Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: February 2015

Iceland Magazine on Asatru

There’s a really nice write-up of Asatru in the latest (print and electronic) edition of Iceland magazine:

The article itself starts on p. 30, and the whole thing is in English. Lots of interesting stuff, and I myself can’t wait to visit the new hof when it is completed. It’s interesting to see some of the differences between Asatru as it’s practiced in Iceland, and as it’s practiced here in the United States. Over there, for instance, there seems to be more of an emphasis on nature, and a certain level of ambivalence concerning the literal existence of the Gods, as compared to here.

Well worth reading!

The historicity spectrum

Asatru being a reconstructed (sort of) religion, the question of historicity often comes up. Historicity is the historical accuracy of a given thing, person, or idea. Since no one at the time bothered to comprehensively write down just what it meant to worship the Germanic gods, goddesses, spirits, etc. before the coming of Christianity, we moderns are forced to make do with the pieces of evidence that have survived the past millennium or so.

As such, there are some things that we can say with some certainty are very accurate, some that are on more shaky ground, others that are even less likely to be historical, and some that are cheerfully and self-consciously modern inventions.

Thus, things break down in terms of historicity something like this:

  1. We know this for a fact. First-hand accounts by unbiased observers, many names of deities, major myths that are represented in multiple locations and manners, etc. Into this category would go things like the myth of Thor fishing for the Midgard serpent, which is found in written form, in carvings, etc. Also the basics of the Roman Lupercalia ritual, which were described in detail by the Roman author Plutarch, who had seen them first-hand.
  2. We strongly suspect this is so. Things that are known from archaeology without any direct contemporary textual support, thus requiring interpretation, written accounts from contemporary, but flawed or biased, observers, etc. This includes things like the dates and broad themes of holidays, more detailed aspects of deities, carvings and tapestries with recognizable figures doing unrecognizable things, recurring symbols that might mean something due to context, etc.
  3. We’re not sure, but this fits some of the evidence. Here we really start moving into the realm of speculation. A lot of material derived from later folklore falls into this category, which can be compelling in the aggregate, but for which the connections are still not certain. 
  4. This is a stretch, but could fit some of the evidence if you squint. Things that take a piece of contested or ambiguous evidence and give it significance with no real certain backing. I would put the practice of runic divination into this category, which is based on an interpretation of a single ambiguous word (“notae”) in Tacitus and assumes he meant runes, without any other mention of a connection between runes and divination in any other source. 
  5. We made this part up. This includes almost all of the actual text of modern Asatru rituals (there are a handful of exceptions, and even then they mostly involve re-Heathenizations of songs and charms that are believed to have been Christianized). It should be noted that there is nothing at all wrong with doing so, as long as one acknowledges that that is what one is doing. The trouble starts when invention is passed off as genuine ancient practice.
Of course, for those who do not follow a reconstructionist faith, such as Wiccans, these considerations are pretty well irrelevant. But there are quite a number of us who follow a more reconstructionist faith, such as Asatru, the Religio Romana, Hellenismos, Celtic Reconstruction, and more, and for us the question of the historicity of some part of our practice can be very important. For one thing, it allows us to “triage” things; when presented with contradictory ideas or practices, for instance, I will always defer to something that’s higher, and more historical, on the scale.

Thoughts occasioned by a funeral

This weekend I had the unhappy duty to attend the funeral of the mother of one of my longest-standing Heathen friends. His mother, of course, was not Heathen, but Catholic, and so there was a Catholic service (not a full mass), and the priest made the usual statements about her being in Heaven, and waiting for the rest of us, and so forth. He seemed a likable enough sort, and I’m sure it never occurred to him that there were people in the room who diametrically opposed his religious opinions, despite the number of Thor’s Hammer pendants in evidence.

It did get me thinking about the nature of the afterlife and the nature of subjective reality. There are also substantive implications for the subject of ancestor worship. If I may…

Regarding the afterlife, there are several possibilities:

  1. We’re right, and the Christians are wrong. When they die, they end up in Hel or Náströnd, or in Asgard (in one or another of the Gods’ halls), or dwell in the ground, or one of the various permutations of the Germanic afterlife. It’s a complex thing, and doubtless a surprise to them.
  2. The Christians are right. Everyone ends up either in Heaven or Hell, and it sucks to be us. Obviously, this is the Christian position (and the relevant variation applies to the Muslims as well).
  3. We’re both right. Heathens end up in the Heathen afterlife, and Christians end up in the Christian afterlife. It follows that Muslims end up in the Muslim afterlife, Hindus end up reincarnated, Khemetic Orthodox end up in the Egyptian afterlife, and so on and so on. 
  4. We’re both wrong. Either something else happens when we die (didn’t expect to end up in Yima’s Kingdom of the Dead, did you???), or nothing does; it’s just oblivion. Nobody will be complaining, in that case.
Just from my personal experience, most Heathens tend to settle on choice #3, making the afterlife a subjective thing, based on one’s expectations and religious choices in life. I tend to land here as well. But this has its own implication…
One of the cornerstones of Heathen religion is the veneration of our ancestors, in the same way that we venerate the Gods. There are traditions that link ancestors to the land-spirits, alfar, and house-spirits as well. Is it appropriate to honor a Christian ancestor in a Heathen manner? Would that be insulting? Is it even possible? The Christian afterlife would seem to preclude any interaction with the material world (except in the case of Saints), because the dead are too busy basking in the glory of their God’s presence. Does burning grain in their honor have any impact, in that case, given that they don’t even know it’s being done, and/or can’t do anything to reciprocate?

I don’t pretend to have definitive answers to these questions, but I welcome your speculations.

Ritual, spectacle, and Asatru

John Beckett, writing at Patheos, has a fascinating article up about the uses (and misuses) of “spectacle” in modern America. It itself was inspired by yet another, also fascinating, article by Connor Wood on the subject of spectacle in America, inspired by the Super Bowl. I’d like to mull some of the ideas Mr. Beckett presents in his article, and see if there might be something to apply to modern Asatru. It helps that I’ve also been involved in helping a local Theodish group with their own ritual structure and so forth, so this is foremost in my mind lately.

First, I think it’s important to rid ourselves of the stigma associated with the term “spectacle” in modern English. In some ways, it has a connotation of something embarrassing, as in “she made a spectacle of herself”. But I think it should be looked at in its original meaning, “anything presented to the sight or view, especially something of a striking or impressive kind … a public show or display, especially on a large scale.”

I think there is a place for spectacle in modern Asatru, and I think Mr. Beckett is right on point when he says:

Let me be clear: spectacle is no substitute for deep, meaningful, authentic ritual and worship.  If all you do is spectacle, you’ve got a pretty weak practice.  But spectacle has value.  It makes a big bold statement about who you are and what you value.

And further:

With our knowledge of myth, familiarity with mystery, and skills with ritual, Pagans [and Heathens] are uniquely qualified to create and present spectacles that are far more helpful than the Super Bowl.

Asatru already has this implicit in the way we do ritual. We already differentiate between the rituals that are done at home, on the family level, and those done in a group, at the kindred or tribe (or whatever other label is used) level. These are the rituals that, through offerings and the strengthening of the Germanic gift-cycle, help us connect with the local land-wights, one another, and ultimately the gods. They are, at their core, humble (in the sense of small) and intimate.
So why not take it a step further and add another level to our practice? Something designed to be flashy, to be awe-inspiring, and to be big and bold and brash, and impress the people who live in our towns, our cities, and our states just how “cool” it is to be a Heathen. 
This need not be something hollow or spiritually empty. Far from it. But it would necessarily not be something intimate. A blót, properly done, is an intimate thing, something that not only binds the participants to the Gods, but to one another. 
I think this disconnect might be an explanation for why many if not most public rituals, with a large mixed audience, fall flat. No amount of explanation ahead of time is going to adequately prepare someone for the sheer personal experience of a well-done ritual. That’s something that is gained with experience. To try to apply that same sort of experience on a truly large scale will almost always fail.
In ancient times, I think the nine-year sacrifices that were held at Uppsala fulfilled this function. A sacrifice of a single swine is an intimate act. A sacrifice of hundreds of animals, in the presence of hundreds or thousands of people, loses that intimacy and becomes spectacle. Does that rob it of its spiritual significance? I would say emphatically no. It just moves that spiritual significance from something that is experienced at an individual emotional level to one that is experienced at the level of an entire group of people. 
In modern times, such a spectacle must necessarily change in form, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, mass animal sacrifices would not be seen as acceptable, both within and without the Asatru community; the reaction to such mass sacrifices in Hindu communities, where they have been done for thousands of years, shows that modern Western audiences would lose more than they would gain. 
So what form should such spectacle take? Let’s look at some of our modern spectacles for inspiration. Big sporting events, blockbuster films, celebrity awards ceremonies… Before you roll your eyes in disgust, remember that I’m talking about taking the form and applying it to a spiritual purpose. Thor 2: The Dark World is surely a spectacle and without any spiritual content. What if there were a film that had just as high production values, and just as awesome fight scenes, but with a message that demonstrated the impact that faith in Thor can have on a common man? Or an enormous televised gathering of Asatruar, with flashy and eye-catching entertainment, showing off the good things that Heathenry can and does do.
I don’t offer these notions as definite proposals, of course; they’re just conversation-starters. I just want to get people thinking in the direction that sometimes big and flashy and entertaining isn’t necessarily also vapid and commercial. If we take the tools of the spiritually empty and materially-centered culture around us, and turn them to noble ends, we might do very well, and follow in our ancestors’ footsteps in the process.

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