Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: January 2016

Review: Staubs and Ditchwater

H. Byron Ballard is billed as “Ashville’s village witch“, and her first book, Staubs and Ditchwater, is a short but wonderful entry into the world of Appalachian hoodoo and folk magic.

The book is structured in topical chapters, each of which is separated by a relevant homey reminiscence about life in rural North Carolina. Her style is wonderfully easy to read, and she really makes it feel like you’re sitting on a porch on a mountain cabin, listening to her talk while the birds and bugs sing into the waning afternoon. She really has a gift for language, and her writing “in dialect” is done rarely enough as to not be annoying or a hindrance to understanding.

Chapter one sets the scene, giving a brief history of the region and its magical and religious history. Chapter two covers magical tools, chapter three materials, chapter four divination, chapter five provides some techniques and spells (or “receipts” as they are called), while chapter six wraps up the whole thing nicely.

What drew my specific attention, in my studies of Germanic folklore and folk-magic, were the similarities between what Ms. Ballard describes and sources from Trolldomr (Scandinavian folk-magic), Braucherei (Amish folk-magic, itself derived from west-German sources), and pre-Christian practices described in penitentials, sermons, Saints’ lives, and similar sources. After all, Appalachia was settled by Anglo-Scottish border country folk (right in the thick of the ancient Danelaw and Norse influence, not to mention the Anglo-Saxons) and Germans.

If the book has one failing, it’s that she doesn’t always differentiate between elements of her practice that are borrowings from Amerindian or African diaspora magic, although she does mention that such borrowings exist. Her second book, Asfidy and Mad-Stones, does seem to do a better job of making such distinctions. Still, it’s not an insurmountable problem, and doesn’t greatly detract from the overall utility, and wonderful readability, of this terrific little book.

If you’re at all interested in folk-magic, this is a great addition to your library.

Performance in Ritual

“Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” – History of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, bk. IV

No Christian on the feast of Saint John  or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants. … Diabolical games and dancing or chants of the gentiles will be forbidden. No Christian will do them because he thus makes himself pagan. Nor is it right that diabolical canticles should proceed from a Christian mouth.” – Life of St. Elegius

That our ancestors filled their celebrations and sacrifices with dancing and song is well-attested in the written sources. There is also strong evidence to support the notion that ritual dramas were also enacted, and even that some of the Eddaic poems are scripts or models for just such dramas.

But, for some reason, modern Asatru hasn’t embraced this aspect of our ancestors’ practice, for the most part. Our rituals tend to be staid, pretty dull affairs in and of themselves, even if an occasional game of kubb might break out at a weekend gathering to liven things up.

I’m a big believer in using music and dance and drama in ritual, and using drama as ritual, and have been for years. In the (now-defunct) Arfstoll Theod, we did a big May Day celebration a few years ago that included a Maypole dance (with live music) and a sacral drama called the Return of Odin (part of a three-part cycle of ritual dramas dealing with Odin being deposed as king of Asgard, Ullr taking over temporarily during the Yuletide, and then Odin’s return to power in the spring):

And, more recently, at this year’s Yule celebration, the Skylands Asatru Fellowship started our Yuleblót with traditional animal guising, punctuated by a Wild Hunt, which picked off the various animals, saving the Yulebok (Yule Goat) for last, who offered himself as a sacrifice to the Gods. After the offering was completed, we danced around the fire-pit to the Thirty Year Jig.

Animal guising

Dancing ’round the fire

But I am very pleased to say that I’m not the only person out there who sees the value of this sort of “joyous” or “performance-based” ritual.

The Chase Hill Folk, a Heathen community in southern Vermont, enthusiastically embraces the use of music and song in their rituals. Lynn and Will Rowan gave an absolutely terrific workshop on the subject at last year’s Trothmoot, and they have released two songbooks (“Hail, the Turning Year!” and “Yule Songs” – a song from which I used in my own Mother Night celebration this past Yule) as well as a CD (“Sing the Sun’s Return: Wassails and Carols for Yuletide“, which accompanies the aforementioned “Yule Songs” book). Music apparently plays a central part in their rituals, and I long for the day when I can be present at one. Their energy, talent, and enthusiasm at the Trothmoot workshop was amazing.

Eirik Westcoat has written a ritual drama around the theft of Idun’s apples. I don’t know if it’s ever been performed, but it seems like a perfect thing to do for a fall celebration. UPDATE: Several of Eirik’s ritual dramas have been performed by the Hearth of Yggdrasil, near Pittsburgh, PA, including that one. Pics of one event with such a performance can be found here. Another work of his was done as a dramatic reading (rather than a staged performance) at Winternights in the Poconos 2012. A print edition of his three ritual dramas is in the works – when it is released, I’ll be sure to announce it.

Ron Boardman of Othala Acres Farm in New Hampshire has also been known to incorporate Morris Dancing in a Heathen context. I’m not sure if he still does it, but if so, I’d like to know about it! This is him at a non-Heathen event in 2011:

I know that AFA Winternights and East Coast Thing usually have a couple of music groups performing, but not as part of ritual; more like a separate part of the event. Which is fine, but not quite what I’m looking for.

There are a ton of Heathen musicians out there; it would be impossible to list them all. But with all that music out there, I’m hard pressed to think of any examples in my experience where the music was integrated into the ritual experience itself (other than some drumming, occasionally).

So I put out the call – anyone know any other examples of song, or dance, or ritual drama being used as part of ritual in a Heathen context? If so, let us know in the comments. This is a long-underserved area of Heathen ritual, and one I’m eager to see get more exposure.

Up Helly Aa 2016

The Up Helly Aa festival in the Shetlands just ended, and they were broadcasting the whole thing on the web this year. What a terrific tradition! Here are just a couple of screen caps:

More on the cracks

Helsen’s blog header. Spooky, but cool!

Lucius Helsen continued his series of responses to the “What is Heathenry Missing?” post that I myself responded to not too long ago. I made this comment on Helsen’s blog, but it ended up being long enough that it seemed to warrant a post of its own. I suppose that makes it a response to a response to something I already responded to. 🙂

Here’s a case where I find myself in agreement with both sides.

On the one hand, Helsen is entirely correct when he says that Germanic Heathenry is much more well-attested than most people realize. There’s so much information that goes so far beyond what most Asatruar incorporate into their practice, it’s a shame. My own kick right now is post-conversion folklore and conversion-era Christian sources, and it’s a gold mine.

But everyone seems content to stand in a circle, passing a horn around, saying “Hail Thor!” a dozen times and call it a blót, because that’s sort of crystalized as “standard Asatru practice” since the early 1990’s (the Internet’s influence there cannot be over-estimated). Heck, even holding a separate sumbel is a relatively new innovation, and that came in because of Theodism’s influence.

On the other hand, even with that wealth of material, we still have precious few details. We know there were chants and songs and dances done during ritual, but we don’t have any idea what they were like. We know they must’ve said prayers during ritual, but we have no idea what they were, with precious few exceptions, and those are just informed guesses. And the household cults of the tomten and the alfar? There’s a huge wealth of information, but a lot of it’s still in Scandinavian languages, and in dire need of de-Christianizing, after a millennium of being practiced “close to the vest”. Not to mention the folk-magical practices (and I love it when I see fragments come together; just today I was reading an account of Appalachian folk-magic done to read the calls of crows, written a couple of years ago, that is exactly the same as an account from the 6th century condemning the very same thing).

That’s where the “filling in the cracks” part comes in, as far as I’m concerned. There still are a ton of details to be filled in; the words used, the dances and songs, the details about which phase of the moon is best for this or that, or the parts of the blót that come before sprinkling everyone with the hlaut (sacrificial blood). That’s where we need to look farther afield.

But I am firmly in agreement with him that those cracks are much fewer than most Asatruar seem to realize, despite all the “homework” they claim to do. Perhaps we need a couple fewer deep analyses of Viking-era graveyards and yet another paper on the Havamal, and a few more of Scandinavian, Germanic, and English folk-customs and Medieval pagan survivals.

Ancient Fairy Tales

From the BBC comes a terrific report on an article recently published by the Royal Society on the very ancient origins of some fairy tales that were thought to be early modern inventions:

Using techniques normally employed by biologists, academics studied links between stories from around the world and found some had prehistoric roots.

They found some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.

The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, said Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old.

And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.

(Much more at the link)

Science News also covers the paper, saying in part:

Tehrani and Sara Graça da Silva of the New University of Lisbon in Portugal studied 275 magic-based stories from a database of more than 2,000 types of folktales. Magic stories include beings or objects with supernatural powers and are the largest folktale group. Statistical analyses of the relationship between the folktales and language, as well as between the folktales and how they may have been shared by neighboring peoples, left the team with 76 stories that they thought were strong candidates for accurately estimating folktale age. Family trees, or phylogenies, of Indo-European languages throughout Asia and Europe helped the researchers investigate how the region’s language history related to these folktales.

(Again, much more at the original link

The paper itself can be downloaded for free from the website of the Royal Society. Compared to the absolutely disappointing train-wreck that “Breaking the Mother Goose Code” was last year, seeing some solid scholarship on this subject is a welcome change.

This sort of thing is of great importance to reconstructionist Heathens, as it gives us a chance to delve into the sorts of everyday folktales that might have been current at the same time our great written sources were being set down for the first time, and thus give us insight into the day-to-day beliefs of the people who were practicing pagans. In short, while the stories of the Poetic Edda were being sung by skalds in the halls of lords, these fairy stories were being told by mothers to children on humble farmsteads. And that homey, everyday-religion aspect of Heathenry is something that we desperately need to reconnect with.

Heathenry’s “Missing” Parts

Over at Polytheist.com, Dagulf Loptson has written a terrific and important article, entitled “What is Heathenry Missing?” In it, he makes the point that:

Heathenry possesses a huge empty space within it, creating a vacuum that has to be filled by something. …many modern Heathens have unconsciously filled it with the only kind of spiritual technology most post-conversion Europeans/European-descendants are familiar with: that of spontaneous, personal prayer and the study of holy scriptures (which Heathens have replaced with the surviving lore and the works of modern scholars). Incidentally, these are the only two pieces of spiritual technology one is likely to be introduced to in a Christian upbringing, and the two most prevalent practices in modern Heathenry.

The overall point being that Heathenry in general is rather… sterile. As he puts it:

The only other forms of spiritual technology I see much in modern Heathenry are the act of standing (rather rigidly) in a circle to honor the gods, and sometimes using what is known as the Hammer Rite; the circle and the hallowing of four corners being directly derived from ceremonial magic. 

Now, I might quibble with Loptson’s rather antagonistic and judgmental choices of words, such as Heathenry’s “xenophobic streak”, and his rather dour assessment of the quantity of material left to us (more on that below), but his essential points are rock-solid. He’s entirely correct, and it’s something I myself have written about on many occasions. We need to fill in the gaps with material from other places and times. If that means filling in with Roman pagan elements, or more modern Vedic Hindu elements, then that’s what we need to do. (Some of my most moving and best-received toasts to Thor in hall have been rewritten prayers to Indra from the Rig Veda.)

Heathenry in general, and Asatru in particular, are lacking in the details and everyday rhythms that give something like Hinduism or Zoroastrianism (two unbroken polytheistic religions which Loptson cites as models) the sort of meaning, and texture, that Asatru finds wanting in itself. Until and unless we’re willing to look beyond the models of practice that were laid down in the 1970’s and crystalized in the 80’s (with books like “Teutonic Religion” and the online Ravensbok), that’s not going to change.

Now, one place where I diverge from Loptson’s analysis is that where he seems to think that it’s our sources that are lacking, I believe that we simply haven’t delved into the sources enough, and applied what we find there. I’ve made a study in recent years of the evidence for Heathen belief and practice among the Christian penitentials, sermons, ecclesiastical letters, Saint’s lives, and law code sources, and there is a wealth of material there, almost none of which has been absorbed into the broader Heathen community in any but the most superficial manner.

I also disagree with him when he says there’s no unbroken tradition. There is, right there, to this very day, albeit in a highly (and in some places, not so highly) Christianized manner, but it’s still there. That’s the living tradition of folklore and folk-belief in Scandinavia, England, Germany, the Baltic States, and parts of France, Italy, and even Spain. But so much of that material is kept close, and what studies there are, aren’t available in English, that the American Heathen community remains ignorant of it. At its core it’s the folklore of the countryside; elves and nixies, tomten and trolls. It’s the basis of the Scandinavian Forn Sed branch of Heathenry, which is unfortunately almost unknown here in the U.S. (and more than slightly tainted by an attempt to coin the phrase in support of a very politically activist form of Heathenry back in the 1990’s).

Take, for example, the practice of Trolldomr in Scandinavia. That’s a living tradition that has endured since the Conversion, and remains in practice to this day, and goes hand in hand with the Nordic grimoire (“black book” or “Ciprianus”) tradition. Has it undergone a certain level of Christianization? Absolutely. But that can be stripped away (in the same manner that certain elements of the Pennsylvania German magical tradition of Braucherei and associated religious traditions are being “de-Christianized” by certain groups here in the U.S.), and the underlying core is very, very Heathen. Don’t tell me a tradition that still holds taboos around Thursday (Thor’s Day), just like we see in Christian penitentials from fifteen hundred years ago, doesn’t have a Heathen core.

I’ve come to describe my own practice (and the practices that I’m introducing to the tribe of which I have the honor to be goði) as a mix of Asatru, Forn Sed, and Theodish Belief. From Asatru comes renewed attention to the Aesir, and an understanding of, and attempt to reinstate, the pre-Christian Germanic mind-set. From Forn Sed comes all that wonderful Germanic folklore and folk-practices, many of which are dismissed as “mere superstition” in our modern materialistic world. And from Theodish Belief comes an appreciation for the sort of pomp and ceremony, and the sense of religious awe, that our ancestors knew could be so transformative in a religious context.

I think modern (American) Heathenry’s problem isn’t that it has become hidebound by reconstructionists who have run out of Eddas to thump. I think the problem is that we have, for various historical reasons over the last forty years, drawn a circle around certain elements of the lore (mostly the Eddas, Sagas, and occasionally some other written sources) and simply not pursued the vast trove of material that exists outside of that circle. At least on a large-scale and consistent basis. Folks seem to be content with their monthly blot where they get together in someone’s back yard, stand in a circle, and pass a horn around, like the books from the 90’s told them to do. That’s the block we need to overcome, and if there are still gaps once all that material has been incorporated and embraced, if there are still gaps (and there absolutely will be, especially in the specifics), then we apply the bulls-eye approach and fill them in. We didn’t run out of lore. We just stopped looking.

Guising at Yule. Better than some dumb ol’ wedding, eh?

In fairness, there are some exceptions out there. Some Heathen groups have done great stuff with Morris Dancing, for instance. The Rune Gild is as functioning an initiatory school within Heathenry as you’re going to find. And, to blow my own horn, our tribe recently incorporated animal guising, music, and dance for our Yule celebration, but such things are few and far between.

That’s why I have, and will continue to, advocate for a much more robust and textured American Heathenry. Rituals that are so very much more than standing around in a rigid circle; ones that include dance, and song, and ritual drama, and which evoke real emotion. Everyday beliefs that do more than pay lip-service to the truth that the Germanic mindset is a magical mindset, and that Heathenry encompasses the belief that the world is alive with land-wights, elves, and house-wights. And community processions, and Mystery Traditions, and scores of simple everyday household rituals that are done almost unconsciously, because they’re just How Things Are Done. But always a knowledge that the Gods are real, the Gods are our ancestors, and the Gods deserve our worship.

Asatru Prisoner News: Michaels v. West

Via Religion Clause:

In Michaels v. West, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1826 (ND WV, Jan. 7, 2016), a West Virginia federal district court adopted a magistrate’s recommendation (2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174184, Nov. 25, 2015) and dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies an inmate’s complaint that he was denied the vegetarian diet required by his Asatru religious beliefs.

Ummm… vegetarian diet required by Asatru? Gotta say that seems like a stretch. Pork or horse meat required? That I could believe.

Worlds of Alvíssmál

One of the more seemingly-straightforward poems in the Poetic Edda is Alvíssmál. It describes a dwarf, Alvíss (“all-wise”) who comes to Thor’s hall seeking Thor’s daughter as his bride. Thor distracts the dwarf with a contest of lore, asking him the names of various things “in all the wide worlds”, which the dwarf answers handily. However, the contest takes so long that the sun rises and the dwarf turns to stone (much like the arguing trolls turn to stone at sunrise in the famous scene from The Hobbit).

The tale is a little unusual in that it is Thor, rather than Odin or Loki, who is in the role of the clever trap-layer, but it’s usually seen as little more than an information dump, giving skalds a variety of kennings and synonyms to use in composing poetry.

What is interesting, however, is the way it lays out certain cosmological aspects of Norse myth. Each time Thor asks Alvíss to give the names of an object “in all the wide worlds”, and in each case the dwarf gives six synonyms. And not all of them are the same.

In the thirteen stanzas of the poem that deal with the lore-contest, each one gives the name of the subject of the stanza for both men and giants. But the other four “slots” are sometimes given to the Gods, the Vanir, Hel, and others, including the vague ginnregin (“great gods”). Since Thor specifically asks how the objects are called “in all the wide worlds”, the implication is that each of the creatures named in the stanza live in different worlds. I’ve laid out each stanza, and which creatures/worlds are named here:

(Click to embiggen)

Several things become apparent. The use of the words ásum and goðum for “gods” would seem to be interchangeable, as they are not named together in any stanza, and together would mean the gods were named in all thirteen stanzas. But some of the named beings/worlds are more opaque. Who are the “sons of the gods”? They’re not the gods, since they’re named in stanza 16, which also names the goðum. They’re not men, or dwarves, or elves, or giants, either. So who are they? The same question can be asked of Suttung’s sons. Are they just a sub-group of giants? Then why are they named in the same stanza as the other giants?

So seven of the the “worlds” named herein include:

  • The world of men (Midgard)
  • The world of the Gods (Asgard)
  • The world of the Vanir (Vanaheim)
  • The world of the Giants (Jotunheim)
  • The world of the Elves (Alfheim)
  • The world of the Dwarves (Svartalfheim) – and this assumes that Snorri is correct in associating the dvergar with the svartalfar (“black elves”), which is far from settled
  • The world of the dead (Hel)

Which fit in well with what we know of Norse cosmology from other sources (and interestingly, jives with the “Seven Worlds” that are known to have made up the Anglo-Saxon cosmology, as opposed to the nine in the Norse). But that leaves:

  • The world of the Great Gods
  • The world of the Sons of the Gods
  • The world of Suttung’s Sons

Which are a lot more problematical, owing to the fact that we don’t know what these are references to. Does this mean that there are ten worlds total being discussed? Or is one (and exactly one) just a kenning for some other group? If two or three of those is a kenning for some other group (as we saw with ásum and goðum for “gods”), then we’re left with fewer than nine worlds. If we keep all three as distinct beings, we have ten worlds!

And, given the normal understanding, the worlds we’re trying to populate are Niflheim and Múspel/heim, neither of which seem conducive to any of those three named beings. And here’s another kicker – both of those are only understood as “worlds” (in the same sense that Asgard and Midgard are “worlds”) by Snorri, who was a notoriously unreliable systematizer.

I’m going to leave this investigation here for the moment. The key is definitely in the identity of those mysterious three groups of beings, and that’s a topic that deserves an article of its own.

Devotion and Discernment

As I noted previously, I have a lot of misgivings about self-proclaimed oracles, especially those on god-spousery, “horsing“, and so forth. But that’s not to say that I think they’re all frauds, or deluded, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary, I think that such sibyls and völvas are essential to the revival and growth of Asatru (and indeed my thoughts doubtless apply to Heathenry and Paganism in general). But they must be heeded with discernment*.

By that, I mean that we as a community shouldn’t take everything such a völva says at face value. That’s not because of any lack of faith in the Gods; quite the opposite! It’s because of the quite practical and reasonable fear that they might not be faithful transmitters; some people might take advantage of being in a position of spiritual authority, where they are seen as speaking on behalf of the Gods, and might either color what is being said with their own interpretations and filters, or even invent things out of whole-cloth, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And the yardstick against which we can measure the words of our völvas? The lore.

The role of the lore in devotional practice

It has been (correctly) stated that ours is not an uninterrupted religious tradition. Obviously, it is an indigenous European faith that has been stamped out as deliberately and thoroughly as many African, American, or Asian faith has been by Christian or Muslim missionaries have been over the last millennium and a half. But it was never completely erased from history.

Records survive; of contemporaneous outsiders describing the Heathen Germanic peoples (like Ibn Fadlan and Publius Cornelius Tacitus); the efforts of Christian ecclesiastics and political leaders trying to stamp out the public and private beliefs and rituals held by their targets and subjects (like the various law codes, penitentials, sermons, and ecclesiastical letters from the conversion era); accounts of antiquarians writing not too long after the official conversions, when the legends of the Gods were still alive in peoples’ minds (like Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus); and even in later (sometimes partially) Christianized forms, where folklore, superstitions, folk-customs, songs, rhymes, spells, and so forth. Not to mention the various archaeological, numismatic, and linguistic evidence, or the insights to be derived (carefully) from Indo-European studies.

When you look at what we really do have, it’s not quite as paltry as some might have us believe. It’s not nearly as complete as, say, Pagan Roman or Greek religion, but it’s certainly not as if all we had was “a piece of broken stained glass, half a hymnal, and a Saint Francis medal to re-create Christianity” (paraphrasing from some wag on an email list many years ago, lamenting as to the paucity of the evidence available to us).

Am I saying that our völvas should do nothing but parrot what we know from books and other sources? That anything new should be suspect and thrown out as evidence that the völva in question is pursuing some sinister agenda? Of course not.

But there’s a difference between repeating what’s in the lore, and contradicting what’s in it, or adding to it in such a way that is a radical departure from the patterns that had gone before. And therein lies the sort of “discernment” I’m talking about.

Revealed religion vs. folk religion

A useful delineation in the taxonomy of religion is that of revealed vs. folk religion. The teachings, beliefs, and practices of revealed religions are, as the word implies, revealed to a prophet (or prophets) through some divine agency. As these revelations are said to come directly from a divine source, they are not normally subject to change through earthly mechanisms, such as slow and natural cultural change. They are, however, subject to reinterpretation (as has been seen throughout the history of Christianity and Judaism, much less so in the history of Islam), or subsequent revelation that adjusts previous revelations (like Christianity claiming to be a further revelation to Judaism, and both Islam and Mormonism claiming to be further revelations to Christianity, and Baha’i claiming to be a further revelation to Islam, and so on and so on and so on).

Folk religions, on the other hand, are much more flexible and less subject to dogmatic interpretation, because they are borne out of the indigenous cultural/religious/social complex that most cultures stem from in prehistoric (and preliterate) times. These folk-beliefs usually don’t discriminate between ideas that are religious, social, or cultural, are usually more willing to be eclectic than revealed religion, and evolve through the unconscious process of social change. In this way, the Religio Romana (Roman Pagan religion) that was practiced in the 5th century BCE was quite different from the Religio as it was practiced in the 2nd century CE, but both are easily identifiable as being the Religio. The same process applies to Germanic Heathenry, and explains the well-documented religious differences between Germanic tribes. The Continental Wotan is very different in character from the English Woden, who in turn is very different from the Norse Óðinn. But nobody had to come down from a mountain to tell the Germans, or the English, or the Norse that Odin had changed for them. They just knew, instinctively, slowly, over the course of time, because those changes were right for them at that time.

Now, an argument has been made that, at some point, all folk religions must have been revealed religions, because that is the way that those pre-historic, pre-literate cultures could have learned about the supernatural and mystical truths those religions impart. But, however true that might be as far as it goes, what that argument fails to recognize are the literally thousands of years of cultural trial-and-error that went into evaluating the claims of those revelations, and later on, adjusting them to make them more relevant to the needs of the peoples to whom they applied.

That’s something that we modern Asatruar lack. Especially in our media-driven culture, we’re used to change happening at such a breakneck speed that the sort of slow, steady, measured, cultural change that was normal to our ancestors, where changes happened over the course of generations, is completely alien to us today, where we’re used to change happening over the course of days, if not hours. As such, we’re quick to glom on to the latest most fashionable trend, and (worse) try to bend our ancestral folk-religion around those alien concepts that are so appealing to us as modern people at the moment, until our fancy leads us to look at some other glittering object.

Which brings us back to the need to put a break on that break-neck speed. The need to slow down the pace of change, and to evaluate changes by using discernment in the light of the lore.

Practical application

In fairness, thusfar I’ve only discussed those sorts of devotional practices that attempt to impact the direction of Asatru in general. The ones that attempt to introduce new (and dangerous) concepts like Loki– or Fenrir-worship. The ones that try to insist that the latest political fad, like “social justice” or feminism, or radical environmentalism, should be embraced by Asatruar as a core concept. The ones that want to banish those of the Folk who have doubts about the reality of the Gods. The ones that bring in practices that are foreign to our ancestors, like God-spousery (which is not the same as being a “friend of” a God!) or inviting possession by Gods or other wights or astral travel by mortals to other worlds like Hel or Vanaheim. Those would fail the discernment test, as they want to impose radical change in a short time based on personal revelation. The Romans called that “superstitio“; the sin of taking religious credulity too far.

When one is “filling in the gaps” in what we know from the lore, though, I’m absolutely inclined to give such a thing preference over someone who is quite self-consciously inventing things. One person has a blót outline that they claim was recited to them by Freyr, and someone else has a Freyr-blót they wrote themselves, and both seem adequate to the task and don’t contradict what we know? I’ll go with the God-gifted blót.

But, and this is a subtle but vital point, I am not slamming the door on Gods-inspired innovation and experimentation, either! By all means, our völvas should constantly be experimenting and reporting on the results of their experiments. (Ideally, I would also like to see the development of a database of such communications, maintained blindly to prevent a “me too!” effect, in order to see what patterns develop; it would also be most useful in terms of determining the validity of predictions of future events.) But the expectation that their radical conclusions should be immediately (from a generational perspective) adopted is what needs to be tempered. Some of our völvas get positively bitchy when their (radical) pronouncements are questioned even in the mildest manner, let alone not become mainstream instantly.

Give it five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years, depending on how radical a departure it is from what we know our ancestors did. If there is value within it, and it stands the test of time, it’ll naturally filter out to the folk and be adopted. But acting as an evangelist for one’s own oracular pronouncements is rather… off. I’ll leave that to the folks who trust prophets coming down from mountains with commandments on tablets.

But where our modern-day völvas should (and, indeed, many do) shine is on the personal and organizational level. Should I take this job in another city? Should we buy this piece of property for a new hof? We’d be foolish to avoid this source of wisdom when it’s right there for us.

Conclusion

I’m all for reverence of the Gods, and I’m certainly for holding those with a deeper connection to the Gods in high esteem. Our ancestors absolutely held sibyls and völvas in near-awe and deep reverence, and I believe we should as well. But without the continuing tradition of hundreds of generations to fall back on, we must be extra cautious in taking what they say at face value, and measure it against what we know our ancestors, who had much more direct experience on the subject than we do, knew about the Gods and the religious tradition that grew out of serving them.

Our ancestors had a hundreds of generations head start, figuring out what worked and did not, and I’ll defer to them. But our modern völvas and others who are in contact with the Gods and wights are a vital element to the Asatru revival, and they must be listened to and heeded with discernment. If they speak in line with what our ancestors believed, I’ll absolutely give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they advocate radical change, it should be absorbed slowly, over time, to see if it fits the needs and gut instinct of the Folk.

It’s possible to value our völvas without slavishly obeying their pronouncements, just as it’s possible to believe in the individual reality of our Gods without being their spouses.

There are many pieces to the Heathen puzzle. We do best when we realize that no one piece is more vital than any other. Lore, devotion, Folk, innovation… they all have their place.

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* I am aware of the connotations of the term “discernment” in some corners of Christendom, where it is used to describe the process of judging spiritual matters by comparing them to what the Bible says. Not having been raised in a Christian household, I don’t have the same sorts of associations that some might, so I can only assure you that my use of the term here is merely because it is a “term of art” that best describes what I’m talking about, and is not some sort of sub rosa attempt to Christianize Asatru or any such asinine idea.

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