Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: mysticism

On scholarship and mysticism, part two

In part one of this essay, I laid out some definitions and tried to frame the argument between those who value scholarship and those who value direct mystical experiences, and who themselves practice magic within a Heathen context.

In this part, I’m going to examine some of the friction between those who practice magic, and those who do not.

I should preface this by saying that I myself am a practitioner of various sorts of Germanic magic; seiðr, galdr, trolldomr, and others. But I do admit to running hot and cold with it. Sometimes the rational part of me says “there’s no way this is real”, but then eventually experience brings me back.

Now, in my experience, a lot of resistance to the practice of magic in an Asatru context comes from two places. First, the people doing it are just importing it from modern neopaganism, or just making it up, and that (naturally) offends the sensibilities of those who tend towards the reconstructionist end of the spectrum.

Where those in this first category get into trouble, however, is that in their zeal to toss out the non-Germanic bathwater, they are also throwing out the Germanic magical baby. The written sources, and archaeological record, are replete with examples of rune magic, seiðr, spá, and so forth. Just because most people are doing it wrong is no reason to reflexively condemn those who are doing it right.

Second, the people who object simply do not hold a “magical worldview” and think that those who do practice magic, in whatever form, are either delusional, or misguided, or deliberately gulling others. As John T Mainer recently put it on the Troth’s Facebook page:

Heathenry is so rooted in rationality that sometimes it is hard to tell whether you are in an archaeology class, a literature study group or ethics class. … The things I have gained from my esoteric practice, from mystical experience, initiation and journey have prevented me from being a danger to those that I love, as using drugs to control pain and spasm had made me. They restored my ability to sleep, to learn, to love, to laugh. I had gained all these things by the same mystical practice that we, as respected heathens, especially strong male heathens, are expected to distance ourselves from or even ridicule.

And this is an attitude I simply cannot understand, especially from Heathens claiming to be on the reconstructionist end of the Heathen spectrum.

These people, for whom the go-to text is Vilhelm Grönbech’s Culture of the Teutons, and who state that one of the most important goals of modern Asatru is to “recreate the Heathen mindset” seem to draw the line at tribalism, or honor, or even Luck, but who refuse to see that the “Heathen mindset” included the realization that the world is infused with magic, and that those with the knowledge could affect the real world through those arts.

This truth is seeded throughout the literature and the archaeological record, and not just limited to the workings of the Gods. Egil Skallagrimson was a runester as well as a warrior and poet. In the Saga of Erik the Red, we hear of Thorbjorg, who traveled from farm to farm as a seiðkona. There are inscriptions with obviously magical runic inscriptions that not only do not make any sense linguistically, but some of which would actually have been hidden from view. The reality of magic was a part of the experience and expectation of our Heathen forebears, and any attempt to recover the “Heathen mindset” must perforce include it.

There can be no Heathen mindset without a Magical mindset. To try to have the one without the other is as doomed to failure as an attempt to have Heathenry without Thor. You’re missing an essential piece.

On scholarship and mysticism, part one

When the same issue shows up in three different places that I read regularly, there’s something definitely afoot. So it was with the question of what I call mysticism (alternately called UPG or “polytheism” by its proponents) being perceived to be in opposition to scholarship when it comes to Asatru specifically (although the argument would work just as well with other forms of Heathenry or Paganism such as the Religio Romana or Celtic Reconstructionism).

There’s a lot to unpack in those posts (and it should be noted this is an issue that is not new by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, it’s been kicking around in one form or another since the 1980’s at least), but I’m willing to give it the old Collegium Augurum try…

First and foremost, I’m not a fan of the strict delineation between “UPG” and scholarship, which I think is implied in the very term UPG as it is used today. UPG today is most often used for some sort of direct inspiration from a deity or spirit, often lumping scholarly insights that don’t rely on direct evidence in the same category as “revelations” from the gods, and ignoring the vast spectrum of scholarly possibilities into the bargain. That’s one reason I prefer the term “mysticism” to specifically refer to those insights which are the result of direct revelation from some god or spirit, to differentiate them from more mundane insights or outright inventions.

Secondly, I am not a fan of the way that certain individuals use the term “polytheist” with such an emphasis specifically those people who are superstitious (to use the term in the Roman sense*) when it comes to religion. They are the god-spouses, the ones who hear the gods and land-spirits talking to them on a daily basis, and (most relevant) the ones who in the last couple of years have indulged in a campaign of claimed persecution, believing themselves to be somehow sidelined or ostracized by the greater Pagan and Heathen communities. As such, they have begun to set up parallel institutions, such as the Polytheist.com website, sponsor conferences, and so forth.

Those are good and worthy things, but personally, I think their claims of persecution (to the point where they characterize their movement as a “human rights” campaign) are vastly overblown, and I resist their increasingly exclusive claim on the term “polytheist”; they are at least paying lip-service to the idea that there are polytheists who aren’t god-touched, which is a good thing. But a polytheist is anyone who believes in multiple gods, period, whether they be constantly chattering in one’s ear or relatively removed from one’s daily life. Again, this is one reason I like the word mystic, or mysticism, in this context; it serves to differentiate the one from the other, which I think is the ultimate goal. (Modern Icelandic dulhyggja is a great word, by the way; the literal translation could be “secret understanding”.)

Next up: I will address the actual issues brought up in those posts; specifically, whether the mystical/magical and scholarly aspects of Asatru (etc.) are necessarily in conflict. I just wanted to get these framing issues out of the way, so any discussion around them might not distract from the main point.

Read part two here.

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* The Romans applied the term superstitio to all those who took religion too seriously, to the point where it would interfere with making practical decisions in daily life. As the Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd Ed.) puts it: “Superstition meant a free citizen’s forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants. The civic ideal of piety (see PIETAS) envisioned above all honoring the gods while preserving one’s freedom – that is, with restraint and measure. Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies, and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans.”

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