodsmen differ from those celebrated by most Pagans, particularly from those who are either Wiccan or whose rituals are inspired by Wicca. I thought it might be informative to present a brief outline of what Heathens do, and allow my readers to make their own observations on how these rites might be similar to, or different from, those with which they are familiar.

Naturally, these are broad generalizations, and no example is valid in all cases. But the broad points still hold.

The most-often celebrated rite within Heathenry is the blot (pronounced “bloat”). Taken from the Old Norse word blót, meaning sacrifice, the blot is the fundamental rite of giving to the Gods (or land spirits, or ancestors). The specifics of the blot vary wildly, and even within a given group can vary from one specific purpose or celebration to another. The one commonality is the act of giving, usually with the expectation that the offering will be reciprocated with favor from the being(s) to whom the blot is offered. (In some cases, a blot can be made after the fact, in thanks for something that the Gods or spirits have already provided.)

Originally, blót most often referred to an animal sacrifice, which should be no surprise given the agricultural nature of pre-Christian Germanic society. But the term was also used for a wide variety of votive offerings, and so too today do we see the term blot used for anything from the offering of food and drink; to valuable or home-crafted items such as woodwork, jewelry, or weapons; to animals. Offerings of food and drink are usually set on the ground, while more substantive offerings are either burned, buried, or hurled into the sea. Such offerings that are not immolated are usually symbolically “ruined”; swords are bent, etc. so that when they are given to the Gods, they can not later be reclaimed by men.

Some groups practice divination based on omens, rune-reading, or other means to determine whether or not the offering was accepted.

The other popular ritual within modern Heathenry is the sumble (pronounced “soom-bull” and often-spelled sumbel). Taken from both the Old Norse sumbl or the Anglo Saxon symbel, the sumble is ritual of toasts, almost always involving mead, ale, or some other alcoholic beverage*. Several examples of the order of the toasts is found in the written Lore, and even more variation is found within contemporary practice, but the general idea is that the words spoken during sumble are literally spoken into the Well of Wyrd, and have an impact on the world around us and our future.

This is one reason why some groups (particularly, but not exclusively Theodish) try to impose rules against wild oaths. Making an oath that says “I’m going to build a replica of the Temple of Uppsala by next Midsummer” is all well and good, but some feel that failing to keep such an oath harms the luck of all those present in hall when it was spoken. Others disagree, and feel that a broken oath is the concern of the oath-breaker and not those who were there when it was spoken into the Well.

While it is generally opened with one or more toasts to the Gods, and possibly ancestors and/or heroes, the toasts made at sumble can take several forms. The minne toast is spoken in honor of a departed ancestor. One can boast about things that one has done, and brag about things that one will do in the future. The latter is of utmost importance, as it lays the groundwork for one’s wyrd in the future. If one makes a brag about something that will be done, one had better do it, or the consequences (both supernatural and social) can be dire. It is also possible to offer poetry and songs to the assembled folk, give gifts (most often at Yule), and take care of other business of the folk that is intended to be of great moment and which should be spoken into the Well of Wyrd.

As a rule, Germanic religious ritual does not involve magic. There is no “raising of energy”, no “charging” of tools or substances with intent, no “dismissing” of entities invited, no “grounding”, and no active magical intent. That is not to say that magical practice is alien to Heathen practice: far from it (galdr, seiðr, and spá being prominent examples). However, it is generally segregated from those rituals which are more focused on the Gods/spirits and the community. Magical rituals can be done afterwards, of course, but they are generally still understood to be two separate things.

Feasting itself can be a ritual. There are also, of course, various rites that some groups can perform to mark births, naming of babies, bringing someone into a group/tribe, weddings, funerals, and the like. But on the whole, the blot and sumble are the “standard” rituals that one will find at a typical Heathen gathering.

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* Many modern groups will substitute kissing of the vessel for actually drinking the sacred drink, for those who choose not to drink alcohol, very young children, etc. Others have a separate vessel of non-alcoholic drink that is blessed at the same time as the alcohol.

Joyous Lammas!

Today, August 1st, is Lammas, the Anglo-Saxon “first harvest” festival, also known as “loaf-mass”. It’s also known as Freyfaxi amongst some Asatruar, which name comes froma horse-sacrifice noted in Hrafnkel’s Saga.

Today I shall make an offering of some of the first harvest from my garden to the land-wights and Gods.

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