Monday, March 27, 2017

What exactly is heathenry?

What exactly is heathenry? This might seem to be a straightforward question, but, to be clear, our concern here is not to delve into the particular beliefs or interpretations of pagan religions, or to criticize them, but it is rather to place the modern reemergence, or rather reconstruction, of the "old ways" of Northern European peoples into proper context, so the politicization thereof can be judged more fully. Thus, we do not want to simply define "heathenry" in a modern religious sense, but we instead want to understand the how and why of the modern religion coming into being. This has become somewhat of a necessity as certain circles of the far-right in the United States and Europe have adopted "heathenry" as a sociopolitical aim as much as it is a religion. Today, "heathen" almost certainly conjures up images of vikings, or at least fantasy versions thereof, as seen above, but most people see Norse raiders and their associated beliefs and practices as something from a remote and distant past. For some, however, the "old gods" are the key to restoring Western civilization.

Christianity is seen as an enemy of this effort and as being ultimately responsible for all of the ills of modern society, and a reborn religion centered around Odin and Thor is thought to be the future of the West. Now, it has to be said that there is no single religion known as "heathenry" as there is no single "holy book" or "Heathen Church," which means "you must ... find your own way" and "figure out the answer [to moral questions] for yourself," but, generally, heathenry includes "religious beliefs and activities" as well as "cultural elements and values," all in opposition to Christianity's perceived "foreign cultural values" (Source). Interestingly, one of the main complaints leveled at Christianity is its universalism (anyone can join), but both conservative and liberal heathens make arguments for heathenry being open to more than just Germanic peoples, albeit the former limit it to Europeans (Source, Source, Source). Another fascinating claim against Christianity is that traditional forms owe "more to paganism than any kind of authentic Christian belief" whereas Protestants are held up as "Bible-believing Christians... [the] true believers" (Source).

This effort by heathens to define what is or is not "authentically Christian" is of particular interest since modern "heathenry" has been literally and irrevocably defined by Christians. Indeed, the word itself is derived from Old English hæþen, which had the connotation of "foreigner" when it was applied to Danish raiders by Anglo-Saxon Christians in the 9th century. Now, it is true that Old Norse "heiðinn" is attested, but it does not appear until the late 10th century and almost certainly derived from hæþen (Source). Thus, "heathen" does not refer to any particular belief system, and, in this sense, it is little different from "pagan" or "infidel," both derived from Latin and eventually coming to mean "non-Christian." Despite this reality, some take pride in the label of "heathen" as they assume it more specifically references their recreated Germanic paganism, and some go so far as to take insult if they are referred to as "pagan" rather than "heathen" (Source). In effect, the "heathens" are not labeling themselves based on their own beliefs or culture, but they have rather adopted a label defined as being in opposition to Christianity. They are "foreigners" in Christendom, raiders on our shores come to dechristianize the West, and they want you to know it.

The choice of label would be interesting in and of itself, but the hostility inherent to the use of "heathen" is of particular importance considering the basis for modern "heathenry": namely, Christian writers. Indeed, the primary sources regarding Germanic pagans are from Christian monks detailing attacks and Icelandic Christians recording "sagas" long after paganism was gone (Source). This is not particularly surprising considering that the Norse population left behind very little in the form of written records with those known revealing little (Source), but this also introduces a whole host of problems as the sagas are known to contain errors in terms of genealogy and chronology (Source). In other words, Christian writers attempting to record what they viewed as poetry were not necessarily the most reliable sources of information, and that was certainly true when much of what they were recording was likely passed down orally over the centuries.

For example, the Prose Edda and Heimskringla were written by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic historian and poet, in the early 13th century, or about 200 or so years after Iceland had been Christianized. The various "Sagas of Icelanders" were written around the same time (Source), and, perhaps the most important source, the Codex Regius, has been dated to the late 13th century (Source). Each of these sources has the same problem in that we simply cannot know exactly how accurate they are in their depiction of events or myths. Again, this is because the Norse of the "Saga Age" did not leave much in the way of primary sources, and it is not always clear upon which sources the later Christian writers were drawing. This is not some trivial concern since the Christian writers presented a whole pantheon of pagan gods and goddesses, a host of tales surrounding them and their deeds, and so on, but, as already mentioned, the sagas can actually be quite inaccurate in terms of real world concerns (genealogy, chronology, topography, &c.). Whether inaccuracies were due to the separation of time or to a lack of diligence on the part of the writers cannot be known, but why would we assume Christians would show more care for the pagan deities than other details?

Consider the fact that we know far less about Anglo-Saxon paganism than Norse paganism. Now, they were certainly related as the Anglo-Saxons believed in Wōden (Old Norse Óðinn), Thunor (Thórr), Tīw (Týr), and Frige (Frigg), which can be seen in the names for the days of the week—Tiwesdæg, Wōdnesdæg, Thūnresdæg, and Frigedæg. Noticeably absent, however, is the majority of the Norse pantheon as found in the Icelandic sources. Additionally, the Anglo-Saxons are believed to have also worshiped Seaxnēat, Gēat, Eorðe, Ēastre, Helið, and Hrêða. What then are we to make of this? Did the Norse have their own names for the gods and goddesses of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon? If so, does their absence from the Icelandic sagas not suggest those sources are lacking? If not, does that not mean that there was no single pantheon for all Germanic peoples? That is without even delving into the Celtic, Italic, Hellenic, or Slavic pantheons that would necessarily need to be addressed if attempting to restore European paganism across the continent.

Similarly, let's look at Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, who appears in the 12th century Gesta Danorum as well as the 13th century Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. Today, Sleipnir is taken for granted along with Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn, and wolves, Geri and Freki, but this was not always the case. For example, depictions of Odin from the late Migration and Vendel Periods in Sweden, as seen below, do show a connection to ravens, but the deity is seen riding a normal horse with no wolves present. This is important because Sleipnir is found in many of the later Christian writings, and this suggests a change in the story of Odin after the 7th century AD. Now, the tale of Sleipnir's birth is certainly not flattering as it involves the god Loki in the form of a female horse having relations with a male horse, but we know that Odin's eight-legged steed was not a Christian invention. Indeed, the Tjängvide and Ardre VIII image stones found in Gotland, Sweden, both depict Sleipnir, and they have been dated to between the 8th and 10th centuries, otherwise known as the Viking Age (Source, Source). We cannot know the precise date or place of origin for this depiction, or if Loki was always considered to be the "mother," but this again highlights that Germanic paganism was not set in stone. Are we to believe that Loki gave birth to Sleipnir during the Viking Age and that the Scandinavians were privy to that information, thus explaining the difference? Or did someone simply fabricate Sleipnir for the purposes of telling a good story? We simply do not and cannot know.

As we have seen, a "heathen" is an outsider in Christendom, a foreigner with foreign beliefs, marked out by a label given to earlier pagans by Christians. Their belief system is drawn from the writings of Christians regarding those same earlier pagans, or at least certain subsets thereof. The very identity of these modern pagans seems to revolve around opposition to Christianity even as their beliefs are only definable through the work of Christians. A similar situation would arise if Arabic people referred to themselves as "infidels" and defined themselves according to Christian writings regarding Mohamed and his followers. Or a group calling themselves "goyim" and defining their beliefs based on what Rabbis in the Middle Ages said about Jesus. In each of these cases, the one side would only exist insofar as it was defined by the other, both in terms of conflict and substance. Remove the conflict and source material, and the one loses its identity in the process. Still, that does not necessarily preclude a rise of neo-paganism since many heathens seem to long for conflict with Christianity and attempt to negate the issue of sources by saying they too have to be dechristianized.

In the end, however, there is little reason to believe that paganism of any sort will rise to some prominence in the United States or Europe. Consider the 2011 Census in the United Kingdom, which showed only 0.14% of the population was classified as one sort of pagan or another (Source). Compare this to US Census data from 2008 that showed only 0.22% of the population similarly identified (Source). Even in Iceland, home of so much of the source material, neo-pagans only account for 0.7% of the population, and it is worth mentioning that their own high priest has said, "I don’t believe anyone believes in [Odin]. We see the stories as poetic metaphors" (Source). The Icelandic heathens have also embraced homosexual marriages (Source). What then is the point of a religion where a national high priest denounces belief in his own gods while practicing the same progressive religion as secularists? What percentage of the already minuscule minority of the population are actual believers in their claimed faith and are true supporters of traditionalism?

Where exactly is the Great Heathen Army going to come from that is supposedly going to sweep away Christendom, deport all non-whites from the West, and erect a statue of Odin in St. Peter's Square?


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