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Archive for the ‘Ásatrú’ Category

In a previous post I wrote about the origin, meaning, and development of “god” from it’s Indo-European roots and how our ancestors used the word prior to the coming of the White Christ. The way in which educated Christians of the Medieval period discussed “classical” pagan divinities from Greece and Rome strongly influences the way we talk about our troth today. We often talk about “the gods” but are referring only to the Æsir and Vanir. Those of us who do not live in the ancient homelands of our ancestors have almost no connection what so ever with regional gods of lakes, rivers, forests, and so on that were known to our ancestors. We also seem to have a serious lacking in our understanding of the relationship we should have with the landvættir, the gods of the very land upon which our homes dwell. We seem to have almost no understanding of house gods, those beings that share the very rooms of our homes!

This is something that I am working very hard to correct in my own life. Part of it, frankly, is because I now own my own home instead of living on someone else’s property. I am now responsible for the land, the house, and the relationships with the beings that dwell there in. It is an understanding that I am just beginning to have and one that perplexes me greatly. When I was a child I was told only a few tales of the tomten, spirits of the house and farm, from Swedish folklore. What I was told wasn’t first hand knowledge or experience but Viktor Rydberg’s poem “Tomten” and Astrid Lindgren’s book The Tomten. I got to see pictures of some of Jenny Nyström’s famous paintings. I did get to see little decorations at Christmas of gnome-like beings that sat on the fireplace mantel. This was the extent of what I grew up with and it does inform some of my thoughts today.

What we see with the tomten are elements of the landvættir, as both are beneficial and protective to families and homes that treat them well and trouble-makers when they are spurned. It’s clear that the tomten are lasting memories of a larger belief, the belief of personal gods of home and land. The cultic practices of our ancestors are largely lost to us today but we do have memories passed down to us as folklore. We have the gnomes and brownies, the kobolds and nixies, the hob and the nisse, and goblins and trolls galore. They are so important to Germanic folklore that Jacob Grimm talked about them in his works. Folklorist and historian Thomas Keightley found the subject important enough to explain that the kobold of Germany is the same creature as the nisse and brownie. William Edward Hearn and George Henderson wrote about how these beings are surviving elements of ancestor worship that are derived from early animistic practices. Clearly, the gods of the land and home are not minor elements of our past but major considerations that we all too often neglect.

In modern practice, KveldulfR Gundarsson has written about the nature and relationships our ancestors had with these beings in his book Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry: Vol. I. This book includes an article he wrote regarding the day to day practices and beliefs and presents the argument that our ancestors engaged in regular and direct worship of these beings. We can see elements of this in much of the practices of our troth in Scandinavia today. It has been remarked on that the Icelanders in particular focus very strongly on the local wights and beings.

Since we now know that these personal and local gods were important enough to our ancestors to warrant the kind of honor and reverence that they received it is up to us to move forward with this knowledge and determine how we are going to reawaken this part of our troth. This is, at least to me, one of the hardest and most difficult things we can look to do for those of us not in our ancestral lands but it is not impossible. In truth, we have an advantage that we often neglect to consider. When settlers came to Iceland, they found it teaming with wild beings and they had to create new bonds of frith and troth with them. While Iceland was largely unsettled and untamed, the New World wasn’t but that should not be an impediment to our goal. It is also reasonable to believe that we have with us family gods and spirits that followed us from the Old Country to the New World. As the Æsir and Vanir went with our explorers and settlers, so too did the family gods. They didn’t abandon us just because we moved. That isn’t how our troth works. Those that remained with us through folklore and considerations after the conversion of the cross are waiting for us to take up our side of the agreement again.

So, how do we do this? How do we forge new bonds and repair old relationships? I am not a person born with sensitivity to the presence of these beings. I don’t see or hear them but I do recognize their aid when I see it. When I moved into my new home I made offerings to the landvættir that dwell here. I can’t say how they reacted, at least not at that time. Since then, I’ve made offerings to all of our gods, great and small, and this past Vetrnætr I know that this was rewarded. I had plan to ask a boon of one of the evergreens in my yard by cutting a small piece from it to use as my blessing tine. I did not have to. A perfect piece was on the hood of my car when I went to pick up the meal for that night. When all was said and done, I thanked them for their gift and returned it to them. I believe that the relationship between us is starting to be forged and that the best thing I can do for them is to recognize their place in my life, their homes on my land, and to treat them and the land with respect. There will be a place set in the house to serve as the home for the house ghosts as well. Following Swedish folklore, I offer oatmeal with butter and some fabric as the annual payment for the tomten. They are the way in which I see the house gods and it is in this fashion that I honor them. If we are to rebuild what was lost then we would do well to look to our folklore to guide us to the proper means of showing our respect and devotion.

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Like so many others, doubt is my constant companion when dealing with matters of faith and religion. I make my living working with computers, something that can be seen as the ultimate expression of science, technology, and rational thought. There is often this nagging, self-destructive feeling that my faith and religious practices are nothing more than silly superstitions from a by-gone era that is constantly in conflict with experiences that I’ve had that tell me otherwise. Even these can be “written off” as delusional episodes. Why not? We are inundated with actual nut-cases claiming to know what the Christian god wants, which is so often exactly what they want. We regularly see people exposed as frauds who abuse religion to bilk people for money or make insane predictions about the end of the world. We see the liars and cheats and can’t help but wonder if we might not have been duped by others. It’s a reasonable question and a legitimate concern. However, this is not helpful or useful.

There is an idea in our societies that doubt must be purged in order to have faith. Faith, in this case, isn’t a thoughtful thing but one of blind acceptance. It is the thing that lets others control us, take us for ignorant marks, and manipulate us for their own ends. The “faith” of people who despise doubt is not the faith of free men but the shackles of bondage and servitude that tyrants would fetter us with. They fear doubt because doubt is akin to a runic spell that breaks fetters and frees our minds. This is why we should embrace doubt.

Doubt is a powerful weapon, and a dangerous one. We know that it can leave us questioning our sanity if we don’t control it. We know it can free us from bondage but the risk is also high that this freedom will cause us to reject our troth with the gods. The job of doubt is to break down the old and the rotten but it will also tear down the hardy and needed. As a tool, doubt must be allowed to do its work but not permitted to run amok and destroy everything around it. Doubt, when controlled and made useful, is a fire in the mind by which we can shed light on things so that we can see them for what they truly are and set aflame that which must be sent on. Doubt can prevent us from “going off the deep end” because it will allow us to balance the rational and scientific with the mystical and experiential. Doubt lets us take nothing for granted and requires us to think about what we see, hear, and feel so that we can understand it properly. Doubt is what prevents us from seeing Frigg in a piece of toast. Like fire, when it is contained and controlled, it is a powerful tool for the development of our minds and our faith. Doubt is useful, so embrace it but do not let it control you.

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A very good friend of mine is a Celtic Reconstructionist, focusing on Irish tradition and folklore. We recently had a long discussion about why he refuses to join any organizations around the Atlanta area. His objections boil down to the consistent mandate for “ritual garb” like long robes and how he simply finds these things to be impediments to his experiencing his faith on a deeper emotional level. Additionally, the style of dress isn’t historically accurate. Instead, it’s very Victorian in the depiction of “druids” and bears no semblance of reality to what the people actually wore. In short, his is a modern faith rooted in the past but it is not an anachronistic faith that is trying to look the part as someone else envisions it. We both concur on the idea that our ancestors didn’t play dress up and put on clothing that predated their time, only that they put on nicer clothing than the everyday wear.

This is, frankly, exactly how I see our faith. Over the last 15 years I have watched how the style of dress has changed from an expectation of pseudo-Viking clothing for blót to blue jeans and t-shirt as the preferred attire. While I’m happy to see the anachronistic elements die off, we aren’t playing Viking after all, I am also somewhat sad to see the growth of such casual dress. Dressing nicely, it doesn’t have to be fancy or even a suit or heels, was always taken as a sign of seriousness and respect. I’m not advocating for slacks, polished shoes, and a button up shirt and tie just to go to blót. I’m simply talking about dressing in a nice enough fashion as to demonstrate seriousness and respect.

There are other elements of anachronistic behavior that often puzzle me as well but I do understand their presence, just as I understand wearing special clothing. It provides us a way to ignite the mind and the senses. It lets us for a visual and emotional link to the times and places we look to when rebuilding our troth. It provides context and ethos. None of this is a bad thing, especially for those of us who don’t have a lifetime of experience from a Scandinavian or Germanic culture. What we must be careful to do, however, is not let these thematic elements become a substitute for serious devotion and we must not permit them to become interfering elements that isolate us from the realities of our world and our needs today.

There are some very good uses for anachronism that hasn’t been fully discussed yet but ties directly into personal reasons for anachronistic elements. When we do a public blot, particularly at Pagan Pride events, the costuming and paraphernalia doesn’t just add context, it is the context. While we have to be sure not to instill an inaccurate impression that this is always how we look, these “High Blót” moments can be powerful tools for getting outsiders to understand that our heritage, our cultural past, is part of who we are today. It also works as a tool to encourage people to participate in other cultural elements, like folk dances and singing of folk songs, that are part of what we are as a people that we don’t always do. The costuming provides permission as well as context and this is something we need to be aware of because it is such a powerful tool. If we are going to use anachronistic elements we need to make sure that our religion and our identity as modern people remains intact, despite the costuming. After all, the Norse of the Viking Age didn’t play “Vendel Period” when it came time to make the sacrifices.

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I have to say, somewhat disappointingly, that it is exactly what I expected it to be. An old friend and I were the only Ásatrúar / Heathens there. We had been hoping that a local group would be there but after I was on site I looked at their Facebook page and noticed that they had scheduled something else for this day. In years past, there had been other reconstructionist faiths there as well as at least one group representing Ásatrú. Those days are clearly long gone and this event really was for the Wiccan and Neo-Pagan crowd. While I was there I saw things that made me want to rush home and smash out a post about why they get no respect and why no one takes them seriously. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to rip on someone else for what they do. So, instead, I’m going to try and turn this into something a bit more constructive and see where it goes.

My friend expressed to me his frustration in trying to get Neo-Pagans to understand that what we do is unique and different from what they do. This got me to thinking about the reality of the situation. They don’t have the concept tools to follow where we are going. Some of this is their fault but some of it is ours. The very lack of any presence by anyone in our entire and rather broad spectrum of religious traditions shows just how far our communities have drifted. Yes, we find a lot of what they do annoying but the reality is that most converts come from Neo-Paganism, not somewhere else. If we find them frustrating or annoying because of their ignorance of us then that is our fault because we haven’t done ecumenical work with them. That’s right, I said a dirty word right there. Ecumenicism is necessary if we are going to teach them to respect our traditions. Yes, we do run the risk of someone snapping up something and running off with it, but that risk exists no matter what. As it stands, we scare them away by being jerks. What’s that gotten us?

We need to do a better job reaching out to the Neo-Pagan community because we will find more allies there than enemies. We also need to reach out to them and work to address the reality that we do have to deal with the issue of racism but that it does not define who we are and that racism is not what we represent. One of the things I got tired of hearing when I did work with some part of the Neo-Pagan community in the Atlanta area years ago was hearing that they thought we were all a bunch of Neo-Nazi morons because they only ever saw the scum who abuse our faith and heritage to mask their agenda of hate. We can also teach them to respect our traditions and that it would be better not to copy them because it is both insulting to us and something they don’t really understand the ramifications of. In truth, we need to work towards dialogue with the Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, even if it drives us nuts. They aren’t going to come to us so we need to go to them.

I desire a day when Pagan Pride Day lives up to the claim of representing the diversity of traditions rather than the diversity of Wicca knock-offs in Atlanta. I would actually like to see us lead an interfaith blót, maybe to FreyR for frith, at one of these events. Yes, it does require us to turn an eye to “showing off” our religion and that is something that a lot of us aren’t comfortable with. It does require that we work to break down a self-imposed restriction built from frustration and irritation. If we don’t then we run the risk of becoming truly isolated and that will work against us. There are more of them than there are of us. We need to be on good terms with them because we want them to have positive opinions of us and to send people to us that might otherwise be lost or missed.

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I’m sorry that its been so long since my last post but work has been extremely busy and hectic and I just haven’t had the time to write.

Today is Atlanta’s Pagan Pride event. I decided to go this year because I want to meet up with an old friend I haven’t seen in years. He was planning on attending to meet with folk from Atlanta Heathens, a group I don’t know but am taking the opportunity to meet as well. I will be doing a longer “after action report” later.

As you might imagine, this is mostly for the Wiccan and Neo-Pagan crowd and I expect the usual antipathy between our two communities to mean that there will only be a small contingent of Northern Folk here. In years past, I used to do a lot with the Neo-Pagan community in the Atlanta area, in hopes that those I dealt with would understand us a bit better. In the end, I think I learned far more about them than they learned about us. I’m hoping that Atlanta Heathens will prove to be able to do, as a group, what I used to try to do, only better.

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As a slight post script to my article regarding our tendancy to focus on living rather than eternity, Beowulf, that ever so famous poem, provides us with a fantastic passage about life and death.

Each of us must accept the end of life here in this world, so we must work while we can to earn fame before death.

Fame (a good reputation), honor, family worth; these are the things that ought to matter most to us instead of being obsessed with “the here-after.” Personally, I find the idea of “dying into the mound” to be very comforting. While there is a bit of metaphysical extrapolation required because of the lack of family burial sites and the fact that I favor cremation over burial, as my parents did, I believe all but the worst of us or the most glorious of us rejoin our kin in death. I look forward to feasting with them in Hel’s Hall (Snorri’s account of Hel is a rather limited one, all evidence considered) after my time on Midgard has ended. Until then, I plan to work hard and strive to live up to our ideals so that I can earn a high place among my ancestors.

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I inadvertently outted myself as an Ásatrúar to a co-worker yesterday. When he realized I wasn’t Christian he asked me point blank what I am. I have a rule, I will evade the topic if I can but if you ask me directly then I will give you an honest answer. Now, he’s a polite and decent young man of a quiet, non-preachy (at work) Christian persuasion. However, the world he lives in is pretty small and is only aware of “big name” non-Abrahamic religious beliefs like Buddhism. The idea that “pagans” of any kind are still around was mind-blowing to him.

What struck me as interesting was that he skipped right over “Do you believe in God?” and went right to “Do you believe in Heaven or Hell?” as his first question. This lead into a bit of a discussion about beliefs regarding the after-life but he seemed to have a very hard time understanding that I wasn’t concerned with this and that I was more concerned with how I live this life and how it impacts my family and, eventually, children.

This got me to thinking about a key characteristic of Ásatrú. We are a religion of life, not one of death. Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, seems to be almost completely consumed with what happens after death and almost completely ignores what is going on in life. To them, life is ultimately about getting your seat in Heaven and little else really matters. To us, what happens in death isn’t all that important. In truth, we don’t even have a single belief and the lore shows us many beliefs our ancestors held. What matters to us isn’t death, but life.

I’ve mentioned the idea of “we are our deeds” before and I really do think that this is one of the single best summations of our religious and philosophical character. Our primary responsibility on Midgard is to care and provide for our families and clans. It is to them that our first obligation exists. In our modern world we can extend this to national obligation, and if we are feeling particularly generous, we can place the “good of the species and all mankind” as an even larger concentric circle of obligation. The key thing here is that urd and orlog is determined by our actions (among other things, but let’s not be picky) and if we act in harmful ways, our families suffer for it. This means we are bound by honor and duty to behave in a responsible and beneficial way.

What struck me as odd, and even uncomfortable, about this part of the conversation was the difficulty that he had understanding that family is first and foremost in our lives (at least for those of us who have family) and sits at the very foundation of our identity and customs. It informs us of who we are and is easily as important as keeping troth with our Elder Kin. One of our heroes from the Conversion period, King Radbod of Frisia refused conversion because it would have separated him from his Heathen kin, a situation he found unthinkable. I find it sad that I had such a hard time explaining this to the young man I work with because he just couldn’t accept the idea that family was more important than going to his Heaven.

As a side note, I was also amazed at the contrast between his obsession with “eternity” and what happens after death. I’m an Odin’s Man. I’ve dedicated myself to a god of many things, death being one of them. I’m fascinated by customs and beliefs about death from around the world. As an Ásatrúar and as an Odin’s Man, however, I’m not nearly as obsessed with the afterlife as it seems Christians are. I find it a peculiar obsession, especially because they seem to care so little about what they do in life. I know that this is a matter of perception as much as anything, but it’s just so weird to me to be concerned about an eternal reward but give almost no concern to the world they, and their decedents live in.

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