Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: November 2015

The Musconetcong Mantis-Man

I happened to stumble across something today which actually makes a lot of sense, given my previous thoughts and practices regarding what I regard as the “goddess of place” of the Musconetcong River, which flows right past my home, and to whom I have taken to making offerings in the Germanic fashion. On occasion, the goddess of the river has shown herself to me as a white heron.

Apparently, several fishermen in the Musconetcong have encountered what they describe as a “mantis-man”. The encounter was apparently featured on one of those cable cryptozoology shows, as wellHere’s the first, and more detailed account:

Although the water was clear, there had been heavy rains the past couple of days. We should not have been out there; the river was “smooth” but the current was exceptionally strong. I was leaning backwards and digging my heels into the the gravel but the river was still kicking me along pretty good. Sketchy navigating.

Please know, I am “privy to the paranormal” and always have been. Shadow people, ghosts, whatever. But what I encountered that day was not Spirit. It was a “biological”, living creature. But it disappeared into thin air almost as soon as I saw it.

… I just “Caught it”. Movement out of the corner of my eye to my left and there it was—
Humanoid. Tall. 6 foot at least –no reference points– but I sense 6’6″ – 7′. Moving away from me back up the bank. (I am chest-high in the river) The first thing I see was the ‘grasshopper’ thigh, but bending forward like a human. Then the whole form. He is looking at me over his shoulder, moving up the bank, astonished, amazed. What, that I am in the water in a strong current, that I can see him? But yes we lock eyes and this creature is astonished– I get the sense that he can’t believe I am in the water, that he can’t believe I have seen him, that I am not perturbed at all– something of all three, I still don’t know– just astonishment and he is actually trying to get away from me and the water!

Triangular Head. Huge, slanted black eyes. Just like a Praying Mantis. It’s whole body was gangly, nobby, ((Nobby!) but you could still sense it was powerful, and no– I would not say it was a “Big Bug”– it was definitely humanoid despite the mantis/insect qualities. …

No bank to speak of on the developed side, but the sloping bank on the rural side was high (ten feet?) A strip of trees about 10 – 20 yards thick separated the river from the fields beyond, but there was the occasional gap/path, each about 20 yards wide that allowed clear access to the river. …

When I saw The Mantis Man, it was in one of these gaps, moving back up the bank towards the fields, looking back at me over its left shoulder. About 15 – 20 yards away.

So understand that it was several feet above me (I looked up at it) and framed clearly against that blank/white sky. Like a full ghost apparition, it was indeed clear but nevertheless nearly transparent and fading fast. Then it “evaporated” mid-stride.
Again, I stress the strong impression that The Mantis Man was cloaked and I “caught it” just right; it abruptly found itself against a “new”/blank background and was adjusting quickly. No, I do not believe it “slipped” into another dimension/plane.

I detected movement and first saw that strong left thigh, (and strong right calf) then the whole thing and immediately those eyes/face. The whole encounter was only a couple of seconds. I can not tell you with any strong certainty what its feet or hands looked like –I wasn’t looking there– but I can tell you that its arms were “normal”, and not the literal Mantis forelegs I have recently seen in drawings of these “Aliens”.

And another, briefer (and third hand) account:

Apparently about a year ago my friend and his brother were down at Stephen’s State Park fishing right around dusk. During this time, while his brother was roughly 50 yards downstream fishing, he said he felt this strange vibration in his right ear and from that he turned and looked to the right. When he turned and looked to the right he said he saw this 6 to 7 foot praying-mantis-looking-man… just standing there and unable to believe that he could see him. He said the creature was black and gray and to be quite honest, the way my buddy was telling me this story, I was having a tough time. I know he saw this thing… because I could see it in his face.

Now, I don’t believe in aliens visiting our world or anything, but I do think that at least some of the “alien” sightings in recent decades might be nature spirits (and I’m not the only one). In centuries past, when people saw these sorts of things, they knew them to be the land-wights, brownies, elves, etc. that they knew of from the stories their parents and grandparents told them. In today’s world, in the absence of that sort of oral folklore, we necessarily interpret them in a way that makes sense to our modern sensibilities. In this case, aliens.
Still, it’s interesting to see this sort of thing focused on an obscure river in northwest New Jersey, coincidentally the same one in which I’ve long sensed the presence of a very strong land-wight that was probably known to the Lenape Indians as well. I’ve certainly never seen anything mantis-like, and there’s no telling whether that’s the true form of the spirit, just a form it took on, or whether these reports have nothing to do with the land-spirit I know, but it’s an interesting bit of data nonetheless.
I’ll certainly keep an eye out for anything particularly strange the next time I visit the river and make cult to Her.

Subverting Paganism

subvert

transitive verb
– to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.
– to make (something) weaker or less effective 
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

To be honest, I was done with the whole atheistic paganism thing, because at the time it seemed like nothing was left to be said. But then something new came up that’s relevant, and I think it deserves some attention and discussion.

Over at Reddit last week, John Halstead, chief voice of the “atheistic Pagans”, agreed with a commenter that atheistic paganism was “subversive”. A couple of days later at Patheos, he expanded on what exactly that subversiveness meant:

“Atheistic Paganism is subversive to the dominant paradigm which teaches us that our only choices are a supernaturalistic worldview or a despiritualized materialism, or between a literalistic theism or a desacralized universe. This paradigm pervades American culture and, disappointingly, has made its way into contemporary Paganism as well. I see it every time someone assumes that, because I am an atheist, that I don’t believe in anything larger than myself. I see it when people [say] one cannot be a Pagan without believing in magic, or gods, or other supernaturalism. There is a third option; reverence for a re-sacralized material universe.”

Now, the other week I caught a bit of flak for suggesting that Atheists could still be valued members of the Heathen and Pagan communities, even if they did not believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the supernatural. I stand by that assessment, based as it is in both history and a sense of confidence in the strength, endurance, and vitality of Heathen society in general (I’ll let the Pagans speak to the state of their own society and community).

But, and this is a vital point, that assessment rests on the assumption that the non-believers in question are not going out of their way to publicly mock and undermine belief in the Gods. That they are “going along to get along”, and enjoying the benefits of belonging to the Heathen or Pagan community, as they perceive those benefits, without abusing the hospitality of their host communities (or sub-cultures).

But when John Halstead says, publicly and seemingly proudly, that he sees atheistic Paganism as being “subversive” (although he quibbles about why that is the case), that tells me he is in no way behaving in accordance with the demands of hospitality. Guests have responsibilities, and not going out of your way to insult or subvert your hosts in their own hall is one of the larger ones.

And when Halstead says he’s being “subversive”, he’s even going beyond merely being insulting, because the very definition of “subvert” includes the connotation that the thing being subverted is going to be destroyed and harmed. He might see it as a beneficial transformation, but any fundamental transformation requires by definition the destruction of the thing being destroyed.

Halstead is fundamentally wrong when he says that “this [supernaturalistic vs. materialistic] paradigm… has made its way into contemporary Paganism”. The fundamental opposition of Paganism to the materialist world-view didn’t “make its way” into anything. It was there from the beginning, whether you place that beginning in the Medieval era, the Romantic era, Aleister Crowley in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Gerald Gardner in the 1930’s and 40’s, or the explosion of neo-Paganism in the 1960’s and 70’s. With the exception of the Medieval era, those expressions of Paganism (and Heathenry) were reactions against the lack of supernaturalism and spirituality that the “modern age” (whatever age that might have been) was imposing on society.

If we are to believe Halstead’s own words, then it is he who is trying to get his materialistic ideology to “make its way” into modern Paganism. Not content with simply enjoying the benefits of the Pagan aesthetic (“I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me.”), he must change… dare I say subvert… the dominant world-view within the Pagan community to suit his own.

I think a large part of that attitude is borne of the fact that he honestly, in his heart of hearts, can’t believe that anyone really does believe in the literal existence of the Gods, or the efficacy of magic. He really just can’t conceive that someone can really, sincerely, believe that rubbish. So to him, his is a noble mission; to just give the rest of us the push we need to knock the scales from our eyes and admit that he was right all along, and of course nobody really believed that Odin was talking to them.

So I stand by my assessment. Orthodoxy (correct thinking) is not a requirement for membership in the Pagan or Heathen communities; only orthopraxy (correct action), within the bounds of the reciprocal rules of hospitality. But when someone is deliberately, and self-admittedly, trying to subvert the dominant culture (or in this case, sub-culture), to ruin and destroy it secretly from within (as the dictionary definition of the term reveals), then that person should not be welcome within our halls.

Does this mean that societies never change? Of course not! But their change occurs naturally, within the boundaries of the fundamental ideas that define that society. Once those fundamental boundaries are erased, the society ceases to be, because its defining elements are gone.

Good guests don’t try to destroy or insult the things that their hosts hold sacred. Don’t be a bad guest.

Reviving culture vs. religion

I know it seems like I’m on a Sarenth Odinsson roll lately, but honestly it’s something of a coincidence. In this case, he wrote a (first) reply to my post on atheist pagans, pointing out an aspect of the discussion (religion vs. culture) that I myself thought of while I was writing my post, but it was getting so long that I didn’t include it. So I’m glad Sarenth caught the same thing, because it shows I was communicating my point properly:

these were intact cultures with room for non-believers, whereas, for our purposes, we are strictly reviving our religions, and the culture will follow after.  We simply have a different demographic makeup.  Americans don’t have the investment in anything like an Althing culture, Gebo is practically nonexistant as a feature of regular life here, and that is with contracts and contractual reinforcement. I think there’s room for non-believers in our culture, but there’s also a reason I don’t invite them to my Northern Tradition Working Group or Study Group.  These are polytheist religious groups. [Emphasis, and double-spaces after periods, in the original.]

What are we reviving?

Now, I can’t speak for Sarenth specifically, or anything outside my own experience of American Heathenry, but from my perspective we are indeed trying to revive more than just a religion. It would be impossible to do otherwise, because in the ancient Heathen mindset (and, indeed, in much of the Medieval and pre-modern mindsets), there really wasn’t any distinction between religious and non-religious activity. Religion permeated every aspect of life, from farming to warfare to weaving to metalworking.

And many of us in the Heathen community are trying to recreate that sort of mindset. A magical mindset where the spirits of stone and stream and tree are everywhere, where there really is a tomten in the corner, and where the birds sometimes fly in a particular direction because the Gods want to tell us something.

We are creating a subculture within the larger host culture, somewhat more isolated and self-sufficient than the norm. We do embrace the concept of the Germanic gift-cycle, and we really do embrace the Germanic ideals of honor and courage, and practice all those things and more among ourselves, even if the larger host-society does not. We can still invest in those things, and bring up our children with those ideals, even if the broader culture does not.

Note that this is not to say that we are completely isolated and off the grid (although some Heathen groups do tend more in that direction than others). I still watch television, and I’m still looking forward to the next Star Wars movie (no, seriously, I already have tickets for the premier of Episode VII), and I still have a full-time job that doesn’t involve blacksmithing. But at the same time, we can live in the broader culture and still retain those aspects of our own subculture that define us as Heathens. We’re not the only religious minority to do so, and it’s certainly not impossible.

Just because we don’t live in a Germanic “honor culture” doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace such a thing ourselves, and live by it. In a lot of ways, that’s why we’re so baffled by, and often hostile to, today’s über-Politically Correct culture, with its victim mentality, “microagressions”, and expectation that any offense is something that should be dealt with by getting someone from the outside to either prevent or punish the transgression. It’s just not how we think. It’s not our culture.

And I daresay the reason the atheists still want to count themselves among us (in hyphenated form, sometimes) is because they value that culture.

So when he says “these are polytheist religious groups”, I counter that a polytheist religious group includes culture as well by definition, and a re-creation of the ancient mindset that accompanied it, because ancient culture and religion were inseparable. And, need I say, orthopraxic.

Host culture to subculture

It is also the case that, in ancient times, there really wasn’t anywhere for an atheist to go. The only options were, operate within the host society (which at that time was overwhelmingly pagan and polytheistic) or suffer outlawry or exile (and even then, it’s not like there was some atheist colony somewhere they could go to; it was pagans everywhere you turned). In today’s society, there really are options, including simply embracing the host culture and abandoning the Heathen (or Pagan) subculture.

So in that respect, I can see how someone might object that, now that there’s an option for atheist pagans to choose, they’re not doing so. They’re sticking around in the Heathen/Pagan subcultures, and in some cases, trying to change them. I get that, and it’s the “trying to change them” aspect that I specifically disagree with. If an atheist Pagan or Heathen does remain within one of those subcultures, it must be with the implicit understanding that the subculture is as it is, and isn’t there for the atheist to turn it into something it’s not. If that’s their goal (and I think it is, at least for a small but vocal number of them), then they really should abandon ship and create something of their own, and stop trying to change what the rest of us have, and believe.

So on that point at least, I think Sarenth and I can agree.

Freedom of conscience

A week ago, I suggested that the contretemps between those who do not believe in the existence of the Gods  and those who insist upon it for membership in “the Pagan community” (whatever that means) can be resolved by understanding that Paganism (and Heathenry) is a collection of religious practices, rather than a collection of religious dogmas; the essential difference between orthopraxy and orthodoxy.

Alas, it seems that answer isn’t sufficient for some folks, who insist that proper ideology is necessary for proper practice:

My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought.  One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought.  Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning.  I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts.  In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought.  The reverse is also true.  Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship.  Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings.  In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire.  This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.

Did someone say, “orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy”?

Definitions

Now it should be noted that Sarenth and I are using different terms, and it’s entirely possible that our disagreement comes from the fact that he’s specifically talking about the “separatist Polytheist” community that has arisen in the last couple of years, and I am specifically talking about the broader “Pagan/Heathen” communities.

I realize that there are many on the deep end of polytheism (the ones who engage in god-spousery and so forth) who are consciously trying to distance themselves from the broader Pagan/Heathen community, and I get that and their reasoning. And if it’s the case that Sarenth is using “Polytheist” in that more separatist sense, then indeed he wasn’t responding to my argument, because my argument was talking about a different community than he is. But for my purposes, I’m going with the dictionary definition of polytheism:

belief in or worship of more than one god

Which leaves the room open for both those who believe in, as well as those who simply observe the outward modes of worship of, many Gods.

The origin of the split

It may be of interest that the split between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, at least in the modern Heathen community, originally stemmed from the vicious fights within Asatru between the folkish and universalist camps. At the time (the mid-late 90’s) Theodism was actively engaged with the Asatru community, and tensions were high, and the fights within Asatru threatened to spill over into Theodism and tear it apart along similar lines.

Garman Lord (the founder of Theodism) came up with a perfect solution; the concept of “freedom of conscience” as a foundational precept of Theodish Belief. That is, everyone was allowed to believe whatever they wanted to believe in terms of ideology, theology, etc., as long as they “practiced the King’s religion”. At one stroke, the wind was taken out of the sails of those (on both sides) who wanted to impose their ideological and theological choices on others.

It’s not something found in Asatru as a rule, but it’s certainly something to think about in the broader context of the current debate. Especially when we’re not talking about specific organizations (which can of course be exclusionary along any lines they wish), but broad definitional categorizations like “polytheist”, which no one person or group of people can claim to own, no matter how much they might want to exclude people who disagree with them, be it on politics, theology, or some other ideological question.

A thought experiment

That said, I submit the following thought experiment as a way to explain why an insistence on orthodoxy, that is, “right belief” is simply impossible on a practical level.

Imagine two self-identified Heathens, Einar and Eirik. Both are members of an Asatru tribe, both attend a Yule gathering. Both have many friends in the tribe, and bow their heads respectfully during the blót to Freyr while they are sprinkled with blood, both sit at high places at the sumbel, both give gifts in hall, and both make beautiful and impassioned toasts in honor of Freyr, their ancestors, and their host.

One of them believes the Gods have a real existence outside of ourselves, and one of them believes the Gods are merely mythological archetypes.

Which is which?

Unless you can answer me that question, then I submit that the answer doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t care. It’s impossible to police, as long as the non-believers take my advice from a week ago and simply go with the flow, as it were. That’s apparently what they’re interested in, supposedly.

The empathy of understanding

Which does raise a question. I did ask a while ago why atheist pagans didn’t just call themselves atheists, and insisted on remaining within the Pagan and Heathen communities. While I did get some answers (from John Halstead in particular, who started this whole conversation), I am still no closer to understanding their reasons. Heck, they’re even writing a book on the subject, and I have no idea why they call themselves Pagan.

But you know what? That’s not remotely the point! I don’t have to understand their position to understand that they might well have a reason. I’m not their judge. So when Sarenth says something like this:

Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. 

I have to hold myself back from yelling at the screen, “it doesn’t make sense to you, but it might make sense to them!

That attitude is really emblematic of a complete lack of empathy. “I can’t understand it, so there can’t possibly be anything to understand.” That’s the attitude that leads some leading separatist polythieists to call non-believers “degenerates“.

That sort of attitude does somewhat undermine Sarenth’s arguments that “adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today”. I’ve certainly never said any such thing, but I can see how, with that sort of attitude and name-calling, others might.

Tradition, not ideology

What I am saying, however, is that orthopraxy does not, in fact, stem from orthodoxy. Orthopraxy stems from tradition and custom. Just as the house-wight doesn’t care if the homeowner believes that Jesus is the son of God as long as he gets his bowl of porridge with a pat of butter every Yule-eve, so too do the Aesir not care if the people making offerings to Them honestly believe in their heart that They exist, or whether they have doubts, or whether they adopt a more intellectual understanding of Them.

And how can we tell? One of the elements of blót is the taking of auguries and omens to see whether the offering has been accepted. Not all of us have the benefit of Gods talking in our ears all the time, after all… Does your kindred or tribe or whatever harbor respectful unbeliever practitioners within its midst? If that really was something the Gods didn’t want, it would be reflected in the luck of the tribe. I’ve never heard of a systematic study being done, of course, but I would think if that did happen, the circumstantial evidence would quickly make the situation clear.

The modes of disrespect

Now, I do agree with Sarenth on one key point, when he says:

Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

That’s certainly true, and I made the very same point in my earlier post. Those who go out of their way to disrespect the Gods (whether it be in an insulting verse, like Helgi Skeggjason did, and got outlawed for) or by making public statements referring to our “sad little gods” (like John Halstead did, and apologized for, and then proceeded to start hurling insults at people, rather than the Gods, which is… better… I guess), do deserve to be shunned and ostracized.

But they should be shunned and cast out not for their beliefs, but for their actions. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people go quietly about their business as Pagans and Heathens, believing that the Gods are archetypes, yet still being productive, even honored, members of their communities, because they’re simply not assholes about it. Hel, they can even make the case, on a philosophical level, as long as it’s done with respect (and engaging in discussion about the reality of the Gods is not, in and of itself, disrespectful; if done properly, it can be a tool for getting to know Them on a deeper and more meaningful level).

But I would also point out that trying to define away people for what is in their hearts, rather than what they have done, is equally as obnoxious and harmful as getting up on a rock and shouting “the gods don’t exist, and you’re fools for believing that they do!” Deeds, not thoughts. Actions, not beliefs. Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

Einarr or Eirik? If you can’t tell the difference, then they’re both doing it right.

The Verse of the Sword

I was watching PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, as is my wont, and they did an interview with Carla Power, author of If the Oceans Were Ink, which is apparently up for a National Book Award. I’ve not read the book, and this post isn’t about her book, but specifically about something she said on her PBS appearance (this quoted text starts at 1:38 on the video):

Narrator: She cited a verse from the Koran with the words “kill the idolater.”

Power: Its called “The Verse of the Sword,” and it’s… it was a favorite of [Osama] bin Ladin’s, it’s a favorite of jihadis who want to foment religious wars against non-Muslims. What often gets written out is the second part of the verse, which says “…but, if they repent, and do good, and give alms, and pray, then let them go on their way, because Allah is merciful.” 

Really? That makes it okay?

What about the millions of us who don’t want to “repent” because of our “idolatry”? For us Asatruar, and Wiccans, and Druids, and myriad other types of Heathens and Pagans, idolatry is a part of our religion, as is polytheism. My own house has dozens of Gods and Goddesses represented in statues and other forms of art, and I have two God-poles in a sacred space on my property, and I make sacrifices to them regularly. To say nothing of Christians with their crucifixes, Hindus with their thousands of Gods and Goddesses, and so on.

We have no interest in “repenting” of our idolatry. But you said, on national television, that folks don’t have anything to worry about the “Verse of the Sword” that Osama bin Ladin liked so much, because the next sentence says, “but if you convert to Islam, and give up the faith of your ancestors, you can live.”

Convert or die. That’s the meaning of the verse you’re defending, by your own words.

No thank you.

I love my Gods, and my faith, just as much as you do, and “your sheikh” does. Saying “Allah is merciful because his followers won’t kill you if you give up your religion” is bullshit. And you need to understand that there are many of us who won’t meekly surrender to your sheikh’s god and his sociopathic insistence on total obedience.

Your sheikh, and the god he loves so much, wants to exterminate me because I am an idolater, and proud of it. You’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat miffed at the prospect, and at you, who is carrying his water and trying to defend that genocidal verse.

Horse meat, round 1 (Updated!)

Something I’ve been wanting to do for many years is start incorporating the consumption of horse meat in my ritual feasts. The consumption of horse meat was a defining feature of Heathen religious practice for many years during the era of the conversion to Christianity, and the willingness to consume, or not consume, horse flesh was sometimes used as a test of one’s faith…

The next day, when the people sat down to table, the bondes pressed the king strongly to eat of horse-flesh; and as he would on no account do so, they wanted him to drink of the soup; and as he would not do this, they insisted he should at least taste the gravy; and on his refusal they were going to lay hands on him.  Earl Sigurd came and made peace among them, by asking the king to hold his mouth over the handle of the kettle, upon which the fat smoke of the boiled horse-flesh had settled itself; and the king first laid a linen cloth over the handle, and then gaped over it, and returned to the high-seat; but neither party was satisfied with this. (Saga of Haakon the Good (Samuel Laing tr.), ch. 18)

The prohibition against eating horsemeat (and the explicitly Christian connotations) was enshrined into law…

If a man eats horse flesh he shall pay a fine of three marks to the bishop. … If a man eats horse flesh in Lent, he shall forfeit all his property to the last penny and shall depart from the king’s dominions. – Gulathing Law, the Church Law, 20

Now, horsemeat is a common enough ingredient in Europe and Canada, but is not found at all here in the U.S., mostly thanks to the animal rights lobby. It’s not illegal to butcher horses for human consumption, but it’s impossible for practical reasons, and although there’s no direct ban on importing horse meat, there is a practical one, as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service will not allow travelers to bring meat of any kind into the country.

I’ve tried several different exotic food websites in the U.S., but although one can get iguana, alpaca, and camel, horse is off the menu for some reason. And stores in Canada and Europe won’t ship to the U.S., doubtless because of the aforementioned ban by U.S. customs.

However, I think that, given the fact that the the consumption of horse meat was a traditionally Heathen thing to do, and a blanket ban on all imported meat is hardly the least restrictive strategy for achieving the government’s goal (which they’ll doubtless say is public health), some sort of waiver for the importation of modest amounts of horse meat for religious purposes is not unreasonable.

So this is the email I sent to U.S. Customs and Border Protection:

Hello,
I am a practitioner of the Asatru religion, which is the reconstruction of the ancient faith of the Norse and Germanic peoples. An integral part of our religious faith centers around the consumption of horse meat during religious rituals, a practice that is well-attested in both the Icelandic Sagas and the Heimskringla (one of our historical religious texts). 

I lead an Asatru congregation in New Jersey, and we are looking for options to import a small amount of horse meat from Canada for our personal religious use. 

How do I go about requesting a religious exemption (under the authority of the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act)? I would like some sort of letter that I can show to customs officials in order to be able to bring in a small amount of horse meat from Canada, again only for my personal religious use.

I would appreciate any information and assistance you could provide.

Sincerely,

Joseph Bloch, goði,
Skylands Asatru Fellowship

I’ll report back when and if I get a reply (the website says to expect a wait of several weeks). This may end up in court!

UPDATE (11/5/2015): That was quick! I heard back from Customs, and they informed me that it’s all right to bring in “personal consumption” quantities of horse meat from Canada. They pointed me to the USDA Animal Product Manual, which states, in Appendix A, page 33:

Personal-use amounts of equine meat or meat products commercially packaged and labeled will be allowed in passenger baggage. No import permit or other documentation is required.

So there we are! Problem solved. Now all I need is a passport.

Atheism and Asatru

There is quite a brouhaha going on right now on a bunch of blogs; a battle between those who believe that a literal belief in the Gods (led by, but not made up exclusively of, those who count themselves as Devotional Polytheists, and who practice a very extreme form of belief that includes practices such as being a God-spouse) is a natural prerequisite for being Pagan (or Heathen), and those who espouse something variously called Atheistic Paganism or Humanistic Paganism.

Fair warning – this post is going to piss off both sides, because I think they’re both wrong.

Atheism in Pagan and Heathen societies

From an historical point of view, it is entirely the case that non-belief in the Gods was accepted, if not particularly widespread, and did not necessarily exclude one from the general Heathen society in which they lived. This was stated explicitly in Örvar-Oddr’s Saga:

“But what are you doing here? Are you truly Heathens?”
Odd answered, “We know nothing about any faith, other than believing in our own might and main, but we don’t believe in Odin.”

And even more clearly in Hrafnkel’s Saga:

The news was brought east into Fljótsdalr, to Hrafnkell, that the sons of Thjóstar had destroyed “Freymane” and burnt the temple. Then said Hrafnkell: “I deem it a vain thing to believe in the gods,” and he vowed that henceforth he would set his trust in them no more. And to this he kept ever afterwards, and never made a sacrifice again.

Doing so didn’t lower either of their reputations in their communities. It was an accepted thing. Belief in Heathen Gods was not a prerequisite for membership in a Heathen society.

The Classical world was also home to many disbelievers. The Greeks had their Atomists and Sophists, while the Romans had their Epicurians:

This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature’s aspect and her law,
Which, teaching us, hath this exordium:
Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
Fear holds dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
Nothing can be create, we shall divine
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.
(Lucretius, On the Nature of Things)

Again, the Pagan Greeks and the Pagan Romans did not run the adherents of these philosophies out of town on a rail. While they were never mainstream, neither were the Epicurians subject to the same sort of persecution that befell the Christians (against whom, interestingly, the charge of Atheism was laid, which is something we shall turn to below). Belief in Pagan Gods was not a prerequisite for membership in a Pagan society.

So, if belief in the Gods wasn’t necessary to be a Heathen or a Pagan, what was?

Practice vs. belief

The answer lies in the nature of Pagan/Heathen society and religion. Paganism and Heathenry are orthopraxic religions (or, perhaps more correctly, are collections of orthopraxic religions), as opposed to Christianity, which is an orthodoxic religion.

Orthopraxy, which informs the Pagan/Heathen worldview, means that what one does is what’s important. As long as you maintain the sacrifices, speak the words, participate in the festivals, and in general don’t work to actively disrupt the religious life of the community, all is well. You don’t have to believe in the reality of the Gods, as long as you act like you do. This explains the Roman tradition of maintaining religious festivals and observances even though the people doing them had completely forgotten why they were being maintained.

Orthodoxy, which informs the Christian (and Muslim) worldview, means that what one believes is what’s important. You can go to church every Sunday, you can mouth the words, but unless you truly believe in your heart what your faith tells you to believe, you’re damned. You have to believe in the reality of God, and acting like you do doesn’t satisfy. This explains the Christian paradox of welcoming the most heinous criminals and bad actors, as long as they have a “sincere” conversion in their heart.

Taking it too far

But, of course, ancient Pagan and Heathen societies didn’t have limitless tolerance for deviants from the norm. While they were tolerant of non-believers, the tolerance of their societies had limits, and they were not afraid to smack down those who crossed those limits.

According to Njal’s Saga, Helgi Skeggjason, a new convert to Christianity and an advocate of forcible conversion for others, read the following poem before the Althing. He was subjected to outlawry for his efforts:

I dare mock the gods.
I believe that Freyja is a bitch,
And that Odin in a dog,
Or else the other way around.

The Greeks similarly had issues with non-believers who took their (non-)beliefs into the realm of actions aimed at mocking the Gods and interfering with the religious practices of those who did believe, rather than merely indulging in philosophical discourses:

It was about that time [415 BC] that the poet Diagoras of Melos was proscribed for atheism, he having declared that the non-punishment of a certain act of iniquity proved that there were no Gods. It has been surmised, with some reason, that the iniquity in question was the slaughter of the Melians by the Athenians in 416 B.C., and the Athenian resentment in that case was personal and political rather than religious. For some time after 415 the Athenian courts made strenuous efforts to punish every discoverable case of impiety; and parodies of the Eleusinian mysteries were alleged against Alkibiades and others. Diagoras, who was further charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped. (J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought, pp. 173 – 174)

This is also why the Christians were subjected to persecution early on by Roman authorities. They refused to participate in the Religio Publica (the public aspects of Roman religious life). This was famously spelled out when Roman authorities required all citizens and subjects to make an offering to the Imperial cult. The Christians refused. They were therefore subject to censure not because of what they believed, but because of how they acted. They refused to even make a pretense at following the religious mores of society.

The general idea is clear. Hold whatever beliefs you want. Even espouse those beliefs. But don’t go out of your way to insult believers, or the Gods, or  in general be a jackass about it.

Live and let live. Believe what you want, but respect the beliefs of the majority, don’t go out of your way to be disruptive, and behave like a normal person. What a novel concept!

The current debate

On the one hand, folks like Lucius Svartwulf Helsen, Ossia Sylva, and Galina Krasskova are wrong when they posit that Paganism not only implies, but requires, polytheism (and anyone who disagrees is a “degenerate”).

Surely, if tolerance of non-theism was suitable back before the imposition of Christianity in Pagan Rome and Greece, and Heathen Iceland and Norway, so too should we, as the people who say we’re attempting to reconstruct the ancient beliefs, be okay with atheists who are willing to uphold our practices as if the Gods existed, and believe what they will, but not be jerks about it.

If we, as polytheists, are at all confident in our beliefs, surely we can endure in the face of people who believe differently than we do being in our midst, as long as they are respectful in doing so. Such is the price of hospitality; sometimes you are hospitable to people you don’t agree with. Pericles, Augustus, Egil, and Ragnar were able to deal with it. We should be, too.

So yes, you can honor the Gods, and thus be a Pagan or Heathen, and not believe in the literal existence of those Gods.

On the other hand, folks like John Halstead are wrong because they violate that very concept of respect. Hospitality goes two ways, and if one wants to enjoy the benefits of the hospitality of others (in this case, using the Pagan or Heathen labels, and participating in the Pagan and Heathen communities, even though the vast majority of those who do believe in the literal existence of the Gods), then going out of your way to insult the majority, and in general behave like a complete asshole in the vehemence with which you espouse your views, is contra-indicated.

John Halstead probably would’ve been outlawed (at best) had
he pulled this shit in 10th century Iceland

In addition, Halstead (and, admittedly, others who do not share his atheistic views) are also wrong because of their insistence that Pagans (and Heathens) should share their often radical environmentalist views, often to the exclusion of all else, and certainly to the exclusion of acts of piety that don’t revolve around them. This, despite the fact that environmentalism is most certainly not the be-all and end-all of many forms of Paganism and Heathenry (even though it might form a part, even an important part), which Halstead and his ilk seem to want. You keep wanting to get under the Big Tent of Paganism, but that doesn’t mean you get to crowd out those whose political beliefs differ from yours.

Paganism and Heathenry are about honoring the Gods. It’s about the praxis. You attend the rituals and festivals. You bond in fellowship with your fellow Pagans, even if you don’t agree with what they believe, because it’s not about thoughts, it’s about deeds. You don’t go around mocking the Gods, or mocking people (and saying they’re mentally ill) because they believe in the Gods and Their influence on the physical world, and you certainly don’t keep banging some drum saying that other peoples’ reverence for the Gods is distracting them from what’s really important, which is your own personal agenda.

To sum up, Polytheistic Pagans and Heathens (of whom I count myself as one) don’t get to insist that all Pagans and Heathens must be “hard polytheists”, because Pagan-ness is defined by actions, not beliefs. Atheistic Pagans and Heathens don’t get to insult and mock the Gods and those who believe in Them, because being part of Pagan society means adapting the outward norms of that society, including a “ceremonial” acknowledgement of the Gods.

Just stop worrying about what other people believe, and concern yourself with how they behave, and everything will sort itself out. And that goes for both sides.

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