Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Everyday Religion

“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.


* 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::

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.

The Religion with Homework

“Asatru is the religion with homework” is a common enough saying in the broader contemporary Asatru community. The expectation is that every Asatruar should be at least conversant in Old Norse, have read the Eddas and as many Icelandic Sagas as possible, and be constantly reading scholarly works on archaeology, philology, history, linguistics, anthropology, and the like. Comparisons of dusty treatises from the 19th century with the latest scholarship are to be regarded as de rigeur. It is thought that it’s not enough to simply live as an Asatruar and worship the Gods, and those who are not constantly acting like a PhD student are somehow shirking their obligation.

Speaking as someone who does love that level of scholarly work, I have come to the opinion that this is bunk.

To be sure, there is a place for scholarship, and for those who are so inclined, such scholarly pursuits are worthwhile and admirable. However, for the vast majority of Asatruar, it is simply not necessary to engage in that level of scholarship. As long as there are reputable contemporary works that distill down all the high-end scholarship into easy-to-digest books, that should be enough for the vast majority of Asatruar out there.

Think of it this way – are Christians expected to learn Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew? Do they really pick and choose a church based on its adherence to the 1913 Kansas City Statement of Faith vs. its adherence to the 1927 Evangelical Catechism? Would they even know the difference? Or do they choose a church based on the people that belong to it? Do they study books of religious philosophy from the 19th century? A few do, sure. But the vast majority don’t. They have their Bible, which they might read, and they have what they learn from sermons when they go to church, and maybe a couple of popularly-written books that explain Christian thought on a particular topic from a particular point of view.

And that’s okay. Everyone doesn’t have to be a scholar.

No real Asatruar would skip this book…

That’s not to say there cannot be discernment in sources, even when they’re written in a popular style that doesn’t have a list of sources and footnotes half again as long as the book itself. Even if not everyone is a scholar, those who do prefer a scholarly approach will have opinions about such books, and will write reviews, which others can then use to form their own opinions about whether such-and-such is a book worth reading.

The scholarly ideas within Heathenry wouldn’t go away — far from it. But they wouldn’t be expected to be at the forefront of every discussion about practicalities in Asatru, and those who didn’t have a relevant quote in Old High German on every subject wouldn’t be implicitly looked down on in some circles. There would still be scholarly books published for those who were so inclined, but popular ones too, that wouldn’t be looked down on for a paucity of footnotes.

For myself, I’m writing my own “Beginner’s Book” for Asatru. What I think I’ll do is actually release it in two editions; a Popular Version, which just has the essence of the beliefs and practice of Asatru laid out, with a very small and easily-approachable list of further reading for those who are so inclined. There will also be an Annotated Version, with exactly the same material, except with all the footnotes, citations from the original languages, list of scholarly works cited and so forth. I have a shrewd idea which one will sell better…

Ritual, spectacle, and Asatru

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

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

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

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

And further:

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

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

Experimental Reconstructionism

My brother Lou has coined a term to describe the approach that Afstoll Thjod is taking towards our religious beliefs and practices; he calls it “experimental reconstructionism” (inspired by “experimental archaeology”). I think it’s a perfect descriptor, and would like to expand upon it briefly.

Part of what makes it such a great term is that it juxtaposes two words that in modern Paganism in general, and Heathenry in particular, have often been taken to be opposites. If one is reconstructing something, how can there be room for experimentation? And, similarly, if one is experimenting in terms of beliefs and practices, how can one really claim to be reconstructing a religion?

One of the misconceptions about reconstructionism is that we reconstructionists simply look stuff up in a book, preferably written in the 19th century, start acting out what the author says, and then spend the rest of our lives wandering about in an atavastic stupor, never looking beyond the 10th Century and wondering if there is a way to undo our childhood vaccinations. The simple truth is that no such book exists, and if it did, it’s certain that some later author would write another book completely contradicting most of its conclusions.

The sources that are available to us– and in this I include not only the corpus of written lore, but the evidence of archaeology, comparative sociology, folklore, linguistics, etc.– are, to put it bluntly, inadequate for the task of reconstructing the religion(s) of the ancient Germanic peoples. In many cases we have only the broad outlines on a topic; the indicator that something was done, or believed, but with no meat to hang on the bone. And even then, it’s possible to get those broad outlines wrong, or make some assumption that are simply incorrect, or miss something for years that later on seems perfectly obvious.

Which is not to say that we are completely lacking in specifics; far from it. One of the benefits of having a pretty extensive written corpus of lore is that there are many nuggets for the reconstructionist to mine. But despite the claims of some modern authors, we don’t really have even a credible outline of how an ancient blót was conducted. We have a pretty comprehensive description of how the Anglo-Saxons practiced their sumble, but it contradicts some aspects of surviving descriptions of how the Norwegians did so. We have a very complete account of an ancient seiðr ritual, but I’ve never heard of any modern group that actually does it that way, completely. With all this flux and chaos, what is a good reconstructionist to do?

That’s where the experimentation comes in.

Despite the fact that I’m regarded as an arch-reconstructionist by many folks, I’ve got to say that the way I view and practice ritual has changed constantly over the years. I am constantly searching out new knowledge, and as I do so, I find new things to incorporate into ritual, or realize that something that I’d been doing for years was, in fact, not historical at all, and jettisoned it once I found a practice that was much more in line with the ways of our ancestors.

But the experimental aspect of this goes far beyond merely adjusting to new or newly-discovered scholarship. On a very practical level, some things just don’t seem to work. Other things work really, really well. The former are gotten rid of, and the latter are expanded. The whole thing is constantly being polished, honed to a fine edge, and if I do say so myself, the rituals I write today are much more powerful and effective than the ones I wrote five years ago. In some ways they are more elaborate, and in other ways they are more streamlined, based on years of practice, self-examination, and refinement.

This brings me to contrast this approach to those of more “modernist” Heathen groups. One of life’s little ironies is that some of the most vociferous critics of reconstructionism have themselves not changed the way they do ritual in 18 years! Some groups are still doing their rituals exactly as they were written in Teutonic Religion (1991), Ravenbok (1992) or A Book of Troth (1992). These are the same people who complain that reconstructionists are stuck in the past. Hell, I don’t do the same ritual today that I did 18 months ago, let alone 18 years ago. I’ve got your “living, breathing faith” right here, fella.

This extends into adding entire new spheres of beliefs and practices into our faith. Take, for example, the “everyday religion” of the worship of the land-wights and the household gods. These beings have, until recently, received mostly perfunctory attention, if they received any at all, because the Northern Revival was focused more on the Aesir (and understandably so, I might add). Among those who are “modernist”, this is just fine; they are happy with honoring the Aesir and pouring out a libation to the land-wights as an almost-perfunctory gesture afterwards. To them, there is no gap; that’s just how they’ve always done things.

But where experimental reconstructionism sees a gap, it begins to slowly fill that space, introducing new practices, seeing what works, tweaking or removing what does not. Over the last few years I’ve been doing just that (one of the early products of that research was the booklet available for download in the upper-left corner of your screen; it’s about to be vastly expanded into a full-fledged book on the subject). The lore (much of it from living folklore) is incredibly rich with practices and information on what these beings are, how they relate to humans, and how they can (and should not) be approached. It’s adding an entire layer of practice to our religion, one that existed a millenium ago in one form or another, and gives an incredibly effective counterpoint to the regular worship of the Aesir.

This is not to say, however, that the experimentation overtakes the reconstructionism. It’s not eclecticism; we don’t just start bolting on elements from other cultures and times because they “feel good”. We only add things where there is evidence that they existed in historical practice. Often, it’s the details that we need to invent or adapt, once we realize we’ve been missing something.

In this particular case, there is evidence that there was a vibrant worship of local spirits, including the house-gods and land-wights; what was lacking were the details. Fortunately, by looking just a little bit into the post-conversion era (as well as related cultures such as Anglo-Saxon England), we begin to find our wealth of details. It’s not invention; it’s filling in the specifics, breathing life into that broad outline to turn it into something that a living, breathing religion can use on a practical level.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Fórn

Every Thursday (which, for those in the know, actually starts at what the modern time-keepers call Wednesday night, since days go dusk-to-dusk), I make an offering to my god-post, carved in the image of Thor, to give thanks to the Aesir and Alfar for what They do for myself and my family.

Well, I did so tonight as I usually do, and as I was winding it up, I noticed something moving immediately to my right. It was low to the ground, but long, and white or silver-gray in color. It was most certainly not the local groundhog, which is both much darker in color and very shy around people. This thing kept coming towards me despite my raising my voice (hoping to avoid a meeting with some sort of predator).

Thinking about it, and remembering the image of what I saw, it definitely could have been a fox.

Now, I’m the last person to go around ascribing supernatural causes to things that could be perfectly natural. But my fetch is a fox, and this thing did not act like a wild animal would normally act around a human.

I’ll pay attention to my dreams tonight, that’s for sure.

On the Kalends

We are told, according to the De Correctione Rusticorum of Saint Martin of Braga, that one of the transgressions of those who still followed the old religion in Gaul (and by that time (572 CE) the Franks had conquered Gaul, so we are talking about Germanic religion rather than Roman or Celtic, specifically that of the tribe of the Franks, but applicable beyond that narrow focus) was that they “observed the Vulcanalia and the kalends”. This could and should quite significant for the everyday practices of modern Heathens.

The Vulcanalia (which is essentially a term relating to a fire celebration taking place in late August; it is unlikely that the classical Vulcanalia was anything more than a vague date to Martin, since the actual Roman celebration had long been done away with) will be dealt with in another post. But it is the notion that the Heathens would practice some observance of the kalends that is of interest. Much confusion lies in the fact that the writer is composing in Latin, and as such is also using Latin conventions for such things as deity names and calenderical references. It must always be asked, when he speaks of Mercury (for instance) whether he is speaking of the Roman Mercurius or the Germanic Odin, who was associated with the Roman God.

Historically, the Kalends was the first day of the month. What brings in a measure of confusion is the fact that the definition of when a month began had changed from the begining of Rome to the 6th century. At Rome’s foundation, the calendar was a lunar one, and the kalends marked the New Moon. By the time of the Imperial period, the calendar we know had been mostly introduced, and the month-names with which we are familiar had been well established. (July and August, for example, were named after Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, respectively.)

That begs the question, though; when Martin spoke of the Heathens observing the kalends, did he mean the first day of the calendar month, or did he mean the new moon? I think the answer (such as we have) lies in the politics of Gaul in the late 6th century, when Martin was writing.

Clovis I had only been baptized 80 years before, and although most of the Franklish aristocracy had converted with him, such things were notoriously slow to make their way into the beliefs and practices of the common folk. Martin, writing in Latin, would have used the term kalends to refer to the beginning of the month, no matter how the beginning of the month was actually reckoned. The question becomes, how did the common folk of the Germanic peoples actually figure out the beginning of their months?

Look to Alvissmal:

Mani heitir medh monnum,
en mylinn medh godhum,
kalla hverfanda hvel helju i,
skyndi jotnar,
en skin dvergar,
kalla alfar artala.

Tis hight Moon among men,
and Mill among gods
called Rolling-Wheel in Hel.
Hasty by giants,
Shining One by dwarves,
Called by elves, Year-Teller.

Year-teller. Cleasby-Vigfusson’s dictionary notes, “The heathen year being lunar”.

And here we have our answer, and it all falls into place.

Martin was writing for a popular audience. His letter was clearly intended to be read from the pulpit to the fallen masses. He would have used the term kalends in a way that was significant to them; not using the Roman calendar (which was solar in nature), but the Germanic lunar calendar of the Frankish peasants to whom he was speaking. The kalends was the new moon.

The Frankish Heathens in Gaul in the late 6th century were observing the new moon. Let us do no less in our reconstruction of their faith in the Gods. Up soon… how?

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