Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Paganism Page 1 of 6

Pagan Pedophilia Update

Kenny Klein

We have some updates on Paganism’s Pedophilia Problem.

The diddlin’ fiddler from N’awlins, Pagan community favorite, Wiccan priest, and convicted child pornographer Kenny Klein, was sentenced last week to twenty years. The judge noted, “that you are a renowned artist, teacher and leader — a high priest in the Wiccan community.”

And how did that community respond when the sentencing was in the offing?

Criminal District Judge Byron C. Williams imposed the sentence after first denying Klein’s motion for a new trial. The judge said he had never before received so many letters both in support of and opposed to leniency for a defendant before a sentencing decision.

“Your partner talks about your kindness and others say you don’t pose a threat to society,” Williams said. “But just as many have negative things to say about you, calling you an objectionable human being, and a lot of people contend you are a monster.

It seems that just about half of the Wiccan and neopagan community wanted leniency for this piece of human debris, even after he was convicted of twenty counts of either producing or possessing with intent to distribute, child pornography.

But that’s not all…

In response to the plea deal of Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF) Deputy Regional Druid for North Carolina and organizer of ADF Raven’s Hollow Protogrove, Scott Holbrook, who recently plead no contest to multiple counts of “distributing obscenities” (also involving children, apparently), the ADF issued the following carefully worded statement regarding his status within the ADF:

After careful consideration of the information available and with regard to our current policy concerning Convicted and Registered Sex Offenders, the ADF Mother Grove has unanimously voted to indefinitely ban Scott Holbrook from holding any position of responsibility in ADF locally or nationally.

So one of the largest and most prestigious neopagan organizations in the country lays it out on the line. If you’re guilty of distributing nude photos of children, you’re still welcome at events. You just can’t run them.

First half of the neopagan community rises up for leniency for one of their leaders who is a convicted child pornographer, and then a leading neopagan organization says that one of its leaders who is guilty of distributing nude photos of children.

Scott Holbrook
Neopagans, you have a long way to go before you can dare stand in judgement against the Asatru community for whatever faults you perceive within our ranks. You need to shut the fuck up and deal with the half of your own population who thinks child pornography is a crime that deserves leniency. Even — especially — when it’s one of your own leaders, and that person is well-known within the community for, shall we say, his indiscretions in that direction. And then you need to deal with your most prominent organizations, who are willing to tolerate the presence of people who distribute naked pictures of children, and issue clever statements banning them from “leadership” but not from being events. 

Events where kids are also welcome, it seems.

Gods save me from “Norse Shamanism”

Verily, there is a blight upon the landscape within Heathenry. Not only is it seen where such an absurdity might be expected — among the Norse Neopagans — and of course where such nonsense flourishes — the neopagan, wiccan, and other fluffy communities — but (so tells me a little bird who witnessed a workshop, complete with PowerPoint presentation, on this very theme not too long ago) within the heart of what I might otherwise call “real” Asatru itself.

That blight is called Norse Shamanism, often masquerading as the historical Norse practice of seiðr.

It’s worth beginning with the most egregious culprit, The Norse Shaman by Evelyn C. Rystdyk. Although she does, in an Author’s Note at the very beginning, say “This book is not connected with the neo-pagan religion of Asatru [sic], nor is it an attempt at accurately re-creating Viking Age traditions,” that is precisely what goes on in the pages of the book, where we see what would otherwise be an hilarious mish-mash of Harner-style shamanism (itself torn apart most satisfyingly by Yngona Desmond), New Age interpretations of quantumn physics (including the perennially abused concept of “quantum entanglement” being used to explain how people are connected to nature!), and most importantly, an attempt to cram Norse mythology into a Shamanic framework.

Indeed, that’s the heart of the problem, and it’s not at all unique to Ms. Rysdyk’s book. It is, indeed, endemic throughout Asatru and neo-paganism (which are two very different things, as I’ve noted time and again). Without actually delving into the surviving lore on historical seiðr — except for possibly reading chapter 4 of Eiríks saga rauða — people see the phrase “Norse Shaman,” and start plugging in Norse and other Germanic concepts and names into authentic Siberian shamanic practices or neo-shamanic neopagan/new age practices, and voila! They think they have recreated seiðr.

And why not? Isn’t that what seiðr is? Shamanism as it was done in Scandinavia?

Therein lies the issue, and this is why we see a sort of seiðr in contemporary Asatru that looks less and less like the magic described in the sagas and other sources. These differences are laid out plainly in Clive Tolley’s encyclopedic two-volume study, Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic (all quotes come from that work unless otherwise noted):

The functional correspondence between seiðr and shamanism is minimal; several roles typical of the shaman are scarcely or not at all associated with the seiðkona, and both the divinatory and efficatory roles of seiðr are more pronounced than in shamanism. … The effecatory aspects of seiðr are, in any case, subordinate to the divinatory — the practice’s main purpose, as it is presented in surviving sources, is to uncover the future or gain knowledge of facts that could not otherwise be determined. (vol. 1, p. 142)

In other words, shamanism is more focused on healing (particularly, but not exclusively, healing of the soul), while seiðr is more focused on divination.

Trees are important in both Norse and Siberian mythology, but that’s not evidence of some sort of shamanic equivalence:

Despite the points of similarity, which can be illuminating for the interpretation of the Norse texts, there is ultimately little about the Norse tree that can be described as fundamentally specific to shamanic practice or belief (vol. 1, p. 368)

Some people see in the Norse god Heimdallr a shamanic figure, but there’s a key component missing that takes all the wind out of those sails:

Yet without a ritual engagement by practitioners, the shamanic aspect of the god [Heimdallr] remains unfulfilled (if we accept that shamanism is something that is performed, not merely a system of spiitual notions). If any such engagement once existed, it has left no trace. (vol. 1, p. 405)

Óðinn is, indeed, a figure associated with magic, and seiðr in particular, and many people see parallels in certain Óðinnic myths and shamanic initiation. However, when one looks closely at the myths themselves, as Tolley does exhaustively, what seemed promising on the surface turned out to be illusory:

The four myths of Óðinn undergoing suffering to gain supernatural knowledge show a superficial resemblance to shamanic rites of initiation. However, closer examination has revealed that, while certain details are indeed comparable, over all the Norse myths lack many of the typical elements of shamanic initiation. (vol. 1, p. 462)

And as for rituals, once again, there’s no “there” there when one looks for commonality in the sources, both Norse and Siberian.

Old Norse records afford us no account which matches the detail found in the examples of shamanic kamlania discussed at the beginning of the chapter; we therefore lack the wherewithal to make anything but tentative assertions about the shamanic nature of Norse practices or traditions. An investigation into some of the key Norse texts which have been used as evidence of a shamanic element in Norse religious practice has revealed that they are of spurious value. … It would appear that the seiðkona would enter a trance, almost certainly of a light sort, during which she no doubt obtained information from the spirits, but no Norse account points to the sort of vivid interaction between magician and spirits that the shamanic kamlania indicate. There is no evidence for the sending out of the free soul during the practice of seiðr, although the notion of the soul wandering in animal form existed. (vol. 1, pp, 516-517)

That last sentence is also key to debunking a favorite practice of modern “Norse Shamans” (particularly Hrafnar out in California); guided meditations and trance-journeying to other worlds. While this is absolutely something that is seen in classical shamanic practice, there really isn’t any equivalent for humans “walking the worlds” while in trance. Going forth (in animal guise) in this world, certainly. But touring Ásgarðr, or Jǫtunheimr? Nope. (And ditto for evidence of possession or “horsing”!)

Descriptions of the vǫlur’s attire have been shown to be unreliable as witnesses to pagan customs. The dress in Eiríks saga rauða has its purpose within the saga (as discussed also in the previous chapter), but in terms of shamanic parallels it is unconvincing; in particular, it lacks the functional and integrated symbolism of the magical practitioner’s costume. (vol. 1., p. 549)

This is one of my favorites, and one I had no idea of until I read Tolley’s book. It turns out that the vǫlur’s clothing described in that famous account (the blue robe, catskin gloves, etc.) is nothing more than an inversion of a contemporary Christian bishop’s attire, used to make a point about their relative positions in society, not a reliable account.

The norse vǫlva seems characteristically to have operated from a raised dais or equivalent; this has only the vaguest parallel within shamanism. Its primary function must be to imply wider vision, so the seeress is pictured as seeing over the worlds, rather than travelling through them, or under them, as the shaman characteristically does. (vol. 1., p. 550)

Again, the key point here is that traveling through other worlds is common in shamanism, but it’s not seen in seiðr. 

My investigation has, over all, found little grounds for proposing the presence of shamanism in pre-Christian or later Scandinavia, if by that is meant the classic form of shamanism typical of much of Siberia. The evidence does, however, support the likelihood of some ritual and belief of a broadly (but not classically) shamanic nature as existing and being remembered in tradition. (vol. 1, p. 581)

And that’s the point in a nutshell, with the added commentary that just because the Norse practice of seiðr is not connected, except superficially, to classical shamanism, that doesn’t mean the Norse didn’t have some sort of magical practices (as some try to assert, when faced with criticism of their Norse Shamanic practices; “you just don’t believe in the magic side of Asatru at all!”). It just means that those practices don’t look like classical shamanism, and by and large they don’t look like what most people who say they practice seiðr do, precisely because those practices are based on shamanism, rather than an in-depth study of what the sources do tell us about seiðr and related Norse magical arts.

Paganism’s Pedophilia Problem

Kenny Klein, the diddlin’ fiddler of
N’awlins

The neopagan “community” is overly fond of complaining that Asatru has a “racism problem.” But as recent events in the news have made starkly clear, they’re the ones who have a problem, and that problem is a thousand times worse than the (largely unfounded) complaint they make about us.

If I may be permitted to employ a Biblical quote:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

The ugly stain of pedophilia is the beam in the eye of the neopagan community, and for years they have not only studiously ignored it, but they have actively tried to cover it up and apologize and protect the perpetrators in their midst.

Hey, sound like anyone we know?

While at the same time they’ve tried to tell us in the Asatru community that we need to “do something” about what they so condescendingly told us was “the problem within Asatru.”

Well, the conviction of Kenny Klein yesterday on twenty counts of possessing child pornography might, just might, get them to start looking at that beam in their own eye.

Hel, even when they try to do something about this problem, they can’t help themselves from reflexively circling the wagons and protecting their own.

But it’s not just child pornography in Klein’s case, of course. There have been stories for years of his predation of young girls at pagan events and renfaires, and I understand that apparently it was common knowledge in those communities that “you don’t leave your daughter around Kenny.”

But lest you think this is one isolated case, I invite you to think again.

James Irvin of West Virginia was convicted in 2014 of abusing three children, claiming his magical powers could bring back their dead father if they complied. And what did the “pagan community” do? They claimed he wasn’t a “real Wiccan” (shades of “he’s not a True Christian”) and conveniently offered to help clarify any misconceptions about their community in the media.

Sounds like something CAIR would say after an Islamic terrorist attack, honestly.

And don’t forget Gavin and Yvonne Frost. Their seminal book, The Good Witch’s Bible, included in its first printing a ritual in which young initiates were “deflowered” “in the pleasant surroundings of the coven” during a ritual which was provided in the book.

The reference was removed from subsequent printings, but rumors have swirled around the Frosts for years about their putting those recommendations into practice.

And what did the Wild Hunt do when it all came to a head, and the Frosts were banned from the Florida Pagan Gathering? Nary a word of condemnation. Just carefully studied non-statements often framed as rhetorical questions. So at best the Wild Hunt is neutral on the subject of these two luminaries who endorse children being sexually initiated at rituals (although Jason was careful to repudiate the practice itself, much like the Catholic Church’s tut-tutting about child abuse itself being evil, while at the same time refusing to do anything about the abusers themselves).

And the examples go on, and on, and on, and on. Google “Wicca child abuse” and related phrases if you have a strong stomach. Hel, Pagan author Marion Zimmer Bradley’s own son accused her of abuse, and the whole thing was famously covered up for years in the fandom and neopagan circuit.

This isn’t to say that nobody in the neopagan and Wiccan community hasn’t spoken out. They have. I even linked to some of them above in this article. But the community as a whole seems willing to bury the issue, and want it to go away, in fear of bad publicity, or because they know the person and “he’s just being him” and excuse after excuse.

Well you know what? If you can’t bring your own community to categorically condemn child sexual abuse within its ranks, and insist that predators be exposed and shunned and turned over to police with a policy of zero tolerance, and stop making excuses and protecting child abusers who are popular for other things, or who are your friends, then you as a whole really need to shut the fuck up with the complaints about complaints you have about other faiths and other communities.

Fix your own house before you go around complaining about the state of someone else’s.

Is Christmas Pagan?

So over at Renew America, one Gina Miller (not the woman who sued the UK to try to prevent the Brexit being implemented, as far as I can tell) has an article up proclaiming loudly that Christmas is not pagan or ‘holiday’ (sic). Let’s take a walk through this together, shall we? (I’m quoting the whole thing below, in the interests of not wanting to have anything taken out of context. I’m sweet that way.)

Each year around this time, in Facebook posts and elsewhere, we are certain to be lectured by well-meaning Christians on the “sinfulness” of celebrating Christmas. Their arguments can be persuasive. “In the Bible, God never told us to celebrate Christmas,” they say. “Christmas has its roots in paganism,” they say. So that must mean we’re just dupes celebrating a pagan ritual when we ignorantly think we’re gratefully celebrating the birth of Jesus. Who wants to celebrate what God never told us to celebrate and which supposedly has its roots in paganism? Not me! But are those things really true?

Since Mrs. Miller doesn’t actually link to any examples of people saying this, it’s difficult to suss out whether this is actually happening. It would have been nice, and unfortunately without something specific for her to be chewing on, this has the look of a straw man. Fortunately, Google is a fine mistress, and I was able to quickly find a few examples of the question of whether or not Christmas is Pagan, from good, upstanding Christian ministries and groups; should be easy to find the sorts of Christians that Mrs. Miller is talking about, right? Let’s take a quick look:

I can’t think of anything more pleasing to Christ than the church celebrating His birthday every year. Keep in mind that the whole principle of annual festival and celebration is deeply rooted in ancient Jewish tradition. In the Old Testament, for example, there were times when God emphatically commanded the people to remember certain events with annual celebrations. 

This much we know: Before there was December 25, there was January 6. As early as the second century, Christians celebrated Jesus’ appearance at the Jordan and his baptism by John on January 6. Some time later they expanded this festival to include Christ’s appearance at birth. Christians called it Epiphany, or manifestation. So the meaning of the first Christmas was not pagan; it was a celebration of the Word manifest in flesh.

We’re not celebrating a pagan holiday because the pagan holiday was the saturnal and we’re not worshipping the god of Saturn, or whatever the content was.  We are not doing that.  If you listen to the words of the song “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,” the original was written with the Christmas tree being a type of Jesus Christ.  You look at the words and the gospel is in the words of the Christmas tree.  So this is not a Christmas tree that we’re putting in our house as an idol to some tree god, or something like that.  No, this is a tree that we are using as a cultural expression that can be invested with religious meaning for the Christian.  

Oh, hmmm… Maybe it’s not so easy after all.

Heh… I’m just having a bit of fun; I do know there are Christians out there who don’t like Christmas and condemn it as Pagan. But they’re not the majority, by a long shot. And in fairness, they’re not complaining about the holiday; they’re complaining about the trappings and customs that have been attached to it (more about that later). But finding pro-Christian stuff was a lot easier. Goodwife Miller continues.

While there is no specific instruction in the Bible to honor or celebrate the birth of Jesus each year (and no, of course we don’t know the actual date of His birth), neither is there any prohibition of it.

REALLY??? Is a committed conservative Christian actually making an argument that, “if it’s not specifically prohibited in the Bible, it’s okay to do”??? ‘Cause I’m very sure there isn’t any “thou shalt not commit abortion” or “thou shalt not have gender reassignment surgery” or “thou shalt not have sex wearing a Pikachu costume” passages in there.

The Bible says this is okey-dokey!

Interestingly, there really is a concrete Biblical prohibition on one cherished Christmas custom:

2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

But as for using the literal words of the Bible as a guide to what one is and is not allowed (or compelled) to do, I’ll leave it to Jed Bartlet to have the final word:

But I digress. Gentlewoman Miller continues…

Further, when you read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, it is clear that heaven and earth celebrated that miraculous event. Can you imagine the breathtaking awe felt by those humble shepherds at the sight of the multitude of heavenly host praising God on that powerful, wonderful occasion?

Well… no. Your Bible does say:

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So a bunch of angels appeared in the desert, and the shepherds looked around and said “WTF just happened?” but nothing about heaven and earth celebrating what happened. Again, since Mrs. Miller doesn’t provide any passages to back up her assertion, it’s hard to tell. Maybe she’s thinking of Luke 19:40 (which has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, by the way)???

I can think of nothing more worthy of annual remembrance and celebration than the birth of Christ, alongside the celebration of His resurrection from the dead (the supposed “paganism” about which we are also lectured by those same well-meaning Christians. “The root word for Easter is the name of a pagan goddess!” they say). These events are part of the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Well, the word Easter does come from the Old English word Eostre, which was, according to Bede, a Heathen goddess. So… yeah. That’s probably why different languages have different words for things, and many languages call Easter a variety of different words related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach”. English being a Germanic language and all…

But I think this is at the heart of the problem with Mrs. Miller’s article. She is confusing the complaints about customs, language, dates, and the like, with the significance of the holiday in the Christian religion. Legitimate complaints about those things don’t necessarily mean they are complaining about the Christian symbolism associated with the holiday.

I submit to you that the truth is the opposite of these assertions of paganism. The claims that the pagan rituals in which Christmas (and Easter) supposedly are based pre- date Jesus’ birth, earthly ministry, sacrifice and resurrection from the dead are wrong. Nothing “pre-dates” Jesus. He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He is outside of time, because He is before time. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing – nothing – was made. He is God. His willing sacrifice to save the world was set and planned before the dawn of time and creation of the world.

Well, that’s a nice (and conveniently self-serving) theory, but just saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.

Fortunately, we have history, and archaeology, and historiography, and all the other branches of science to tell us that yes, things did happen prior to 4 BCE, when your savior-god was supposedly born. Time being linear (even if events do move in great cyclical patterns), are you actually saying that Satan literally has the power to see the future?

Let’s see a quote stating that in your Bible. Somewhere near the back, maybe?

Dame Miller continues.

All pagan (satanic) rituals, “holidays” and celebrations throughout history are nothing more than cheap imitation knock-offs of the Real Thing. Satan has always tried to set himself in the place of Jesus, to be the object of worship. Before being cast to earth, he tried the same thing in heaven. To this end, he has created myriad false religions and rituals, from blatantly pagan to sneaky, fake “Christian.” Not only are these designed for Satan to soak up men’s worship, but also to deceive men and keep them from coming to a saving knowledge of Truth found only in the Word of God.

Except, of course, that there were religions before Christianity. Heck, there were religions before Judaism, which is the spiritual basis for Christianity. Unless she’s saying that Satan founded the Egyptian religion millennia before there even was a Jewish or Hebrew people? Or perhaps he was responsible for Neanderthals worshiping the skulls of animals, or burying their dead with horns? Because that’s religion, too, and it way predates that sorry patchwork you call a faith.

In so many different ways, since the fall of man in the Garden, the devil has deceptively imitated and mocked Christ’s ministry and message, even before they played out in time. So, no, the celebration of the birth of Christ – that we call Christmas – does not have its roots in paganism. It’s the other way around. Satan has always stolen the ideas he has from Christ’s truth, and then he twists and perverts that truth into lies and grotesque wickedness.

So… Satan can see into the future. And then arrange things so that he can create things that presage that future, but… not. Gods, this is as absurd as Satan planting fossils in the ground, or arranging photons in space so they happen to hit the Earth at exactly the right instant so as to give the illusion that the universe is more than six thousand years old. And Yahweh lets him! Her god is either a sadistic fuck who enjoys seeing the humans he supposedly loves being conned, or, well, not quite what he’s been cracked up to be.

Another point to consider is the fact that the world, currently under Satan’s lordship, despises and reviles all things of God and Christ.

But wait. Isn’t Mrs. Miller in the world, too? And of it, because she’s got a physical form (I assume; otherwise how could she hit the keys on the keyboard?) Doesn’t that make her a vassal of Satan?

Thus, we see Satan’s war on Christmas, waged by his servants the God-haters among us. If Christmas was truly based in satanic paganism, don’t you think the devil would be fine with its presence in the public square?

Oh, the “war on Christmas” canard. I was waiting for this one. How successful it has been, too. Why, the padlocking of church doors on December 24th has been a staple of our society for years. The postal service, pressed into service, routinely opens up cards throughout December, gainfully employing hordes of people with Sharpies to cross out the word “Christmas” and replace it with “Holidays”. There’s nary a mention of Christmas in print, or radio, or television.

It’s almost enough to make you wish there were churches on every corner. But those were bulldozed years ago in preparation for the final assault on Christmas.

Christianity has a collective martyr complex, but in the absence of real persecution, they seem to feel compelled to invent it. “My cashier didn’t say “Merry Christmas”! I’m just as oppressed as Christians who are killed in Somalia!”

Instead, we now see almost every major corporation aggressively scrubbing even the mention of Christmas from their businesses and advertising.

Indeed. Like A.C. Moore, Barnes & Noble, Bath and Body Works, Belk, Best Buy, Bronners, CVS Pharmacy, Dillards, Hallmark, Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, JC Penny, K-Mart, Kohl’s, Lehmans, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Menards, Neiman Marcus, Rite Aid Pharmacy, Sears, Staples, Toys R Us, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart. All of whom appear on the “nice list” published by the Liberty Counsel.

It’s irksome to see the ridiculous level this corporate purging of Christmas has reached. Having been in radio for 22 years, I’ve watched as the generic word “holiday” has slowly replaced Christmas in national radio ads. It would be silly if it weren’t so devilish:
“This holiday, give the gift your sweetheart wants!” “Make your holiday cards special!” “Find all your holiday gifts in one location!” “Do your holiday shopping with us, and save!” “We have the perfect holiday gifts at prices you’ll love!”

I know it shouldn’t come as a surprise to squaw Miller, but there are other religions out there, that are just as legitimate, and legally protected, as hers is. And most, if not all, of them have holidays clustered around the winter solstice. Not to mention the entirely secular holiday of New Year’s. And as the population of the United States (and the West in general) has slowly shifted away from Christianity to other faiths, or no faith, or a mushy “spiritual but not religious”-osity (ugh), the assumption that any given person will be Christian. Saying “Happy holidays” or advertising “holiday gifts” is simply safer for retailers who want to make the maximum number of potential customers feel welcome.

It’s not “holiday.” It’s Christmas.

…and Diwali, and Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve/Day, and Yule, and Kwanzaa, and Saturnalia, and Zartosht No-Diso, and Festivus, and Korochun, and Hogmanay, and dozens more. Christianity is not the only religion out there, and retailers would be idiots for not wanting to reach out to the 30% of Americans who aren’t Christian.

No one sends out “holiday cards.” They send out Christmas cards.

See above.

No one does their “holiday shopping.” They do their Christmas shopping. No one gives “holiday gifts.” They give Christmas gifts. 

See above. Lots of midwinter festivals have gift exchange traditions. In fact, the tradition started with Roman Saturnalia and Norse Jól.

This is yet another example of the world doing its worst to obliterate even the mention of Christ – in this case, as it appears in the word Christmas.

No, this is an example of the world being inhabited by a majority of people that aren’t Christian, and don’t want to follow your insipid sexually repressive death-cult.

The giant corporations are glad to scrub Christmas from their advertising, but boy do they love to load up on national “holiday” ads in order to separate you from your Christmas cash!

Yeahhhhh, about that…

Christmas is not pagan, and it’s not “holiday.” It is part of the greatest True Story in the history of stories. How fortunate we are that God so loved the world! Jesus, stepped down from the glory of His heavenly throne and into the form of man. He was born into the world He loved so much that He willingly offered His precious, sinless life in place of ours, and all we have to do is believe and accept His free gift salvation.

Yeah, yeah. We’ve all seen The Little Drummer Boy. Your religion’s midwinter myth has been shoved down out throats on national television for decades (how’s that for being oppressed!). Doesn’t make it true.

For those well-meaning Christians who deeply believe celebrating Christmas is wrong, an offense to God, then for them, it is wrong. Let every man be convinced in his heart. But, for those of us who view it as the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, then let us celebrate it with joy and thanks to God.

And here, I think, is the fundamental disconnect, and why frau Miller would have been much better served to pick a few concrete examples, rather than the straw man she ended up arguing against.

On one level, I actually agree with her. The celebration of the birth of their savior-god is absolutely a Christian thing, and there’s nothing wrong with Christians doing so. The date may or may not have been selected to coincide with a couple of Pagan Roman celebrations, but who cares? Christians can choose dates for their holidays like anyone else.

However, it should also be noted that modern (and historical) Christmas celebrations have accumulated enormous Pagan and Heathen customs over the years, many of which I’ve detailed (and will continue to detail) here on the blog as the Yuletide season continues. In fact, I hate to say it, but Jason Mankey has outlined the Christian and Pagan provenance of a host of modern Christmas customs and symbols, and done a very good job of it (I might quibble on the edges here and there, but it’s a good piece overall). I daresay when people write against Christians celebrating Christmas, they’re really referring to the Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Wassailing, drinking and overeating in general, commercialism in general, St. Lucia, Rudolf, Yule Logs, and on and on and on. And maybe they have a point, if one is so wrapped up in the Bible as to want to purge from one’s life anything that doesn’t come out of Leviticus.

The other problem with her analysis is the blind willful refusal to acknowledge that any other religion besides Christianity exists, let alone that all of them have holidays around this same time of year, that the United States is becoming steadily less Christian, even if she might not like that fact, and businesses want to try to sell goods to as many people as possible. It just makes sense to market to a full third of the population who don’t happen to share her faith, even if “holidays” becomes a handy shortcut to do so.

Merry Christmas!

And a glad Yule to you, too.

Why end with this? WHY THE HEL NOT???

Ishtarfest

The stage is set

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend Ishtarfest, a weekend-long ritual and sacral drama event put on by the Hands of Change Coven in New Jersey based on the Spring Mysteries Festival in Washington state put on by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Due to unfortunate timing, this meant that I wasn’t able to attend any Heathen Midsummer events that weekend (our own tribe is celebrating next Saturday), but “I went unto the land of the pagan” with a specific mission.

As regular readers will know, I’m very much interested in ritual, ritual drama, integrating dance and music into ritual, and the like. This event promised to have all that in spades, and I was there primarily to study the logistics to see how I could apply it to Germanic themes. Fortunately my hosts were fully aware of, and fine with, my ulterior motive, and I have to say I had a wonderful time.

Ummm… yeah

The event itself was based on the Sumerian myth of the descent of Ishtar into the underworld to rescue her lover, Tammuz. It featured opening and closing rituals, and a smattering of “mysteries” classes (one for men, women, and… other) which I found extraneous at best. There was also a kids’ track, and a large number of children were in attendance (good on them for that!). A couple of vendors were there, but they weren’t exactly what you’d find at a typical Asatru event of this same size (50 or so attendees; pretty impressive). Reiki, “fairy readings” (by a “certified fairyologist” no less!), “22-strand DNA activation”, and some hippy-dippy poetry and prints. A reminder that these are not my people, but they meant well.

But the heart of the thing was the presentation of the sacral drama, which was a ritual unto itself, and the participation of the audience in said drama and ritual. And this is where the event shined.

The cast assembles

The drama opened with a presentation of the actors, who symbolically assumed the identity of their deities’/heroes’ roles by the putting on of a representative headdress. When they had the headdresses on, they were embodying the deity or other character. I have to say, when they put the headdress on Ishtar, I felt a real jolt of energy. There was live music (drums, flutes, and bells), and the audience was chanting (lyrics were provided in the program, another nice touch). It was a powerful moment, and I think it would have been better, on a metaphysical level, to keep the actress in “Ishtar mode” throughout the day. As it was, she was flipping back and forth between herself and the goddess, and the energy level visibly declined during the day. Keeping her as Ishtar for the day, perhaps secluded behind the stage with attendants, would have maintained the energy.

The happy couple

The audience was interactive throughout, by design, and it really worked wonderfully. There were several chants and songs, a procession involving both the cast and audience leading up to the wedding ceremony, and the dinner on Saturday was also the wedding feast, with Ishtar and Tammuz up on the stage as the happy bridal couple. In a wonderful bit of improv, people would tap their glasses to get the couple to kiss, just like in a modern wedding, and it was an absolutely perfect moment (they complied, of course). It really added to the verisimilitude of the ritual.

The wedding of Ishtar and
Tammuz

The consummation of the marriage was well done, too. There was another chant/song as the happy couple was concealed behind gauzy curtains and bits of clothing were tossed over the top. It was played for laughs (with a song centered around “who will plow her” that one person in the audience thought was absolutely hilarious in a completely self-conscious and awkward way), but it was still a very powerful moment ritual-wise. I know it’s certainly not for everyone, but a genuine hieros gamos at this point could have been incredibly effective. Play up the difference in sexual morality between our modern post-Victorian mores, and those of our pagan ancestors 4,000 in the past. I have to say I think the chortling person in the audience didn’t quite “get” the inherent sexuality of actual pagan religion. But as I say, it’s not for everyone.

Ereshkigal, goddess of
the underworld

The descent into the underworld was done again with a lot of audience participation, with the audience along the journey as well, in terms of the narrative. There was call-and-response built into the ritual at this point, and some very clever and effective staging to simulate the journey through the various gates of the Sumerian underworld.

On the whole, this was a very enriching experience for me on a practical level. I got a real chance to see how a big ritual drama like this plays out, what worked, what didn’t, and was positively buzzing with ideas on how to apply what I’d learned in my own Germanic context, with an eye towards staging various Norse myths and the like in similar fashion. Some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Cue cards. There were several times where the actors missed their cues or lines. Having someone in front of the stage with lines would have been a big help, I think.
  • Audience participation. There was one point in the wedding ceremony where the audience was supposed to chime in with a rather lengthy response, but it never happened because none of us were sure that we should speak up, and we were never cued. Make sure the audience knows when it’s supposed to speak.
  • Live music. So wonderful, even if it’s limited in the instruments. I think there was a bell that rang every time a god did something, and which also filled in the empty spaces. Nice touch.
  • When there’s a break between scenes (for instance, for dinner or to make time for classes), that’s the time for large scenery changes.
  • Integrating the feast into the ritual worked really well, because it was actually part of the wedding narrative. I could see doing the same sort of thing, either with a feast or a blót.
The gates of Ur, at the entrance to
the event

On the whole, this was a terrific learning experience for me, and I’m really looking forward to trying to pull off something like this in a Heathen context. There are plenty of myths that would lend themselves to this sort of treatment, and many believe the Eddaic poems themselves were originally intended to be performed. Thanks again to Hands of Change for the opportunity to observe this wonderful ritual production.

__________

PHOTO CREDITS (counting from the top of this post down):

1,2,7: Taken by your humble author, copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved
3,4,5,6: Courtesy Hands of Change Coven, used with permission, copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved

We’re a different religion

Asatru really is a different religion.

That might seem like a pretty obvious statement on the face of it. Of course we’re different. We’re not Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism. But that’s not really my meaning here. I’m really talking about the neopagan tendency to want to lump everything that isn’t Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism under the “pagan umbrella“. I’ve written about this before, but a couple of things really brought it to mind again lately.

First was a comment by John Michael Greer (former Archdruid of AODA), a fellow who seems nice enough, and certainly thoughtful and intelligent, but with whom I disagree on just about everything, but he encapsulated the thing about Asatru, vis-a-vis the rest of “the neopagan community” perfectly in a comment on one of his recent posts:

As for Asatru – well, basically the thing that makes me think it’s put down deep roots is that the great majority of people who practice it are just ordinary Americans who happen to belong to a different religion. Most of the Neopagan faiths have, if I may be frank, a theatrical air to them – the kind of thing you find in most deliberately alternative subcultures, which exist in large part to display one’s disaffection with the existing order of society – and those don’t keep well, once the shock value wears off people go looking for new ways to be disaffected and edgy.

I think that perfectly states the case. Of course, there are some Asatruar out there, especially the newcomers, who are out to honk people off, but most of them eventually grow out of that phase and become just ordinary folks who happen to worship Odin and Thor rather than Jehovah of Sinai. As another commenter on that same post put it, “On Heathenry — I had not really thought of it that way, but JMGs comments about its less theatrical appeal do ring true. Ever since the Heathens first started appearing in numbers at neopagan gatherings 20 years ago, they have always been a jeans-and-T-shirt crew.”

And that’s really true. We aren’t trying to be deliberately provocative, or counter-cultural. Hel, the political and social conservatism that many Asatruar maintain should be proof enough of that.

You have $10,000 to bet. Is this a Wiccan or
an Asatruar? Think quickly!

But another blogger (to whose blog I’m not going to link, as she regularly posts a lot of ignorant drivel and apparently whenever I link to her, her hits go up exponentially, and, really, just fuck her) recently posted a thing about the definition of Heathenry, and how it really doesn’t mean anything to do with Germanic religion or Asatru, and we’re all a bunch of idjits for thinking it does (and she tosses in a line to the effect that anyone who isn’t a Christian/Muslim/Jew is a Heathen, completely ignoring the negative historical connotations of the label, which I’m sure the Hindus and Amerindians and Yoruba really appreciate).

But in doing so, she also ignores completely the reason that those who self-consciously self-identify as Heathens, as opposed to Pagans, do so.

Yeah, I know the Atheists use “heathen”
too. That’s a subject for a whole other
blog post.

According to the dictionary definition, Heathen and Pagan are pretty much synonyms. “Country dwellers” or “bumkins” or “hillbillies” or something like that, with the added meaning of being non-Christian. So why do Heathens go out of their way to call themselves Heathens, and actively eschew the “Pagan” or “Neopagan” label, do so?

Precisely because there are cultural connotations of the word “Pagan” that go beyond the dictionary definition. Perhaps the dictionary will catch up with culture eventually (as it inevitably does), but in the meantime there are popular usages that have as much validity, precisely because they are how people use the term in real conversation.

And that reason is that those of us who choose to self-identify as Heathens don’t want to be associated with those who self-identify as Pagans. And we choose the word “Heathen” exactly because it is a Germanic word (cognate to ON heiðinn), as opposed to a Latin word like Pagan (cognate to Latin paganus). By choosing to use the Germanic-derived term, we set ourselves apart. It’s a subtle thing, and certainly not a distinction that is recognized by society at large, but it is a conscious choice, and it is done for a reason, even certain bloggers are ignorant of the origin of the usage.

Sometimes popular usage gets ahead of the writers of dictionaries. No, that’s not right. Popular usage invariably gets ahead of the writers of dictionaries. The fact that new words are added, and definitions constantly updated, is the proof of that.

But to get back to the point; Asatru (and Heathenry as a whole) really is it’s own thing. We’re not just another branch of neopaganism, we’re really not just Wicca with Odin and Freyja instead of the Lord and Lady. We have our own unique political and social culture, our own unique theology, and our own unique internal disputes. The fact that we happen to have a couple of things in common with those who self-identify as Pagans (polytheism, magic, and… um… buggered if I can think of anything else).

We’re not part of your umbrella. We’re a unique religion, just like Jainism, or Mormonism, or a hundred others. We attend your events because there are some historical ties, and some commonalities (as mentioned above), but that’s not nearly enough to draw us under your umbrella.

Can’t we be friends without you trying to absorb us, and in the process, feel like you then get to tell us what we can and cannot do?

They have an Umbrella, We have a Hall

The circus sideshow that is the modern neopagan movement continues to whirl at blazing speed. There are accusations of atheist infiltration, Alt-Right infiltration, and even fundamentalist Christian infiltration. There are dire predictions of doom as the “end of the neopagan era” approaches, various neopagan factions tear each other apart with ever-growing invective, as the SJW’s become increasingly less tolerant of dissenting opinions, even to the point of accusing Dianic Wiccans of being transphobic for only wanting biological women in their rituals. Plus there’s the growing child sexual abuse problem within neopaganism, of which I believe only the tip of the iceberg has yet been sighted.

Is it any wonder we Asatruar actively resist being tagged with their “neopagan” or “pagan” labels? Why would anyone in their right mind want to get sucked into that morass of crap, ill luck, and politics?

But the follow-up question then becomes, why do I care? Why do I keep writing about it, and responding to neopagan writers?

The sad truth is that I do so because I must. In their zeal to attack one another, they sometimes splash their mud outside the scope of their precious “umbrella”, and it needs to be cleaned up by those of us outside their community. I try not to respond to their inter-community squabbles. I try to only respond when they feel compelled to attack my religion; Asatru (or Heathenry in general).

I’m quite content to let the monkeys fling their rhetorical shit at one another. When it hits me and mine, though, I’m going to take a rhetorical bat to said monkey’s head.

A lot of this stems from the stubborn insistence of some of them that, because we worship multiple gods, some of whom are also worshiped by some of them, and some of us go to the same events, that we must have more in common than we do differences. So naturally they assume we not only stand under the umbrella they thoughtfully hold out for us, but that we want to. In turn, they think that gives them the right to criticize what we, as Asatruar, do. Because in their mind, Asatru is part of the “greater neopagan community”, and thus, folks within that community have a right to criticize, and ultimately police, the goings-on within that community.

But they are oh so wrong.

Heathenry in general, and Asatru in particular, is, and always has been, its own thing. Founded across the world in the early 1970’s, a few years after modern neopaganism, we’ve developed in parallel with the neopagans. Because of the surface similarities, there’s been more than a little sharing and mutual support over the years. But where the neopagans mistook that for inclusion in a mutual community, the Asatruar couldn’t wait to let go and walk on our own. A few Asatruar continue to make the case for greater cohesion between the two, but they tend to be more inclined to disregard the core principles upon which Asatru in America was founded in the first place, and they might be better labeled as Germanic neopagans anyway. Not always, of course, but on the whole.

Seriously. Keep that thing away
from me, ya freak.

This is not a new argument between the Heathen and neopagan communities. I’ve been making the point since at least 2013, when there was a bit of a far-reaching discussion on the nature of “pagan identity” around the internet.

But the end result is that Heathenry, and Asatru in particular, is doing very well on its own, thank you very much. There are differences between groups, to be sure, and I’m not suggesting that everyone gets along in some idealistic paradise. But Asatru as a whole has matured, and grown, and pretty much maintained its cohesion over the years. We have tight-knit communities. We have international organizations that provide services that one normally associates with “mainstream” religions for their members, like making small loans for members in trouble financially. We are acquiring facilities, not because someone inherited some money, or cashed out a pension, but because our community as a whole stood up and supported the effort. We’re starting to become mainstream, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, some people are still singing the siren song of changing Asatru to be more like eclectic neopaganism. And in the process, they would destroy all of the things that makes Asatru unique. And ultimately, the failure of such a project comes down to the fact that Asatru and eclectic neopaganism are two different things. They’re not “other traditions” alongside Wicca within neopaganism.

Lucius Svartwulf Helsen says people need to just ignore the paganism of others. We Heathens have been doing that for going on forty years now, or at least trying to. Now if we can just get the neopagans to mind their own damn business, we’d all be happier.

The problem with umbrellas is that someone is always trying to grab the handle and move it, so it only covers the people they think should be covered. That’s what Rhyd and his ilk are doing most recently. And they’re able to do so precisely because eclectic neopaganism means something different to each and every eclectic neopagan. There are no guidelines, no standards, no real foundation for community whatsoever. There’s just a thousand different groups doing what feels right at the time, forming, merging, splitting, and reforming like bubbles in a boiling cauldron.

By contrast, Asatru has a hall, built on a solid foundation of a shared cultural tradition, reinforced by an ancestral connection to one another. We’ve had our ups and downs, to be sure, but the line on the chart has always been pointed towards steady growth. We have a built-in resistance to demagogues and fly-by-night pushers of ideology precisely because Asatru has a common basis; the pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic peoples of Europe. There is allowance for variation within that basis, but take away that core, and what you’re left with just isn’t Asatru any more. It’s… something else.

Neopaganism can keep their rickety umbrella, and keep it far away from us. We’re doing just fine in our hall, thank you very much, and that hall just keeps getting bigger.

Subverting Paganism

subvert

transitive verb
– to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.
– to make (something) weaker or less effective 
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

To be honest, I was done with the whole atheistic paganism thing, because at the time it seemed like nothing was left to be said. But then something new came up that’s relevant, and I think it deserves some attention and discussion.

Over at Reddit last week, John Halstead, chief voice of the “atheistic Pagans”, agreed with a commenter that atheistic paganism was “subversive”. A couple of days later at Patheos, he expanded on what exactly that subversiveness meant:

“Atheistic Paganism is subversive to the dominant paradigm which teaches us that our only choices are a supernaturalistic worldview or a despiritualized materialism, or between a literalistic theism or a desacralized universe. This paradigm pervades American culture and, disappointingly, has made its way into contemporary Paganism as well. I see it every time someone assumes that, because I am an atheist, that I don’t believe in anything larger than myself. I see it when people [say] one cannot be a Pagan without believing in magic, or gods, or other supernaturalism. There is a third option; reverence for a re-sacralized material universe.”

Now, the other week I caught a bit of flak for suggesting that Atheists could still be valued members of the Heathen and Pagan communities, even if they did not believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the supernatural. I stand by that assessment, based as it is in both history and a sense of confidence in the strength, endurance, and vitality of Heathen society in general (I’ll let the Pagans speak to the state of their own society and community).

But, and this is a vital point, that assessment rests on the assumption that the non-believers in question are not going out of their way to publicly mock and undermine belief in the Gods. That they are “going along to get along”, and enjoying the benefits of belonging to the Heathen or Pagan community, as they perceive those benefits, without abusing the hospitality of their host communities (or sub-cultures).

But when John Halstead says, publicly and seemingly proudly, that he sees atheistic Paganism as being “subversive” (although he quibbles about why that is the case), that tells me he is in no way behaving in accordance with the demands of hospitality. Guests have responsibilities, and not going out of your way to insult or subvert your hosts in their own hall is one of the larger ones.

And when Halstead says he’s being “subversive”, he’s even going beyond merely being insulting, because the very definition of “subvert” includes the connotation that the thing being subverted is going to be destroyed and harmed. He might see it as a beneficial transformation, but any fundamental transformation requires by definition the destruction of the thing being destroyed.

Halstead is fundamentally wrong when he says that “this [supernaturalistic vs. materialistic] paradigm… has made its way into contemporary Paganism”. The fundamental opposition of Paganism to the materialist world-view didn’t “make its way” into anything. It was there from the beginning, whether you place that beginning in the Medieval era, the Romantic era, Aleister Crowley in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Gerald Gardner in the 1930’s and 40’s, or the explosion of neo-Paganism in the 1960’s and 70’s. With the exception of the Medieval era, those expressions of Paganism (and Heathenry) were reactions against the lack of supernaturalism and spirituality that the “modern age” (whatever age that might have been) was imposing on society.

If we are to believe Halstead’s own words, then it is he who is trying to get his materialistic ideology to “make its way” into modern Paganism. Not content with simply enjoying the benefits of the Pagan aesthetic (“I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me.”), he must change… dare I say subvert… the dominant world-view within the Pagan community to suit his own.

I think a large part of that attitude is borne of the fact that he honestly, in his heart of hearts, can’t believe that anyone really does believe in the literal existence of the Gods, or the efficacy of magic. He really just can’t conceive that someone can really, sincerely, believe that rubbish. So to him, his is a noble mission; to just give the rest of us the push we need to knock the scales from our eyes and admit that he was right all along, and of course nobody really believed that Odin was talking to them.

So I stand by my assessment. Orthodoxy (correct thinking) is not a requirement for membership in the Pagan or Heathen communities; only orthopraxy (correct action), within the bounds of the reciprocal rules of hospitality. But when someone is deliberately, and self-admittedly, trying to subvert the dominant culture (or in this case, sub-culture), to ruin and destroy it secretly from within (as the dictionary definition of the term reveals), then that person should not be welcome within our halls.

Does this mean that societies never change? Of course not! But their change occurs naturally, within the boundaries of the fundamental ideas that define that society. Once those fundamental boundaries are erased, the society ceases to be, because its defining elements are gone.

Good guests don’t try to destroy or insult the things that their hosts hold sacred. Don’t be a bad guest.

Reviving culture vs. religion

I know it seems like I’m on a Sarenth Odinsson roll lately, but honestly it’s something of a coincidence. In this case, he wrote a (first) reply to my post on atheist pagans, pointing out an aspect of the discussion (religion vs. culture) that I myself thought of while I was writing my post, but it was getting so long that I didn’t include it. So I’m glad Sarenth caught the same thing, because it shows I was communicating my point properly:

these were intact cultures with room for non-believers, whereas, for our purposes, we are strictly reviving our religions, and the culture will follow after.  We simply have a different demographic makeup.  Americans don’t have the investment in anything like an Althing culture, Gebo is practically nonexistant as a feature of regular life here, and that is with contracts and contractual reinforcement. I think there’s room for non-believers in our culture, but there’s also a reason I don’t invite them to my Northern Tradition Working Group or Study Group.  These are polytheist religious groups. [Emphasis, and double-spaces after periods, in the original.]

What are we reviving?

Now, I can’t speak for Sarenth specifically, or anything outside my own experience of American Heathenry, but from my perspective we are indeed trying to revive more than just a religion. It would be impossible to do otherwise, because in the ancient Heathen mindset (and, indeed, in much of the Medieval and pre-modern mindsets), there really wasn’t any distinction between religious and non-religious activity. Religion permeated every aspect of life, from farming to warfare to weaving to metalworking.

And many of us in the Heathen community are trying to recreate that sort of mindset. A magical mindset where the spirits of stone and stream and tree are everywhere, where there really is a tomten in the corner, and where the birds sometimes fly in a particular direction because the Gods want to tell us something.

We are creating a subculture within the larger host culture, somewhat more isolated and self-sufficient than the norm. We do embrace the concept of the Germanic gift-cycle, and we really do embrace the Germanic ideals of honor and courage, and practice all those things and more among ourselves, even if the larger host-society does not. We can still invest in those things, and bring up our children with those ideals, even if the broader culture does not.

Note that this is not to say that we are completely isolated and off the grid (although some Heathen groups do tend more in that direction than others). I still watch television, and I’m still looking forward to the next Star Wars movie (no, seriously, I already have tickets for the premier of Episode VII), and I still have a full-time job that doesn’t involve blacksmithing. But at the same time, we can live in the broader culture and still retain those aspects of our own subculture that define us as Heathens. We’re not the only religious minority to do so, and it’s certainly not impossible.

Just because we don’t live in a Germanic “honor culture” doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace such a thing ourselves, and live by it. In a lot of ways, that’s why we’re so baffled by, and often hostile to, today’s über-Politically Correct culture, with its victim mentality, “microagressions”, and expectation that any offense is something that should be dealt with by getting someone from the outside to either prevent or punish the transgression. It’s just not how we think. It’s not our culture.

And I daresay the reason the atheists still want to count themselves among us (in hyphenated form, sometimes) is because they value that culture.

So when he says “these are polytheist religious groups”, I counter that a polytheist religious group includes culture as well by definition, and a re-creation of the ancient mindset that accompanied it, because ancient culture and religion were inseparable. And, need I say, orthopraxic.

Host culture to subculture

It is also the case that, in ancient times, there really wasn’t anywhere for an atheist to go. The only options were, operate within the host society (which at that time was overwhelmingly pagan and polytheistic) or suffer outlawry or exile (and even then, it’s not like there was some atheist colony somewhere they could go to; it was pagans everywhere you turned). In today’s society, there really are options, including simply embracing the host culture and abandoning the Heathen (or Pagan) subculture.

So in that respect, I can see how someone might object that, now that there’s an option for atheist pagans to choose, they’re not doing so. They’re sticking around in the Heathen/Pagan subcultures, and in some cases, trying to change them. I get that, and it’s the “trying to change them” aspect that I specifically disagree with. If an atheist Pagan or Heathen does remain within one of those subcultures, it must be with the implicit understanding that the subculture is as it is, and isn’t there for the atheist to turn it into something it’s not. If that’s their goal (and I think it is, at least for a small but vocal number of them), then they really should abandon ship and create something of their own, and stop trying to change what the rest of us have, and believe.

So on that point at least, I think Sarenth and I can agree.

Freedom of conscience

A week ago, I suggested that the contretemps between those who do not believe in the existence of the Gods  and those who insist upon it for membership in “the Pagan community” (whatever that means) can be resolved by understanding that Paganism (and Heathenry) is a collection of religious practices, rather than a collection of religious dogmas; the essential difference between orthopraxy and orthodoxy.

Alas, it seems that answer isn’t sufficient for some folks, who insist that proper ideology is necessary for proper practice:

My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought.  One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought.  Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning.  I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts.  In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought.  The reverse is also true.  Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship.  Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings.  In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire.  This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.

Did someone say, “orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy”?

Definitions

Now it should be noted that Sarenth and I are using different terms, and it’s entirely possible that our disagreement comes from the fact that he’s specifically talking about the “separatist Polytheist” community that has arisen in the last couple of years, and I am specifically talking about the broader “Pagan/Heathen” communities.

I realize that there are many on the deep end of polytheism (the ones who engage in god-spousery and so forth) who are consciously trying to distance themselves from the broader Pagan/Heathen community, and I get that and their reasoning. And if it’s the case that Sarenth is using “Polytheist” in that more separatist sense, then indeed he wasn’t responding to my argument, because my argument was talking about a different community than he is. But for my purposes, I’m going with the dictionary definition of polytheism:

belief in or worship of more than one god

Which leaves the room open for both those who believe in, as well as those who simply observe the outward modes of worship of, many Gods.

The origin of the split

It may be of interest that the split between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, at least in the modern Heathen community, originally stemmed from the vicious fights within Asatru between the folkish and universalist camps. At the time (the mid-late 90’s) Theodism was actively engaged with the Asatru community, and tensions were high, and the fights within Asatru threatened to spill over into Theodism and tear it apart along similar lines.

Garman Lord (the founder of Theodism) came up with a perfect solution; the concept of “freedom of conscience” as a foundational precept of Theodish Belief. That is, everyone was allowed to believe whatever they wanted to believe in terms of ideology, theology, etc., as long as they “practiced the King’s religion”. At one stroke, the wind was taken out of the sails of those (on both sides) who wanted to impose their ideological and theological choices on others.

It’s not something found in Asatru as a rule, but it’s certainly something to think about in the broader context of the current debate. Especially when we’re not talking about specific organizations (which can of course be exclusionary along any lines they wish), but broad definitional categorizations like “polytheist”, which no one person or group of people can claim to own, no matter how much they might want to exclude people who disagree with them, be it on politics, theology, or some other ideological question.

A thought experiment

That said, I submit the following thought experiment as a way to explain why an insistence on orthodoxy, that is, “right belief” is simply impossible on a practical level.

Imagine two self-identified Heathens, Einar and Eirik. Both are members of an Asatru tribe, both attend a Yule gathering. Both have many friends in the tribe, and bow their heads respectfully during the blót to Freyr while they are sprinkled with blood, both sit at high places at the sumbel, both give gifts in hall, and both make beautiful and impassioned toasts in honor of Freyr, their ancestors, and their host.

One of them believes the Gods have a real existence outside of ourselves, and one of them believes the Gods are merely mythological archetypes.

Which is which?

Unless you can answer me that question, then I submit that the answer doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t care. It’s impossible to police, as long as the non-believers take my advice from a week ago and simply go with the flow, as it were. That’s apparently what they’re interested in, supposedly.

The empathy of understanding

Which does raise a question. I did ask a while ago why atheist pagans didn’t just call themselves atheists, and insisted on remaining within the Pagan and Heathen communities. While I did get some answers (from John Halstead in particular, who started this whole conversation), I am still no closer to understanding their reasons. Heck, they’re even writing a book on the subject, and I have no idea why they call themselves Pagan.

But you know what? That’s not remotely the point! I don’t have to understand their position to understand that they might well have a reason. I’m not their judge. So when Sarenth says something like this:

Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. 

I have to hold myself back from yelling at the screen, “it doesn’t make sense to you, but it might make sense to them!

That attitude is really emblematic of a complete lack of empathy. “I can’t understand it, so there can’t possibly be anything to understand.” That’s the attitude that leads some leading separatist polythieists to call non-believers “degenerates“.

That sort of attitude does somewhat undermine Sarenth’s arguments that “adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today”. I’ve certainly never said any such thing, but I can see how, with that sort of attitude and name-calling, others might.

Tradition, not ideology

What I am saying, however, is that orthopraxy does not, in fact, stem from orthodoxy. Orthopraxy stems from tradition and custom. Just as the house-wight doesn’t care if the homeowner believes that Jesus is the son of God as long as he gets his bowl of porridge with a pat of butter every Yule-eve, so too do the Aesir not care if the people making offerings to Them honestly believe in their heart that They exist, or whether they have doubts, or whether they adopt a more intellectual understanding of Them.

And how can we tell? One of the elements of blót is the taking of auguries and omens to see whether the offering has been accepted. Not all of us have the benefit of Gods talking in our ears all the time, after all… Does your kindred or tribe or whatever harbor respectful unbeliever practitioners within its midst? If that really was something the Gods didn’t want, it would be reflected in the luck of the tribe. I’ve never heard of a systematic study being done, of course, but I would think if that did happen, the circumstantial evidence would quickly make the situation clear.

The modes of disrespect

Now, I do agree with Sarenth on one key point, when he says:

Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

That’s certainly true, and I made the very same point in my earlier post. Those who go out of their way to disrespect the Gods (whether it be in an insulting verse, like Helgi Skeggjason did, and got outlawed for) or by making public statements referring to our “sad little gods” (like John Halstead did, and apologized for, and then proceeded to start hurling insults at people, rather than the Gods, which is… better… I guess), do deserve to be shunned and ostracized.

But they should be shunned and cast out not for their beliefs, but for their actions. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people go quietly about their business as Pagans and Heathens, believing that the Gods are archetypes, yet still being productive, even honored, members of their communities, because they’re simply not assholes about it. Hel, they can even make the case, on a philosophical level, as long as it’s done with respect (and engaging in discussion about the reality of the Gods is not, in and of itself, disrespectful; if done properly, it can be a tool for getting to know Them on a deeper and more meaningful level).

But I would also point out that trying to define away people for what is in their hearts, rather than what they have done, is equally as obnoxious and harmful as getting up on a rock and shouting “the gods don’t exist, and you’re fools for believing that they do!” Deeds, not thoughts. Actions, not beliefs. Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

Einarr or Eirik? If you can’t tell the difference, then they’re both doing it right.

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