Copyright © 1999 Ślfgrim Vķlmeišson
One of the more significant, but least discussed, aspects of Heathenry is the dichotomy between the purely religious practices and more "secular" social customs of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. It is significant because how one stands on the issue speaks directly to the question of Heathenry's place in the modern world. In a nutshell, the question is "Just how much of Norse culture do we want to bring along with the Norse religious beliefs and practices?" (Because I'm Heišni and thus my faith centers on the Viking Era Norse, I'll be focusing on that, but the discussion applies to all different sorts of Heathens and other pagans as well.)
Strictly speaking, the only customs/beliefs/practices that are purely religious are those of the blót, the sumbel, funerals, and the myths concerning the Gods and other supernatural beings. With just these, it is completely possible to worship the Gods and live completely in the modern world. Just like most people today, one's religious and everyday life would be kept strictly apart, and expressions of faith would be limited to the celebrations of the blóts themselves (just as most Christians don't think much about their faith Monday-Saturday). Everyday morality, while it may be loosely based on the Sayings of Har in the Poetic Edda, would likely yield to the necessities of modern life.
I think it's fair to say that most Heathens today would find such a stripped-down faith to be lifeless and defeat much of the point of being Heathen. Certainly our ancestors never made such a sharp distinction between religion, culture, and everyday life. It is often said that being Heathen means living one's faith every day. But what exactly does that mean?
In modern practice, it means bringing some of what we would call the "secular" aspects of Norse culture along with the religious aspects. The degree to which these not-necessarily-religious customs are included in one's religious expression places one on the spectrum:
· The Heišnar (the ultra-orthodox of the Heathen community who don't like any modern influences and always try to go back to original sources) · The Folkish (who are more likely to strive for historical accuracy, but willing to allow modern influences) · The Progressives (who are more likely to tolerate the inclusion of modern influences and inventions, but who try to get things historically accurate when they can) · The Neopagans (including the Norse Wiccans, Norse Druids, etc. who almost make eclecticism a goal unto itself)
Note that these are broad generalizations; there are certainly going to be Heathens who identify themselves as Progressives that are more concerned with historical accuracy, just as there are going to be those who identify themselves as Folkish who aren't concerned with it at all.
The impact of this can be seen on both an organizational and an individual level. Organizations that have a high degree of non-religious inclusion will often pattern their structure on an ancient Norse model, such as the Įsatrś Alliance (in which autonomous Kindreds are in a loose confederation with decisions being undertaken at an annual Thing). Such groups are more likely to encourage historical ritual garb (as opposed to either "jeans and a t-shirt" or some sort of generic neopagan robes), and traditional weapons will often also be featured.
Individuals who choose to include a high level of non-religious social customs in their religious identity will express it in two ways. During rituals or other gatherings of fellow Heathens, they are more likely to take on "faith names" (either converting their legal names to Old Norse equivalents or simply taking a Viking-era name), and dress in ritual garb. Outside of a strictly Heathen gathering, they are more likely to undertake traditional crafts; woodworking, brewing ale or mead, weaponsmithing or armor making, archery, etc. And most especially, their interactions even with non-Heathens will be impacted by Heathen sensibilities; their personal code of ethics will be guided by the Sayings of Har, they will possess a high sense of personal honor and will attach great significance to oaths and promises, and they are likely to hold grudges and exact revenge along the lines of the Icelandic Sagas (albeit not necessarily with such violence).
Almost every Heathen I know brings along at least some of this non-religious cultural "baggage". The question is, how much Norse culture is appropriate to bring in to the 21st century? The answer has to be as much as makes you comfortable.
For myself, as a Heišnar, the answer is "as much as I can and still function in modern society". That is, I won't be giving up my car for a horse anytime soon, and I won't stop using my word processor to start chiseling runestones (although I do both). You won't see me challenging my neighbor to holmgang, killing him, and taking his house. On the other hand, I'll continue to learn Old Norse, I'll continue to read the Sagas more often than a Conan novel, and I'll continue to try to apply what I read in the Eddas and Sagas to my everyday life. In the Sagas, the greatest heroes show hospitality, generosity, honor, courage, cleverness; these are the examples that I try to emulate in my everyday life.
Something that's often overlooked, however, is that it is the little customs-what we would call superstitions today-that truly bring a sense of participating in Norse culture, even if it is removed both in time, space, and details. I've got a place on my hearth for the house-spirit to dwell, and every Thursday I leave him a bowl of milk in thanks for his help. I pay attention to the flights of birds, and omens in dreams. I entered into blood brotherhood with my best friend several years ago, and made sure that he was included in my family wedding pictures. I make the sign of Thor's Hammer over my drinks. I'm good at playing Tafl. These and many more little customs are small, almost insignificant, things to outsiders. But to me they subtly set me apart from the modern world, and I feel more a part of the world in which my Gods were worshipped openly, and those who did so weren't looked upon with scorn or fear.
And I like that feeling.
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