Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Outreach

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.

No local events? There’s a solution for that…

The other day, a couple people on Facebook commented on an upcoming event I’ve got posted there, wishing there were more events in their area. This was my reply (a little bit expanded); I hope you find it useful.

If you want to see events near you, the answer is to set up an event near you and see who says they can come. Don’t wait for someone else to set it up.

It could be a nature hike, or a pub moot (getting together for dinner and drinks), or a book club, or a meet-and-greet, or visiting some local museum with Viking or Scandinavian or German themed exhibits, or a full-blown blót, or coffee at the local Starbucks, or a viewing party for the premier of Vikings on History Channel, or a movie night at your house, or anything else.

But the onus is on you to make it happen. Come up with an idea you think is fun, interesting, or relevant. See who’s in your area who can come. Worst thing that happens is nobody can make it.

And if nobody shows up the first time? Keep doing it. You never know when someone is going to stumble on your event who’s twenty minutes away from you. Keep at it. None of our kindreds or tribes were built overnight. We all kept at it, over years. Don’t be afraid to try, and don’t get discouraged right out of the gate.

AHHHH! Demon cat!

Put your event up on Facebook, but don’t just rely on Facebook! Ask your local AFA folkbuilder to get you in touch directly with other Afar (I love that term for AFA members). Put up notices in your local Pagan bookstore. Put up something on Witchvox.com (it’s old, but active, and people still go there). Join a local pagan or heathen group on Meetup.com, or start your own. If there’s something more locally relevant, post something there. Hel, I put up fliers in local grocery stores and laundromats.

And don’t be afraid of the personal touch. I make it a point to ask everyone I see wearing a Thor’s hammer if they’re Asatru or not. One of our newly regular faces was someone I happened to meet in the parking lot of the local supermarket. I gave him one of our flyers, and now he’s a regular. (That’s another thing; always have a card, or a flyer, or something handy. I keep a stack of them in my car at all times, for exactly this sort of case.)

And if I can offer any advice, or help, or anything else, just ask. Or better yet, ask your local AFA folkbuilders. That’s what they’re there for. I’m just a guy with a tribe in New Jersey.

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.

The Mainstreaming of Asatru

I think it’s quite possible for Asatru to break through into the mainstream of American society. There’s a difference between being mainstream and being a majority, of course; Jews only make up around 2% of the American population, but they’re certainly part of the mainstream of society. That’s a good thing, in my mind.

*Not* the head of the local
Chamber of Commerce

It should come as no surprise that neo-paganism (which I’m going to use very loosely here to include things such as Wicca, Druidry, eclectic paganism, and the like) are considered by most, both within and without, to be part of the “counterculture”. The neo-pagan community seems to revel in its “outsider” status, and often goes out of its way to rub the mainstream’s nose in the fact that they’re different. It should come as no surprise when society looks askance at them.

One consequence of the deliberate cultivation of a countercultural ethos within neo-paganism is a marked (and often lamented) inability of the neo-pagans to get organized. Sure, there are some national organizations such as the Covenant of the Goddess, but their influence within the broader neo-pagan world is somewhat limited. The neo-pagans are thus caught in a self-perpetuating cycle; they attract those who are rebellious and resistant to authority, and thus find it difficult to organize on anything other than a local (and often ephemeral, due to interpersonal conflicts, aka “witch wars”) level, and tend to alienate the sort of people who would be good at such organization.

Some Asatruar wear ritual garb…

This inclination also has ideological and theological implications. There is a strong current today of villainizing wealth and success, and glorifying poverty, which in turn tends to put off the relatively wealthy and successful, and leads to fewer available resources.

The inclination towards individuality also leads to a propensity towards eclecticism (often derided as “salad bar religion”) which can put off those with strong ties to a particular culture or historical faith.

Asatru is, I think, uniquely positioned to escape the “counterculture trap” that neo-paganism finds itself in.

On a theological level, Asatru is much less eclectic than neo-paganism. While there are bands of variation on various issues such as the importance of ancestry, the role of Loki, and modernity vs. reconstruction, these are questions within a relatively well-established set of boundaries determined by history and the extant literature that has come down to us. This allows a certain level of consistency and conformity (no, that’s not a bad word), but still allows for a variety of opinions within its established boundaries.

That appeals to those who are looking for consistency and guidance, and not a “whatever makes you happy” philosophy.

…some wear ties…

On a social level, Asatru is noted for its family-friendly attitude. True, there are groups made up primarily of young men in their 20’s and early 30’s who are more aggressive and tend towards individualism, but as they age and “settle down” with girlfriends and eventually wives and children, they themselves most often transform into the family-friendly groups that predominate.

That appeals to those who are more inclined towards a family environment, rather than those looking to rebel against the normative social model for the sake of doing so.

On an organizational level, although there are numerous unaffiliated kindreds and associations across the country operating on a local level, there are two or three large national groups that, for all intents and purposes, dominate the organizational landscape and to some extent drive the conversation among the Asatruar in this country. In Europe, many countries will have but one or two such groups. “Lone wolf” Asatruar are relatively rare (compared to “solitary Wiccans”) and are usually alone not by choice but because they do not know of any other Asatruar in their area. Asatru is fairly well organized, both on a local and national level.

That appeals to those who are looking for stability and who work well in groups, rather than those who are more individualistic in outlook.

…others wear polo shirts

Those three elements, I think, set up Asatru to move from the edges of society into the mainstream. I think this is a good thing in and of itself, as it will allow Asatru to grow as it becomes more accepted as a valid (and even preferable) alternative to the monotheistic religions that currently dominate the landscape. And, I would argue, as Asatru grows as a whole, all Asatruar benefit, even those who don’t share every particular ideological point.

Asatru need not change in order to accomplish this. We can do this by emphasizing those elements which are already more “mainstream-friendly”; our love of family, our non-eclectic-but-not-dogmatic theology, and our willingness to play well with others in groups. Our culture, which emphasizes honesty, honor, and self-reliance  can be used to demonstrate that one doesn’t need to be a Protestant to have a good work ethic. No changes, no chicanery; just let everyone around us know that we really are, and live up to our own ideals, and we will prosper as a whole.

What do we have to offer?

Say what you will about Christianity, but the Christians have a compelling narrative, which works on both fear and guilt. They then position themselves as the only outlet for assuaging that fear and that guilt that they themselves created. For two millennia, this has been a potent combination that has enabled them to gradually displace native faiths across the planet.

Fear, in the sense that they claim that their Jehovah has the power to condemn the souls of every human to everlasting torment after death, and will readily do so if one does not believe in Jesus:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16, KJV)

Guilt, in the sense that they claim that their Jehovah made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of mankind, and that to do anything less than acknowledging that sacrifice and acting upon it would be the height of ingratitude:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, KJV)

That, in a nutshell, is Christianity’s “elevator pitch”. Believe in Jesus or be damned, and an ingrate to boot.

Back in the days before the coming of the White Christ, Heathens didn’t need to counter these sorts of arguments. There was no real competition from rapacious foreign religions seeking converts. The Danes and Swedes had their gods, the Romans and Greeks had their gods, and there was little attempt to force one’s own gods on others. Indeed, the reverse was true in some cases; the Pagan Romans actually had a formal ritual (evocatio) designed to invite the gods of an enemy city into Rome, thus depriving the enemy of the protection of their gods, making them easier to conquer.

Naturally, not being a Christian myself, I don’t buy into the Christian narrative. I don’t believe their Jehovah has the powers ascribed to him, and I certainly don’t feel any guilt about the death of Jesus (I’m not even convinced there was a historical Jesus, but that’s another story). And, I happen to think that we Heathens have something just as compelling to offer – kith and kin.

Heathens, particularly those of a tribalist bent, offer the promise of community to the Folk. Not just the community of a wide number of acquaintances that meet in a church once or twice a week to convince themselves that they shouldn’t feel afraid or guilty. Ours is a community in the sense of an extended family, quite literally. Odin and Heimdall are not just our gods, they are our ancestors. Members of a tribe or a kindred have a bond that is closer than any in a church or temple; they are literally becoming members of the same extended family, and can be relied on to come to each other’s aid without hesitation. Where the answer to a problem is not “I’ll pray for you”, but “what can I do to help?”

This is one reason the Germanic gift-cycle is so important – by the act of giving and giving back, repeated over and over, we strengthen those bonds which bring us together.

Therein lies one of the chief differences between the community experience of an Asatru kindred, as opposed to a Christian church. We don’t have any ulterior motives for forming our communities. We just want to welcome people home and enjoy their company for who they are. Our communities are truly extended families, with all that goes with that, not just associations of like-minded people.

The communities formed by Heathens are, in many ways, a balm for those in our modern society who feel alienated and alone. Modern society tends to pull us apart from one another, whether by work, by replacing face to face interactions with email and television, substituting wolfing down fast food with sharing a long meal with close friends and family, or pulling up roots and moving away from family for the sake of school or career.

The loss of “home” in our modern, atomized society is keenly felt, even if only on a subconscious level. By emphasizing that a return to the religion of one’s ancestors is, in fact, a return home, and that a kindred or tribe is, in no uncertain terms, a family, we can present the case for Asatru. A case made without guilt and without fear. A positive case, made of hope and belonging.

Young was I once, I walked alone, 
and bewildered seemed in the way; 
then I found me another and rich I thought me, 
for man is the joy of man. (Hávamál 47)

You are Surrounded by Heathens

Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried, proprietor of the Norse Mythology Blog, has published the full results of his 2013 Heathen Census, along with some analysis. I thought I might take a few minutes to examine some of the results, and crunch some numbers (recalling my days as an election pollster).

First, it should be pointed out that the census only asked one question of the Heathens who responded; their country of residence. It is thus a straight-out count, rather than what we in the United States think of the Census, which collates a lot of extra data on income, education, etc. It would be very interesting to see the results if Dr. Seigfried included some demographic questions in the next iteration of the census.

I’m going to focus on the United States, since that’s where I live. The census yields the following information:

  • The United States had 7878 respondents, or 47% of the total respondents
  • That represents 0.0025% of the total population of the US

However, Dr. Seigfried then introduces an interesting corrective measure, based on the data from Iceland. Since Iceland (uniquely) has an exact official record of just how many Heathens are in the country, he discovered that the census under-reported the number of Heathens in that country by a factor of 2.173. So, multiply the census results by that number to get the corrected numbers.

That methodology, while ingenious, does have a few drawbacks. First and foremost, it assumes that Iceland is representative of the Heathen community worldwide. I personally think it might be a little over-represented. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it’s a valid corrective factor. That gives us:

  • The United States has 17,119 Heathens
  • That represents 0.0054% of the total population of the US
Let’s stretch the demographic possibilities even further. If roughly one person out of every 18,000, or 54 people out of every million, are Heathen, there should be (roughly) 450 Heathens in New York City alone. That’s the equivalent of almost the entire membership of the Troth, an international organization, in one city! The largest Heathen gatherings don’t even come close to that number.

Here’s the breakdown by state (based purely on population):

 California 2,070
 Texas 1,428
 New York 1,061
 Florida 1,056
 Illinois 696
 Pennsylvania 690
 Ohio 625
 Georgia 540
 Michigan 534
 North Carolina 532
 New Jersey 481
 Virginia 446
 Washington 376
 Massachusetts 361
 Arizona 358
 Indiana 355
 Tennessee 351
 Missouri 326
 Maryland 320
 Wisconsin 310
 Minnesota 293
 Colorado 284
 Alabama 261
 South Carolina 258
 Louisiana 250
 Kentucky 237
 Oregon 212
 Oklahoma 208
 Puerto Rico 195
 Connecticut 194
 Iowa 167
 Mississippi 162
 Arkansas 160
 Utah 157
 Kansas 156
 Nevada 151
 New Mexico 113
 Nebraska 101
 West Virginia 100
 Idaho 87
 Hawaii 76
 Maine 72
 New Hampshire 71
 Rhode Island 57
 Montana 55
 Delaware 50
 South Dakota 46
 Alaska 40
 North Dakota 39
 District of Columbia 35
 Vermont 34
 Wyoming 31
Roll those numbers around in your mind for a minute. If you’re a “solitary”, and are convinced that there just aren’t any Heathens around you, look again. Unless you’re in Wyoming or North Dakota (in which case the odds are that there isn’t anyone around you, period), you are surrounded by Heathens
To put this in perspective, in the area immediately surrounding my house (within a 30 minute drive), in rural northwestern New Jersey, there should be nearly fifty Heathens. I personally know of 7, including my family. There should be more than 400 more in my state.
Tell me again why there’s not a kindred in your area? 
It’s not because there aren’t any Heathens. There are! It’s because we’re not connected. We’re not aware of each other, even though we might pass each other in the grocery store every week and never realize it. 
Hel, if we could get all 480 Heathens in New Jersey to each chip in $10 a month, we’d have enough money to buy land in less than a year. In two there’d be a hof. And in three… You get the idea. The Heathens in NYC, Los Angeles, and Chicago could each rent terrific spaces full-time tomorrow if they would all get together and DO it. California? I get angry when I think of the opportunities that are being wasted by two thousand Heathens all going off on their own, squandering the gifts of fellowship and potential that are right there all around them. 
Get together! Now! You are not alone. Go out and find those other Heathens. Look in the obvious places. Online – Witchvox, the big Heathen message boards, Facebook pages, G+ communities, and Meetup.com. Offline – put up flyers in pagan bookstores, Scandinavian gift shops and fairs. But beat the bushes in the less-than-obvious places too. Try putting up a flyer in your supermarket, local library, Starbucks, or wherever people congregate. Start up a Scandinavian mythology discussion group. Do you have a chapter of the Vasa Order of America nearby? Join it!

And for goodness’ sake, wear your hammer, or valknut, where folks can see it. And don’t be afraid to ask someone you see wearing one, if they’re Heathen. Swap contact info. Don’t let the moment pass by.

Find those Heathens around you. Get together. Blot to the Gods. Study together. Grow together. Form a kindred. Form a tribe. We’re out there. All we need to do is find each other.

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