Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Christianity Page 1 of 3

The Ember Days, Part One

In Part One of my posts on Saint Germain of Auxerre, I mentioned and briefly digressed on something called the Ember Days. This is a phenomenon not widely known nowadays, but I suppose hardcore Catholics might still get the reference.

The Ember Days refers to a grouping of three days — Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — that happens four times per year in the Catholic liturgical calendar. The weeks in which they fall are called (unsurprisingly) the Ember Weeks, and the Wednesday-Saturday arc is called the Embertide.

Historically, and in theory still today, the Ember Days are held to be days of fasting and abstinence. Due to their kindasorta being spread evenly around the calendar, it’s felt they originally had an agricultural connection. I’d like to explore this phenomenon in some detail, as I think that connection might run deeper than it appears on the surface.

The timing of the Ember Days, according to the Medieval Christian liturgical calendar is: after December 13 (Saint Lucia’s Day!), Ash Wednesday (which marks the end of Carnivale, and can happen anytime between February 4 and March 10, average February 22), Pentecost (some Sunday between May 10 – June 13, average May 28), and September 14.

Taking those average dates, it’s fairly consistent with an agricultural calendar. The largest gap (109 days) is between the May and September Embertides, when people would be too busy in the fields to do or need a holiday, while the shortest (71) is between the December and February Embertides, when people are cooped up indoors and a holiday and diversion is more welcome.

Of course, those explanations make more sense for a pre-Christian view of what a holiday is meant for. Celebration and feasting, rather than fasting and abstaining. Like much else, this presumes the Christians appropriated Heathen and Pagan holidays for their own devices, which the Catholic Encyclopedia itself fortunately gives as the exact motive for the establishment of these holidays:

The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding; hence their feriae sementivae, feriae messis, and feri vindimiales. The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests.

Might there be anything to suggest that is this case, other than the dates themselves being coincident with Roman agricultural holidays?

Turns out, there might well be.

Originally, there seem to have only been three Embertides; the Ash Wednesday one in the middle/end of winter wasn’t there (source). That was as of at least the early 3rd century CE, when they were ascribed to Pope Callistus. By the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I mentioned four. So what happened in between the early third and late fifth centuries? Why would the Catholic church feel the need to expand the Embertides from three to four?

The Germanic peoples invaded and toppled the western Roman Empire.

Once the Vandals, Goths, Huns, etc. had broken through the Roman frontiers and either outright conquered or culturally infiltrated the western half of the Empire, the Church had no choice but to adopt its own ways in order to better appeal to the newcoming Germanic peoples. Just as they mapped their three Embertides to the existing Roman Pagan calendar, so did the introduction of the Germanic Pagans necessitate the addition of a new holiday, to complete the set of four.

This points to the existence of a late-February/early March holiday that could or could not mark the end of some long period of merry-making (the aforementioned Carnivale). Setting aside the latter for a second, do we have any indication of a Germanic holiday in that time-frame?

Of course we do; the Dísablót, which takes place exactly then. I submit that the dominance of Germanic culture brought about the introduction of a fourth Christian holiday to map to the Germanic “agricultural” calendar. The Roman festivals of the Parentalia et al, and the Lupercalia, don’t seem to have warranted inclusion as a full-blown quarterly festival, but the introduction of a new fourth Embertide to correspond to the Germanic Dísablót points to its importance in the Germanic calendar.

The mere fact that these holidays aren’t evenly spaced, but are irregular, corresponding to these important Germanic holidays, points to their nature as having their origin in something less systematically organized than the solar-based calendar we know today, depending as it does on precise astronomical measurements of solstices and equinoxes, rather than the more irregular but organic Pagan and Heathen holidays that arose as a result of observations of local conditions.

Snorri and the Ember Days

In light of some recent discussions about holidays and the calendar held over on the Facebook Reconstructionist Heathenry page (which I highly recommend for quality and erudite discussion on matters of historicity), I’ve been thinking about the origin of the three sacrifices Snorri attributes to Odin in Ynglinga Saga. Here’s the ON (via heimskringla.no):

Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.

The three times we are given are “í móti vetri” (at the start of winter), “at miðjum vetri” (in the middle of winter”), and “at sumri” (at [the beginning of] summer).

Now, Yule (presumably the “middle of winter” celebration mentioned) is well-attested prior to Snorri writing in the first part of the 13th century. But what about the other two? Is there any attestation for a sacrificial holiday at the start of winter or at the start of summer?

Bede is well worth mentioning, as he was writing in the early 8th century. In his De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”) he includes a chapter on the English months, which are based on the Anglo-Saxon calendar, and which he explicitly states are lunar in nature. It is important to note that Bede doesn’t speak of specific celebrations, but attempts to link the names of the English months with the significance in the pre-Christian calendar among the Anglo-Saxons.

Of the harvest celebration, Bede merely says:

Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name ‘‘winter-full’’. 

He essentially admits defeat when it comes to the meaning of the name of the month. And it doesn’t seem to have any significance beyond “winter is coming.”

Of the spring celebration (marking the transition between the Germanic winter and summer; they didn’t have spring and autumn as such) which Snorri says is a “victory sacrifice”, he says:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. 

The question is, is Bede’s Eosturmonath connected to Snorri’s start-of-summer sigrblót? Since the calculation of the proper time of Easter was of paramount importance to the medieval church, this particular passage has received a lot of attention. None of which has anything to do with “victory”, unless one counts Jesus’ “victory” on the cross. But if that’s the connection, then it leads to other problems with Snorri; specifically that he is drawing his own ideas from Christian sources. More on that below.

As an aside, I will leave that particular conundrum – explaining how being nailed to a piece of wood to die horribly while your lungs slowly fail and you linger in an agonizing death for days counts as “victory” – to other minds. Fortunately that is not my problem to explain.

So I must say I don’t see any concrete evidence that connects Bede’s account of the English months with the “beginning of winter” and “end of winter” accounts we see in Snorri.

So where do they come from?

The obvious answer is that Snorri is reporting accurately, and these were genuine Heathen traditions that go back into the depths of antiquity. But if that were the case, I would expect to see some evidence of them in some other source. Anything. But the evidence for these two celebrations before the 13th century is, as far as I can tell, nil (I welcome folks to point out sources that I am forgetting here, please point me to sources in the comments!).

So, if Snorri isn’t talking about genuine Heathen traditions, where might he have gotten the idea from?

That brings us back to the Ember Days, which we have discussed before. First introduced as early as  220 CE by Pope Callixtus I, it was adopted in fits and starts across the West, first in Britain, then Gaul, then Spain, then Italy. They take place three (four, later on) times a year; Advent (December), Lent (March/April), Pentecost (May/June), and September, thus approximating the solstices and equinoxes.

It’s worth noting that the Lent (Spring) Ember Day was added no later than the late 5th century. So originally there were three (although a different three than Snorri reports).

Without any earlier source than Snorri that specifically mention religious significance to those days outside of a Christian (or Roman pagan) context, I have to wonder. Is he inventing the “Heathen” sacrifices in the transitions between the Germanic seasons, based on the Christian Ember Days? Is this a common Indo-European thing, since the Ember Days were originally based on the pagan Roman ritual calendar? Or is this a genuinely unique Heathen concept that was independent of both the Romans and the Christians, and Snorri is relating a new fact that went unreported for 1300 years?

I don’t claim to have an answer. I’m just asking questions at this point, and gathering data. But it would indeed be significant if Snorri was simply mapping already-extant ideas of when “pagan” sacrifices happened, based on when the Church said religiously significant things were supposed to happen. What I would love to see is irrefutable evidence that the Germanic people made sacrifices in what we today call spring and autumn. Something without contamination by either pagan Roman or Christian sources.

Until that happens, I must question whether Snorri got the ideas for his dates from the Ember Days, or whether those just happened to line up with ancient Germanic sacrificial holidays. I welcome additional sources to plug into the equation.

St. Germain of Auxerre (Part 2)

In my previous installment, I noted that the life of Saint Germain of Auxerre seemed to recall an The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, published in 1275:
episode, or at least a theme, that had a loose connection with the tradition of the Feast of the Parcae, or Mothers’ Night. In this installment, I’d like to examine a similar connection with another Germanic pagan theme. Here is the relevant passage, again from

He [Germain] preached on a time in Britain so much, that the king denied him lodging, and his people. Then it happed that the king’s cowherd went with his portion that he fetched at the palace, and bare it to his little house. And he saw the blessed Germain and his men seek their lodging where they might be harboured that night. And the cowherd brought them into his house, and saw that they had much hunger. But he had not meat enough for him and for his guests. This cowherd had but one calf, which he did do slay for to give to them, and he received them debonairly with the little good that he had. And when they had supped and had said graces, S. Germain bade him bring to him the bones of the calf and to lay them upon the skin. And after made his prayer to God, and anon the calf arose to life without tarrying. 

Naturally, this recalls the legend of the laming of Thor’s goats, which was recorded by Snorri Sturluson in the Edda, around 1220:

Öku-Thor drove forth with his he-goats and chariot, and with him that Ás called Loki; they came at evening to a husbandman’s, and there received a night’s lodging. About evening, Thor took his he-goats and slaughtered them both; after that they were flayed and borne to the caldron. When the cooking was done, then Thor and his companion sat down to supper. Thor invited to meat with him the husbandman and his wife, and their children: the husbandman’s son was called Thjálfi, and the daughter Röskva. Then Thor laid the goat-hides farther away from the fire, and said that the husbandman and his servants should cast the bones on the goat-hides. Thjálfi, the husbandman’s son, was holding a thigh-bone of the goat, and split it with his knife and broke it for the marrow. “Thor tarried there overnight; and in the interval before day he rose up and clothed himself, took the hammer Mjöllnir, swung it up, and hallowed the goat-hides; straightway the he-goats rose up, and then one of them was lame in a hind leg. 

It’s worth pointing out that the laming of Thor’s goats is alluded to in the Eddaic poem Hymiskviða, so it’s not just an invention of Snorri:

38. Not long had they fared | ere one there lay

Of Hlorrithi’s goats | half-dead on the ground;

In his leg the pole-horse | there was lame;

The deed the evil | Loki had done.

The pattern is, of course, exactly the same. The animal is cooked and eaten, the bones gathered up on the skin, and the animal is resurrected. I’ve previously linked the story of the laming of Thor’s goats with the Krampus legend, and the Feast of St. Nicholas. However, the theme of the resurrected animals, bones, and skins is much more widespread than I had originally realized. We see it mentioned over and over in western Alpine witch trial records, for instance, and the legends of the benandanti, which I mentioned in the previous article. Interestingly, the witchcraft trial evidence mentions that the animals so resurrected are no longer able to work as well, or provide as much milk, as they did before they were resurrected. This connects them more closely with the laming of the goats, while the fact that the saint was explicitly said to raise his animal and have it be as capable of work as before, might be a deliberate counterpoint to then-current ideas about the resurrection of the bones (along the lines of “the pagans do it and lame the animals, but when a Christian does it, they’re fine”).

In terms of St. Germain, it should be remembered that just because the individual died in 450 CE, is no guarantee that the legend of the resurrection of the bones can be dated to that time. I can find nothing in earlier sources that mentions the legend in connection with him, so it’s entirely possible that the connection was an invention of Jacobus de Voragine, or a later source that he used.

That said, we can firmly establish that the resurrection of the bones was a theme current throughout the Germanic parts of Europe in the 13th century. We see it both in Iceland and in the Alps, and, as we shall see in another article, it was much more widespread than that.

We are left with three possibilities regarding the resurrection of the bones:

  1. It is a genuine pre-Christian pagan tradition that was encapsulated in the Old Norse sources and survived in more Christianized regions in a debased and distorted form
  2. It is a post-Heathen invention that was added to the Old Norse literature concerning Thor and his goats
  3. It is a theme that was developed independently in parallel in both Christian and pre-Christian societies
I think it’s fair to discount the third option without some glaring new evidence to support it, given the specificity of the details. That leaves the first two options, and a much more comprehensive examination of the sources, and particularly the timing of the sources, is needed, to be able to track the spread of the idea of the resurrection of the bones.

St. Germain of Auxerre (part 1)

St. Germain of Auxerre. Doesn’t he just
look like a self-righteous prig?

There are some interesting passages in the Life of St. Germain of Auxerre (c. 378 – c. 448), also known as Germanus. Note that the name denotes someone connected with the Germanic tribes, and he lived in Gaul during a time of great Frankish invasion and influence, and he died just before the creation of the first Merovingian dynasty.

The following passages come from The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, published in 1275.

The first deals with a custom that we have seen before, in connection with the pre-Christian Yule-season holiday, the Feast of the Parcae, also known as Mothers Night:

On a time he was harboured in a place where every night the table was made ready for to eat after supper, when men had supped, and he was much amarvelled thereof, and demanded of the host of the house wherefore they made ready for to eat after supper. And the host said to him, that it was for his neighbours, which would come and drink one after the other. And that night S. Germain established him to wake for to see what it was. It was not long after that there came thither a great multitude of devils, and came to the table in guise of men and women. And when the holy man saw them, he commanded them that they should not go away, and after he sent for to wake the neighbours on all sides, in such wise that every body was found in his bed, and in their houses, and made the people to come and see if they knew any of them, but they said nay. And then he showed them that they were devils, whereof the people were much abashed because the devils had mocked them so. And then S. Germain conjured that they never after returned thither ne came more there.

Now, nothing in this account from St. Germain mentions Yule or Mother’s Night, but it does map excellently with later accounts that showed up in early witch trials in southwest Germany and eastern Switzerland, described in detail in Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.

Burchard of Worms, writing nearly 600 years after the death of Germain, describes something very similar, if lacking in detail:

Hast thou done as some women are wont to do at certain times of the year? That is, hast thou prepared the table in thy house and set on the table thy food and drink, with three knives, that if those three sisters whom past generations and old-time foolishness called the Fates [“parcae”] should come they may take refreshment there… those whom thou callest “the sisters” can do or avail aught for thee either now or in the future? (Corrector, 153)

Still another 400 years or so later, Ginzburg describes a very similar ritual among the benandanti (who might be considered “good witches”), who fought the evil witches who were inclined to go into the wine cellars and first drink themselves to satiation, and then piss or shat into the casks to foul the wine. The benandanti simply drank the wine.

As such, we see a progression, but always involving the habit of some persons with supernatural connections entering a home after the inhabitants had gone to sleep, and who eat and/or drink the provisions available, and who can do good or ill.

One interesting further connection is in the timing. Although the story of St. Germain doesn’t mention anything about when he saw his supposed “great multitude of devils”, Ginzberg’s sources are very specific, and often name “the ember days” as times when they when they would perform their rites.

The Parcae, or Fates

The ember days are an interesting phenomenon worthy of a digression. First introduced as early as  220 CE by Pope Callixtus I*, it was adopted in fits and starts across the West, first in Britain, then Gaul, then Spain, then Italy. They take place three (four, later on) times a year; Advent (December), Lent (March/April), Pentecost (May/June), and September, thus approximating the solstices and equinoxes.

So it is entirely possible that the ceremony that St. Germain describes happened before Yule. Even though the account is silent on the time of year, it would agree with both the Corrector and the later witch trial evidence from the western Alpine area, which describe a similar phenomenon. .

So I present this as yet another piece in the puzzle, which can go one of two ways. Either we’re seeing a mythology-based celebration of the coming of the Norns/Fates/Parcae that was gradually transformed into a sort of virtual visiting tradition, or we’re seeing an actual visiting tradition that was slowly mythologized and turned into a virtual “astral” gathering once it was outlawed by the coming of Christianity.

The slight shifting of the dates is easily explained, as the Church deliberately attempted to appropriate already-extant Heathen holidays. It’s only natural that the peasantry, who were accustomed to making their celebrations on or near the solstices and equinoxes, would simply shift the date to conform to the new authorities, without making substantive changes to the event itself. Over the course of centuries, these customs became distorted, and became but a pale shadow of their former, robust Heathen origins.

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* Why don’t modern popes take cool names like that???

The Ten Commandments

So a few years ago, in an apparent attempt to squander hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending against lawsuits which will inevitably result in failure for the state, Arkansas passed a bill requiring that the ten commandments be posted in front of the statehouse. The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Jason Rapert.

Yesterday the monument was installed on the State House lawn.

Hours later, at 4:30 AM, before the ACLU even had a chance to submit its lawsuit*, an apparently mentally ill man that professes “for our salvation we must have faith in Jesus Christ”** rammed his vehicle into the monument and smashed it into a zillion pieces.

Now, naturally nobody should go around illegally smashing property; I’m very much against it, and I hope this guy gets the combination of hospitalization and jail time that he needs and deserves. But honestly, guys in the Arkansas state legislature, this was a losing proposition from the start. I find it hard to generate a lot of sympathy. Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why.

It doesn’t serve its stated purpose

The monument during its brief period of verticality

State Sen. Jason Rapert, the Christian zealot behind this whole mess, has stated in the bill (and which was parroted by Christian commentator Todd Starnes) that the reason for putting the ten commandments on the Statehouse lawn is because:

The Ten Commandments, found in the Bible at Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, are an important component of the moral foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and of the State of Arkansas

Really?

Which commandments would those be? Is there a law in Arkansas about only worshiping Jehovah of Sinai?

Will the police arrest anyone making a graven image?***

Christ on a Stick! Is there a law against taking the name of the “lord” in vain?

Will the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Arkansas Division) beat people who keep the Wal-Marts and fast food restaurants in Arkansas open on Sunday?

If a child tells their mother to go fuck themselves, will they end up in juvie?

Killing, yeah, and stealing, too, but both of those are hardly unique to the Ten Commandments, Christianity, or Judaism. In fact, I can’t think of a culture that didn’t prohibit those, including, especially, pagan cultures, so it hardly qualifies as an example of the ten commandments being “the moral foundation of the laws and legal system”.

Adultery? Well, it’s illegal in the UCMJ, yes, but you won’t get locked up for it normally.

False witness? Yup, we’ve got perjury laws on the books, but see above about killing and stealing.

Coveting? That might be something Oceania’s Thought Police might like to be able to arrest someone for, but in this country, it’s not against the law to think. Yet.

So no. Nothing in those precious ten commandments has anything to do especially with “the moral foundation of the laws and legal system.” In fact, if anything, our current system of law has much more to do with Germanic common law, inherited from the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, via the English colonies. You know, juries, personal rights, due process, that sort of thing that most people would normally associated with “the foundation of … the legal system.”

It’s Inherently Sectarian

Most people don’t realize that there are a lot more than one version of the ten commandments out there. Jews, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, they all have their own variations on the theme. You pick one for inclusion in an officially sanctioned and endorsed display by the state, and you explicitly establish whichever denomination of Christianity you picked (and let us not even consider for a moment that Rep. Rapert chose a Jewish version, because he didn’t) over all the other ones, and all the Jewish denominations, you didn’t pick.

Unless you carved one with a zillion footnotes with alternate versions, wordings, and so forth. But That doesn’t make for a good, pithy, “my religion is what’s important, not yours” statement, which is exactly what this stupid monument was intended to do.

It says “screw you” to the non-Christians

Pretty much by definition, if there’s a monument that has been explicitly established by a state government, placed on government property, and that monument not only has the historical context of a particular religion, but actually says:

I AM the LORD thy god

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

You ain’t my “lord” Jehovah of Sinai. You’re just a jumped-up desert god from a foreign folk who somehow managed to glom onto a winning formula to lie to people and tell them you’re the only god out there (although Asherah might have a word or two to say about that). And then turn right around and contradict yourself by admitting there are other gods. You might be a fine god for the Jews, but you make a piss-poor one for everyone else.

And the legislators in Arkansas, not caring at all, of course, stuck their finger in the eye of every Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Atheist, Shinto, Amerindian religious follower, Wiccan, neopagan, and of course Asatruar out there, among many others. But they don’t care, because there are more Christians than the rest of us put together.

For now.

Fortunately the law is on our side, and the United States provides for protections against the sort of religious triumphalism that Rep. Rapert and his supporters were trying to impose. The reason we have individual rights and limitations on the powers of government is precisely to circumvent the sort of mob-rule mentality that says “there are more of us, so we can do what we want.” It is precisely to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Republicans used to be all about that sort of thing. I hope they get back to that core principle.

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* Which would win because, unlike the Texas monument it attempts to emulate, this hunk of granite isn’t in the context of a whole bunch of similar displays from a variety of religions and sources.

** Insert you-must-be-mentally-ill-to-be-Christian joke here.

*** Consider here the irony of making a graven image of the Ten Commandments. Ahem.

The Asatru Option?

Several months ago, conservative commentator and author Rod Dreher released his latest book, The Benedict Option, subtitled A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and it made quite a splash in the conservative Christian community. I read it, and I have to wonder if there isn’t some kernel at the core of the idea that Asatruar could use as well.

Now, obviously, this is a book aimed at a traditionalist Christian audience, primarily Evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox. And there’s certainly nothing theological in the book that lends itself to any sort of Asatru application. But there’s some social, educational, political, and economic ideas that warrant a closer look.

The thumbnail argument in the book is that the West is “post-Christian”, and thus Christians need a new strategy to be able to maintain their unique identity in the face of a secular-liberal culture that not only has social values at odds with a lot of Christian values, but which insists on actively forcing those values on everyone, including those whose religion increasingly finds those values odious or even directly against its tenets.

The strategy he endorses is based on the Benedictine monastic tradition; physical and cultural separation from “the world” (in other worlds, from the greater non-Christian culture in which we live), with the formation of explicitly Christian communities being highly recommended, and a rigorous application of Benedictine religious principles in the form of prayer, hospitality, the work ethic, and more.

In terms of cultural separation, he provides the following advice:

Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid that which is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department. (p. 98)

If some of that sounds a bit odd coming from someone who is very much a champion of Christian conservatism, bear in mind this is the same guy who wrote Crunchy Cons, subtitled How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural revolutionaries plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party). I have only skimmed that one as of this writing, but it’s at the top of my to read list, for obvious reasons. It seems to check a lot of boxes for people I know in Asatru (again, looking past the Christian emphasis and focusing on the cultural ideals).

He also considers this sort of cultural separation as a tool for what he calls evangelization in and of itself:

As times get tougher, the church will become brighter and brighter, drawing people to its light. As this happens, we Christians should not be afraid to consider beauty and goodness our best evangelistic tools. (p. 117)

That should sound pretty familiar to those Asatru who embrace the idea of outreach by example. That is, by living honorable, joyous, simpler lives along the same patterns of our ancestors, and not being afraid to let our friends, co-workers, and neighbors know that we are Asatru, and that’s what informs our life choices, we might encourage more of those people to come home to Asatru.

His solution isn’t necessarily to pick up stakes and settle in the woods with a dozen people who think like you do, although I would daresay he wouldn’t rule that out. Rather, the preferred strategy seems to be to create pockets of culture-within-culture. Deliberately moving within walking distance of your church, for instance. Once you do that, your everyday life starts to be filled with people who think, and worship, the way you do. Doing so allows you to reinforce those cultural and religious values you want to embrace, and to limit the necessity of dealing with the secular-liberal culture that is so intent on spreading its memes to every host through mass media and cultural peer pressure.

Imagine that scenario, adopted for Asatru. Here in New Jersey, the tribe to which I belong has a bunch of members, but we’re scattered around New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Some live as much as three hours away from one another (we tend to meet in more central places, so it’s not quite as onerous for the outliers). But imagine we all decided, “hey, let’s all pick a small rural town and buy or rent houses there.” Would it be initially disruptive? You betcha. Jobs would be lost, new ones would have to be found. But in the meantime, we’d have a whole support network of people we know, and love, and consider kith and kin to help us through the rough times.

And imagine how easy it would be to decide where to open that hof!

There’s a lot in Dreher’s book that a non-Christian would need to jettison, and no mistake. Much of it is in the details of his recommendations; his obsession with sex, homosexuality, and related things is pretty awkward, but par for the course when one considers control of sex is one of the principle instruments of cultural control the Church has used over the centuries, precisely because it is such a fundamental biological urge. I’m certainly not arguing Asatru should embrace that sort of theological baggage.

But the core concept, minimizing the influence of the modern culture, and maximizing the formation of face-to-face communities which foment the creation of real bonds, I think is a perfectly valid one, especially for a religion like Asatru which finds itself also at odds with the modern secular, liberal, industrialized, corporatized, homogenizing, culture in which we live.

Let us not forget that we are not only living in a post-Christian culture, but we are also living in a post-Pagan culture. The Christians are looking at a loss of the dominance of their world-view in the West that has only taken place over the span of a few decades. We as Asatruar are dealing with a culture that saw many inherently pre-Christian aspects systematically destroyed and replaced. We’re dealing with a modern culture that has not replaced our own, but is in the process of replacing the one that replaced ours! Now, as part of the historical process, Christianity not only self-injected itself with Germanic religious and cultural concepts, but specific ritual and celebratory practices managed to survive under a thin Christian veneer for nearly a millennium, only to be finally almost obliterated by the Industrial Revolution and the flight of the agrarian folk who maintained those customs into the cities, where the rigid demands of industrial life made it impossible to retain them.

When we live in a culture that labels folkishness as racism, and a magical word-view as superstition, encourages us to be as removed from the production of food as possible, encourages radical individualism and atomization, and insists that we are somehow socially inferior if we don’t buy the newest gadget, and which insists that the latest social fad is a basic human right that must be enforced with threats of prison and economic ruin, and on and on and on, that’s a culture that should rightly be shunned wherever possible.

In its place we should seek to create a culture-within-the-culture that is based on our natural tribal affinities, on the cycles of nature and agriculture, on the concept of honor rather than shame and family rather than political party, on the knowledge that ours is a magical universe at its core and science for all its wonders is not the be-all and end-all of human experience, and on and on and on. And to do these things not online in blogs and emails and Facebook threads, but in the real-world, where you can walk down the street to a local ice-cream parlor and see one or two of your fellow Asatruar as you do so.

Take away the Christian baggage, and there’s a core concept in the Benedict Option that I think Asatruar would do very well to look into.

When does reconstructionism end?

By the title of this article I do not mean when does the process of reconstructionism end (which might be an interesting topic in and of itself), but rather when does reconstructionism stop looking for source material? To use a term popular in the SCA*, what is reconstructionist Heathenry’s “period”? In other words, when can or must we stop looking at sources, because they’re too far removed from the Heathen period?

The obvious off-the-cuff answer is “after the conversion to Christianity.” Which is all well and good, but does pose a few problems. The first is that the Germanic nations weren’t converted at the same time. The process was a long one spanning centuries, and every time a barbarian tribe was converted, there seemed to be another Heathen one spring up behind them. So one would have to go place by place and tribe by tribe.

The second problem is that conversion wasn’t an instant process. More often than not, a king or other leader would himself convert, or marry a Christian woman who would pressure him to convert, and this new faith would trickle down to the nobles and eventually to the peasantry. Sometimes this was a peaceful process, and sometimes it was done in an orgy of violence to promote the religion of the Prince of Peace. So the “official” dates of conversion are a misnomer; long after those dates, there would still be thriving Heathen communities and the folk-faith would endure. In many cases, we are told of Heathen “revivals” where the new faith was (temporarily, at least) cast off and the old ways reinstated. So during this “period of dual faith” there is still useful information that can be gleaned, although it is possible that it will be influenced by Christianity.

The third problem is that even purely Christian sources hold much value to those of us attempting to learn more about pre-Christian practices. This could come in the form of penitentials, sermons, Saints’ Lives, histories, and the like that list out (often in great detail) what the Heathens did as a tool for helping Christians avoid such practices. Or, it could be more subtle, in the use of language and terminology that provides insight into pre-Christian religion, because in order to describe Christian concepts, the author had to use Heathen vocabulary, such as we see in the Gothic Bible of Ulfilas, or the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood (which paints Jesus as the leader of a warband, and the Apostles as his thegns, and which itself might be modeled on a now-lost myth of the god Ingve).

The fourth problem is that even long after the people were nominally converted to Christianity, there remained a living undercurrent of pre-Christian remnants, often surviving under a Christian veneer. These can take many forms; popular superstitions, belief in and practices around elves/fairies/hidden folk/brownies/etc., holidays and folk-celebrations, nursery rhymes, dances and songs, and even Saints’ feasts, as we have seen in other articles.

Personally, I’m inclined to cast a wide net when I look for sources, and I don’t see that as in any way against reconstructionist principles.

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* Society for Creative Anachronism

“Nice Guy” Gods

Back in 2005, researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In it, they try to figure out what American teens thought about religion through interviews with about 3,000 teens, and in particular were coming from a standpoint of evangelical Christianity. That perspective doesn’t invalidate their findings, although it does color their conclusions, of course.

Aside from the hand-wringing about the future of traditional Christianity in the West, the big takeaway from their research was what they refer to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which I think has broader implications than mere Christianity. MTD can be broken down into the following precepts:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there’s a deep chasm between “everyday Asatru” and what might be termed “Deep Asatru“, I confess I see many parallels between these beliefs and a lot of what I see in modern Asatru. All too often I find people writing on blogs or even in person who essentially believe in a Heathen analogue of MTD. I think it comes not as a reaction to Christianity in particular, but as a result of the constant movement of society towards a secular, postmodern, hyper-individualistic form. The Asatru equivalents might be:

  1. The gods exist who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. (Although this one seems to be negotiable for some people, who see belief in the existence of the gods as optional. Sort of like Anglicanism.)
  2. The gods want people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by most world religions, even if that contradicts the surviving written lore and history.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. The gods do not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when They are needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to the dwelling of the god of their choice when they die.

In short, they want “nice guy” gods who make few, if any, demands of them, are there to be a source of comfort and problem-solving, but who otherwise don’t get in the way of everyday modern, consumerist, life.

This is the mindset that insists that ancestry has nothing to do with religion. After all, it’s not “fair” to exclude anyone.

It’s the mindset that tells us that the afterlife is an open field, and you go wherever your favorite god lives, despite there being no support for that at all in the written lore. Putting everyone into Hel would risk making people not feel special!

It’s the mindset that tells us that asking the gods for petty services and favors like asking Njörðr for help finding a parking space is a perfectly acceptable thing to do*. After all, the gods are there to be our friends and helpers!

And on and on and on.

I’m sorry my ducklings, but the gods don’t work that way. And it’s about damn time we started taking the time to explain that to people, rather than keeping silent and letting them persist in their self-absorbed delusions.

Our gods are hard, demanding, and ultimately alien figures in the sense that they operate on a level of understanding that we quite literally cannot comprehend. They have their own motives, their own objectives, and they’re not always what we might want them to be, or even take our needs and wants into account. They are gods who make enormous demands of us, ripping us away from the things we find comfortable and tossing us into situations that test us to our very marrow.

“Life is Ordeal,” as the Theodish say.

And not because those demands and expectations are designed to help us evolve or improve or because it’ll be good for us in the end. Because They want us to do it for their own reasons, which might be completely unfathomable and inscrutable to us. They’re the ones who have insights into the skein of wyrd, and They have motives that are utterly beyond us. They’re not above killing us in our prime to bring us into Valhalla just in case the Ragnarök comes tomorrow, even if we would have otherwise won the battle. And for the record, not everyone who dies in battle gets to go there; you have to be chosen. And chances are, you won’t be. Suck it up.

And it’s fucking time we accepted it, taught it as the expectation to our Folk, and embraced it as a whole. Want to know why the ancient Germanic peoples are so often described as “fatalistic”? That’s why. The Æsir are not our friends, not our buddies, not our butlers, and not our self-help coaches. They are our gods as well as our ancestors, and that should be enough.

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* I shit you not, I actually know someone who did this and thought it was the cleverest thing in the world, because Njörðr is the god of voyages and obviously has nothing better to do than to arrange the universe so she didn’t have to drive around the block a couple of times. ::double sigh::

Beyond the Eddas and Sagas

One of the things that I lament most about the state of current Asatru is the seemingly self-imposed limitation to look at written sources such as the Sagas of Icelanders, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, and a handful of other sources (Beowulf, usually, and maybe Saxo and a few others), and then stop. This is usually supplemented by a little bit of information from archaeology, inscriptions, and the like.

I think this is an enormous shame and missed opportunity. There’s so much other material out there of interest and relevance to our recreation of the religion of our pre-Christian ancestors*.

First, of course, there’s medieval Saint’s feasts. I’m finding this a very fruitful avenue of exploration, as has been seen with my investigations into Yule and other holidays on the calendar. Sure, most of it was documented way past the conversion period, but when we see Christian saints with uniquely Scandinavian, English, or German attributes mapped onto dates that coincidentally happened to be close to or on holidays celebrating the Aesir, it’s worth looking into.

I mean, Christ on a stick! Can you look at Krampusnacht and think there’s not a pagan undertone there??? And there’s tons more where that came from.

Then there’s post-Conversion folklore. This comes from several different sources; Scandinavia, Germany, Iceland, and England. All of which were centers of Germanic activity, either during the Migration Era or the Viking Age. There are princesses and trolls, and a ton of lore on how to deal with the huldufolk/elves, tomten/nissen, and the like. It’s here that we see a lot of the day-to-day practices captured; how to deal with the landwights of stone, stream, lake, and tree, and the housewights as well.

It’s worth digressing for a moment into a particular avenue of research that I think has incredible potential. That’s the lore of the Pennsylvania Germans and especially the Amish. Two historical events did more than anything else to obliterate traces of paganism in modern culture; the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.

With the coming of Protestantism (and its Anglican analogue in England), came a gut-instinctual revolt against anything that was perceived as “Popish” or Catholic. The problem from our point of view is that the Catholic Church, in its zeal to put an “official” church stamp on the whole of Europe, was more than happy to incorporate all sorts of local customs, many (most?) of which were pagan in origin, into their own customs. Thus, we see previously-pagan holidays completely co-opted by Saints’ feasts, but the customs that accompanied them — the songs, the practices, the games, the myths, and the food — endured. With the coming of the so-called reformers, all that was swept away by an austere, even Puritanical in some places, stripped-down Christianity that lost almost all of that pre-Christian practice.

What the Protestant Revolution couldn’t destroy, the social disruptions of the Industrial Revolution did short work of. Primarily by encouraging the old peasant class, in whose quaint customs and celebrations, handed down from time immemorial, a lot of potentially pagan custom survived, to move into the cities and take factory jobs. With the rhythm of the peasant-farming life disrupted, there was no reason to pass down the old customs that went along with it. Indeed, the energetic actions of the Victorian folklorists, both in Britain and on the Continent, were an attempt to at least catalog and capture some of this lore before it was lost forever by this process that was recognized at the time as destructive to these complex memeplexes.

Both of those disruptive forces are why the Pennsylvania Germans, and in particular the Amish and related folk, are so important to the work of reconstructionism. They represent a sort of crystallized “time capsule” into 16th century southwestern Germany. Because the society of the Pennsylvania Germans (especially the Amish) is so conservative**, it is incredibly resistant to change. It is precisely this sort of religiously-inspired agricultural life that has enabled certain pre-Christian beliefs and practices to endure, and that’s what makes them such a treasure-trove of potential lore. If one is interested in continental German lore in relation to Asatru, one cannot ignore the Pennsylvania Germans.

And that includes the practices of Hexerei and Braucherei among them, which has very specific parallels to Scandinavian Trōlldomr magic.

And that brings in a whole other level of source material; the still-living traditions in Scandinavia (which seems to have gone through the Protestant Reformation somewhat less vehemently than their southern neighbors; a number of Saints still endure despite the general aversion of Protestantism to the whole idea). Don’t forget that runes were still used in some of the more remote regions of Scandinavia into the 20th century, and there remains a whole body of lore (not to mention a large number of actual practitioners) who still practice the art.

Plus the whole grimoire tradition in Scandinavia. There are Black Books, Cipriania, and more. Did you know there’s a spell in one of the books that mentions Odin and Satan drinking together in a hall? ‘Struth!

Then there’s nursery rhymes. The vast majority seem to refer to historical events or political happenings from the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are a few bits and pieces that seem to go back way further. It’s a potentially great resource that, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been systematically studied. And there are a ton more nursery rhymes than I ever knew existed. I’ve been starting to collect some sources…

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. There is of course the field of comparative mythology; the Vedic Hindu Indra has a lot in common with Thor, as of course do gods like the Slavic Perun. And oh my gods is there a lot of Slavic material, the surface of which has barely been scratched in an Asatru context. And of course I’m a huge fan of drawing inspiration and details from the old Christian penetentials, sermons, and Saints’ lives; a lot of it comes from the Conversion era, but they often go into exacting detail as to what good Christians are not supposed to do. Absolute gold.

So for you, my dear readers, I implore you; don’t stop with the Eddas and Egil’s Saga. Never stop seeking out potential avenues for research, but also be wary of being too optimistic. Sometimes there really are coincidences, and sometimes something that looked like a good idea at the time pans out badly. Never be afraid to discard an idea that doesn’t work out, no matter how cool it seemed at first.

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* I say “religion” here, but it’s probably more accurate to say religions, as there wasn’t one single unified pan-Germanic pagan faith, but a complex of closely related practices, myths, and beliefs that varied quite consistently from tribe to tribe and geographical region to geographical region. Look, for example, at the use of the name “Holde/Holle”, “Perchta”, and then “Frigga” for what appears to be the same, or at least a closely related, goddess as one moves north from the Alps to Scandinavia.

** To this day there are Groundhog Lodges at whose meetings English is not spoken. And that’s not just the Amish; that’s the “ordinary” Pennsylvania German folk.

Paganism’s Comeback

Over at The Week online magazine, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry frets that “paganism” could make a comeback in our post-Christian society. While it’s nice to see that he feels the teeth of the wolf at his throat (Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is a Christian organization “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy”), the sheer amount of incorrect assumptions and facts in his article invites rebuttal.

He starts off very well:

So, could we go back to paganism? This is more than an idle question. Our era is still — much more than we care to admit — very much defined by Christian ideals, which — much more than we care to admit — were very much defined in opposition to pagan ideals. Looking at the pagan worldviews that once ruled Europe should give us some insight into the West today, and, perhaps, its future.

After then (correctly) asserting that the Pagan world-view fills the world with “agency” (associating natural phenomena with intelligent agents who can, in theory, be treated with), he quickly descends into typical Catholic hysteria and misinformation about what Paganism (and Heathenry*) was and is, when he states that Paganism is inherently amoral:

A more accurate description is that paganism was amoral. Paganism, as such, had no explicit moral teachings. It certainly had no teachings against slavery, including sexual slavery, or against adultery, oppression, poverty, or anything else, for that matter. This is not to say that paganism was immoral, or that pagans were more immoral than any other sort of person. It was just that people saw religion and morality as two completely different things.

It is the height of presumption and irony that Gobry’s definition of amorality is a lack of teachings against slavery (the Bible not only condones slavery, but actually requires it in some circumstances), sexual slavery (the Bible also condones such, specifically selling one’s own daughter into sexual slavery), adultery (the Bible prescribes the death penalty for adultery; if that’s his idea of “morality” then he’s welcome to it), oppression (witness the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, which resulted not only in great oppression, but genocide), and poverty (Jesus himself says it is impossible to obliterate poverty).

So don’t presume to lecture me on Paganism’s lack of morality, thank you very much. By his own definition Christianity is equally (I would argue moreso) amoral.

But is it true that Paganism “has no teachings… against anything else”? Hardly! Bearing in mind that Paganism is mostly orthopraxic, rather than orthodoxic (that is, more concerned with right behavior rather than purity of ideology), it could hardly be otherwise. Culture and religion were inseparable in Pagan times, and so it’s impossible to tease apart cultural mores from religious dictates. The Pagan Norsemen valued honor and courage. But they also valued loyalty to family, tribe, and lord; the importance of oaths; and hospitality. The Pagan Romans had their Virtues; clementia (mercy), frugalitas (frugality), salubritas (personal health and cleanliness), severitas (self control), firmitas (tenacity), and many others. To say that the Greeks had no morality would come as a shock to people like Aristotle.

Just because Pagan morals are not his preferred morals does not make them any less real.

But then he turns down a very bizarre road when he states that Paganism was based on sacrifice:

The entire cosmos was a chain of sacrifice, life feeding on itself. The gods, then, were something like cosmic mobsters — a semblance of order, a respite from the powers of fate, could be bought by propitiating the gods through sacrifice, like cosmic protection money. Like mobsters, the gods had a sociopathic streak and might not follow through on their end of the deal even if you held up your own, but it was too risky not to try.

The temptation to guffaw at his assertion that Pagan gods are sociopathic is strong, given the many genocides his own god has not only directed his followers to undertake, but which he himself has undertaken (his body count stands at an estimated 25 million people, based on what’s in the Bible).

But then he goes on to use scapegoating as an example of why Paganism is lacking:

While the myth of Oedipus tells us that Oedipus was guilty and this is why his punishment was just, the Biblical story of Joseph has Joseph being wrongly accused of another sexual crime — trying to rape pharaoh’s wife — and good things happening to the nation only when Joseph is recognized as innocent and vindicated. This anti-scapegoating narrative, of course, reaches its apex in the figure of Jesus, who is scapegoated by every legitimate authority, political and religious, yet vindicated by God through his Resurrection.

But in doing so he seems to have forgotten that the very term “scapegoat” COMES FROM THE BIBLE ITSELF:

He is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be reserved as an offering to the LORD and which will carry the sins of the people to the wilderness of Azazel. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering.

Yes, that’s right. He’s complaining about the Pagan tradition of making sacrifices to the Gods, while in the very same breath using the term for Biblical animal sacrifice to do so. It boggles the mind. His other complaints about human sacrifice are similarly ironic, given the Biblical story about Abraham and Isaac.

He then ends with the obligatory attempt to link Paganism with the Nazis, which is so perfunctory it almost seems like it was done reflexively. This, despite the fact that the Nazis rounded up their own Pagans and put them in concentration camps.

Gobry forgets one important element to the definition of a “scapegoat”. The scapegoat is, itself, blameless, and is used nonetheless as a receptacle for sin, and is sacrificed accordingly. The Pagan concept of sacrifice is far different. The offering is used to reinforce what is known in the Norse tradition as the “gift cycle”. It’s a gift, given in friendship to help reinforce a relationship of friendship between ourselves and our gods. It’s not something that’s done in quivering terror, trying to propitiate some capricious deity, like Jehovah of Sinai, who sets up all sorts of random rules that run counter to human experience and need and calls it “morality”, claiming that he loves us despite what miserable failures we are at following his arbitrary rules.

Yes, Mr. Gobry. We Pagans are coming. The construction of the temple in Iceland is but a small part of the process. Your foreign desert god is being cast out of Europe, and cast out of the souls of those of us whose ancestors hailed from Europe, like removing heavy iron chains. Ours are Gods of joy and war, hot sweaty sex and the cool rains of spring, the power of the thunderbolt and the ripening of the grain.

And the reason we will triumph is that your god claims to love us despite who we are. But our Gods love us because of who we are.

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* Because Gobry does not make any distinction between the two, for purposes of this article I’ll treat Pagan and Heathen as interchangeable. He’s obviously unaware of the intricacies of such nomenclature.

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