So several months ago, at Sacred Space/Between the Worlds, I was sitting with a dear friend of mine, and she commented that one of the “unfortunate” things about being a heathen in the modern context was there was a lack of beauty and magic in the Asatru rituals. I’d been meaning to try to pin her down to talk to her about it, but hadn’t had the time, and my thoughts hadn’t fully coalesced. Now they mostly have…
Then, several weeks later, I happened to encounter a good friend who was pagan, and we got onto a discussions of the terms Heathen, Asatru, etc. I’d told this friend that I distinguished the two terms by the level of strict practice they engaged in. If I defined myself as Asatru (I don’t by the way), I fit within a religious category where my beliefs were very specific, and my religious liturgy was also very traditional and specific. If I labeled myself Heathen, I have a common set of beliefs that are the same as an Asatrurar, but I also have some beliefs that they would consider inconsistent. Interestingly, another good friend of mine, who does identify as being Asatrurar disagreed, and said the two words were the same, and said it came down to a question of how Orthodox or non Orthodox your views are.
Today, when perusing Google News, My feed came up with an interesting article, Why Am I Heathen? This article focuses largely on the topic of UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) and how it is rejected outright by some of the most vocal Heathens. The author points back to another article, “Why I am Not A Heathen?” which also points out the question of UPG. The person points out a variety of other issues they have with modern heathenism, but I thought there was one the author pointed on that was interesting, and that was modern heathenism has a disregard for the spiritual.
So where am I going with this?
How we ended up with rituals that were not beautiful or magical
Fundamental philosophies of heathens
For purposes of this next section, I’m going to use the word “Heathen” to mean Asatru/Heathen/Theodish, etc, or any of the religious practices that have the common factors of worship the northern European gods, in combination with the Blot and Sumbel ritual structures. I realize that there are differences, but discussing the differences is a multi week college course in and of itself (and I’ve taught that course several times already).
I’ve always described heathenism as a religion that focuses on three core concepts:
- The Gods and Goddesses of Northern Europe
For purposes of the question of a lack of beauty and magic in heathenism, we can point to to the first item.
There’s really little question that when we look at the northern European mentality, efficiency and directness of purposes is a significant element. When you consider historically we’re talking about religious practices that occurred in a climate that was so inhospitable that having a lot of “flowery theater” in our religious practices just wasn’t possible. I’m sure it was there at times, but in general, we have environmental and climate conditions that simply don’t lend themselves to big outdoor rituals with lots of theatrics on a frequent basis.
And then there’s the issue of UPG
Secondly, we can turn to the re creationist view of many in the religion as a barrier to beauty and magic. For a not insignificant portion of heathens, if it isn’t in a document somewhere that was written several hundred years ago, they argue it shouldn’t be part of the practice. And in some respect, I can understand in part what they are looking for.
However, we have to ask ourselves, is there any religion in a modern context that has not changed throughout time? The concept of religious practices that do not change is built on a foundation that the gods do not change over time. If we accept the polytheistic heathen view, these gods do in fact change over time, and their attitudes change as well. Now the fundamentals don’t change, but they gods themselves do change with time.
If the gods do change with time, isn’t possible that our practices should as well?
Which brings us to the third concept Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG. Orthodox heathens argue that there is no place for UPG within the practice. However, you’ve got other practitioners, including the author of “Why I am not a heathen” who appear to accept and adopt UPG without evaluation.
It seems to me, that realistically, somewhere in the middle is where we can find the most benefit. We accept the fact that religions and gods change, and that the primary instrument of this change has to be through some form of UPG. However, just because someone has UPG does not mean that it should be accepted without question. We take this UPG and consider it with respect to our current practices, with respect to the lore. We intelligent ask ourselves the following questions:
- Does it make sense?
- Does it contradict previous practices, or refine them? If it contradicts them, is there a reason?
- What is the purpose in the UPG?
Lets take an excellent example of this. Originally, when sacrificial rituals were performed, livestock (many times a horse) was used, and the blood of the animal was drunk instead of the tasty tasty mead we drink today. At some point in time, someone made the decision that livestock were no longer going to be used, mead was going to used instead. Lets apply the questions:
1. Does it make sense? – First, we have to be aware that in today’s society, we don’t have access to livestock, so using them in ritual can be pretty problematic. Second, there are significant health concerns with drinking animals blood (particularly un pasteurized) that we wish to avoid,
2. Does it contradict practice or refine it? The whole purpose of the ritual was for the participants to engage in a sacrifice, and since livestock has no practical value to us in today’s society (well for most of us) livestock may not be an appropriate sacrifice. On the other hand, giving up a bottle of hard to acquire, or hand made alcohol, is a sacrifice. I’d argue that while on its face it looks like a contradiction, it’s actually refining the ritual to be consistent with today’s society.
3. What is the purpose in this UPG? Society has migrated from an agrarian/mercantile society to something different (I called it the information society) and so that which had value (livestock) does not have value now. Since we’re discussing a ritual of sacrifice, this UPG is about re-evaluating that which has value to us.
So rejection of UPG and striving for efficiency have removed the beauty and magic from heathenism
I suppose the first question we should ask ourselves is “do we want it back?” For some people, honestly, they like their heathenism vanilla, kind of like those people who like their church to be a simple thing they do on a periodic basis that does not have deep spiritual meaning to them. If you’re of this particular view, then change in your practice is probably not in the cards.
But, for those who are looking for the beauty, it seems to me that the only real way to re-introduce beauty and magic into our religious practice is not through the exclusive study of the literature. You aren’t going to find it there. People have been studying this literature for centuries, do you honestly think that any additional study without external influence bring beauty to the practice?
But we can’t just take UPG and accept it whole cloth either. Any change in practice has to have an appropriate context.
I was reminded of the opening lines of the benediction that Joe Marek, Gothi of Gladsheim Kindred wrote:
The Hammer forges the Sword,
The Sword protects the Hammer.
If we think of the hammer as the instrument of change, which in this case, would be the UPG, and the sword being our current beliefs, the two must act hand in hand. our UPG can change the sword, but our Sword must be used to make sure our hammer does not become misshapen.
So where do we (or I) go from here?
I will be the first one to admit that my practice has fallen towards the economic and somewhat dogmatic. My blots have become standardized (despite me having written an entire book of rituals, I rarely turn to them). Interestingly my Sumbels still retain the community of magic, despite their structure being largely unchanged.
I had a friend recommend daily devotionals as part of my practice, outside of the monthly blots, and honestly, its brought back some of the beauty in the religion.
So, for me, as I consider the blots I conduct, and I consider other rituals that I participate in, I will not hold myself to dogma, I’ll ask myself where is the magic, and where is the beauty, and what can I do to bring this about in the ritual.