Heathenry & Paganism

"Midwinterblót" by Carl Larsson

“Midwinterblót” by Carl Larsson

Heathenry refers to forms of Norse and Germanic pagan recon­structionism, including Asatru, the Troth, Odinism, and The­odism. Heathenry is distinct from Neo-Paganism in a number of ways. A comparison of the two may be instructive for understand­ing Neo-Paganism.

Community

According to religious studies scholar and Heathen priest, Ga­lina Krasskova, Heathenry was originally conceived, not as an individual spiritual practice, but as an expression of group iden­tity, often a racial or ethnic identity. Heathenry tends to be com­munity-centered, whereas Neo-Paganism tends to be Earth-centered or Self-centric.

Theology

According to Gillete and Lewis, in their essay, “The Pentagram and the Hammer,” Neo-Paganism is predominately pantheistic, while Heathenry is polytheistic. Neo-Pagans tend to view divin­ity as a unity behind a plurality of manifestations, a unity that is co-existent with nature or the universe, and thus pantheis­tic.

Heathens, in contrast, do not view the gods as “aspects” of a single or dual god-form. Heathens view the gods as separate and distinct individuals, much in the same way that most an­cient pagans did. The Heathen conception of distinct divinities naturally leads to a view of a world in conflict, just as conflict arises in the world of individual human beings.

Thus, where Neo-Pagans see essential unity and harmony, Heathens find essential disunity and disharmony. While there is opposition (or creative tension) within the Neo-Pagan cosmolo­gies—light and dark, masculine and feminine, summer and win­ter, Oak King and Holly King—this opposition is conceived as a complementary polarity within a balanced cycle. There is no such balance in Heathenry.

Pantheon

The veneration of a Mother Earth Goddess is not a central fea­ture of Heathenry, as it is in Neo-Paganism. The gods of Hea­thens tend to be the gods of war and civilization (the Norse Ae­sir), whereas Neo-Pagan gods tend to be gods of love and fertil­ity (resembling the Norse Vanir).

In addition, most Heathens do not worship chthonic deities like Loki and the Jotnar (giants), who are associated with the pri­mal forces of chaos. In contrast, Neo-Pagans are actively in­volved in the reclamation of chthonic deities, and have no qualm with worshiping a force of chaos, so long as it is done in balance with the worship of other forces. In fact, some Neo-Pagans would view the worship of these “shadow” elements as essen­tial to a full spiritual practice and might view the Heathen focus on the Aesir as an imbalanced focus of the powers of conscious­ness, to the detriment of the unconscious powers (represented by the Jotnar/giants).

Text versus Experience

Krasskova explains that Heathens invest their texts (called the “lore”) with a normative authority that is analogous to, and may even derive from, the Biblical literalism of conservative Christian­ity. She goes on to explain that Heathens view mystical experience with suspicion. Heathenry’s adoption and use of the phrase, “unverified personal gnosis” (UPG) reflects this, a term that would probably never arise in Neo-Pagan discussions, be­cause Neo-Pagans value personal gnosis and do not usually seek verification from tradition. For Heathens …

“Lore holds sway over personal experience. Personal gno­sis is devalued not only because it is unverifiable by the existing sources, but because it rests on experience, emo­tion, and non-rational subjectivity [all categories tradi­tionally associated with women or femininity in West­ern thought]. In espousing personal and direct experi­ence with the Gods, it also presumes an authority that clearly circumvents human mores.”

In contrast, Neo-Pagans understand that all religious texts origi­nate with someone’s personal gnosis. They, therefore, adopt a relativistic attitude toward religious texts and prioritize personal experience over tradition. Tradition is especially deemphasized when it is seen as an impediment to personal authority and di­rect experience of the divine. Neo-Pagans emphasize experience over dogma and doctrine.

Ecstatic Practice

On the boundary between Heathenry and Neo-Paganism lie forms of ecstatic spirituality, like oracular seidh, pioneered by Di­ana Paxson, and the Northern Tradition Shamanism of Raven Kaldera, which incorporates pain-based ordeals adapted from BDSM. But these practices are disfavored and even condemned by many Heathens. Krasskova explains that “the hostility to­ward devotional practices and other liminal practices may stem from a conflation of the receptivity in devotional [and ecstatic] consciousness with weakness, unmanliness, or submission,” char­acteristics that are anathema to the Heathen ideal of man­hood. Seidh in particular is considered a women’s art accord­ing to Heathen lore.

Politics

Another significant difference is that Heathens generally are more politically conservative than Neo-Pagans. As Ronald Hut­ton explains, Wicca began as an essentially politically conserva­tive movement and became a liberal movement of feminists and progressives in the 1960s. Krasskova explains that, unlike Neo-Paganism, Heathenry “grew not out of the counter-culture itself, but out of the conservative response to those social changes.” She describes it as “counter-counter cultural.” Some Heathens’ values resemble the “family values” of the Christian Right, including maintenance of traditional gender roles and aver­sion to deviation in gender identity.

The environmentalism of some European Heathens can be confusing to Americans, for whom environmentalism is associ­ated with the political Left. In much of Europe, however, environ­mentalism is not seen as inconsistent with political con­servativism.

Ethics

Neo-Pagan ethics tend to be highly situational and laissez-faire, and based on a principle of avoidance of harm to others. Hea­thens do not adhere to the concept of non-harm; rather, they em­brace conflict. The “Nine Noble Virtues of Asatru” are: Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self-Reliance, Indus­triousness, and Perseverance. Another version reads:

“Strength is better than weakness. Courage is better than cowardice. Joy is better than guilt. Honour is better than dishonor. Freedom is better than slavery. Kinship is bet­ter than alienation. Realism is better than dogma­tism. Vigor is better than lifelessness. Ancestry is better than universalism.”

While Neo-Pagans share many of these values, especially free­dom and joy, they do not emphasize others, like strength. “Honor” is suggestive of a shame culture, which Neo-Pagans reject. In addition, Neo-Pagans embrace universalism, in con­trast to Heathenry’s emphasis on kinship and ancestry.

Ethnocentrism

Both Heathenry and Neo-Paganism have their roots in the 19th century Romantic revival in Germany and England. During this time, there was a resurgence of interest in traditional culture and nationalism in Scandinavia, Britain, and Germany. Organized Germanic pagan revivalism appeared in Germany in the early 20th century.

Some forms of pagan revivalism and occultism played a role in the formative years of Nazism. Heathenry continues to be associ­ated with Nazism in the minds of many people, to the cha­grin of most Heathens. The appropriation of some pagan motifs by the Nazis had the unfortunate effect of tainting the entire Hea­then movement in the eyes of some.

Despite some similarities in motifs and values, Heathenry did not develop out of National Socialism. It was, rather, created in the 1970s. Thereafter, Heathenry developed independently of Neo-Paganism, evolving its own ritual structure and cultural discourse. Still, Heathens are plagued by the associations with Nazism. The situation is complicated by the fact that there are some within the White-supremacist subculture who consider themselves Heathen, and there are some racist groups (such as Wotanism) that consider themselves Heathen. Heathenry, with its focus on ancestry and ethnic identity lends itself to appropria­tion by such groups. According to Krasskova, there exists a tension inside Heathenry between a “religiously moti­vated majority” and a “racially motivated minority.” The intersec­tion of racism and Heathenry is beyond the scope of this book, but some believe the ethnic character of Heathenry is legiti­mate or defensible. According to Krasskova, the ethnocen­tricity of Heathenry is:

“an attempt by practitioners to give the religion the same le­gitimacy as an indigenous tradition, such as that ac­corded to Native American religions in the United States, Shinto in Japan, and Candomble in Brazil. Practition­ers see themselves as reviving a group of reli­gions that were once native, hence indigenous and by exten­sion ethnic, to Northern Europe.”

However, in light of the history of White supremacy in the West, the comparison of European religions (even pre-Christian Euro­pean religions) to indigenous religions is problematic at best.

pdated 2019

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