Heathenry, or Germanic Neopaganism, centres on Scandinavian, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon deities and mythology. Heathens are largely polytheistic and follow a reconstructionist viewpoint, which aims to recreate the religion of ancient people through study of archaeological and historical records. These records include Old Norse texts (such as the Prose and Poetic Eddas, and the Icelandic Sagas), Germanic folklore, and archaeological evidence.
Heathenry can be seen as an umbrella term in which individual adherents often refer to themselves based on their specific beliefs;
- Ásatrú, those who follow the Aesir gods of Norse mythology
- Vanuatrú, those who follow the Vanir gods of Norse mythology
- Dísitrú, those who follow the Goddesses
- Theodism, those who follow Anglo-Saxon deities
- Odinism/Wotanism, those who follow Odin/Wotan
Heathenry is also known as the Northern Tradition, Norse Paganism, Saxon Paganism, and Forn Siðr or Forn Sed (“the old way”).
In addition to deities, Heathens also recognize a variety of spiritual beings (‘wights’), including the Norns, who weave their webs of wyrd; the Disir, female ancestral spirits; and ‘hidden folk’, such as elves, brownies, dwarves and giants (‘etins’).
Norse deities can be divided into two major groups; the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir (Æsir) live in Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. The Aesir are mainly associated with order, justice, wisdom, war, and agriculture. Odin is the High God of the Aesir, along with his son Thor (God of Thunder), Balder, Frigga, Tyr, Hod, and the trickster Loki. The Vanir live in Vanaheim, another of the Nine Worlds. The Vanir are mostly associated with fertility, presiding over the earth and sea, and the natural forces of the world, including magic, and the ability to see the future. Key Vanir Gods include Freya, Freyr, and Njord. The terms Ásatrú and Vanuatrú refer to the group of Norse deities its adherants follow, followed by ‘tru’, meaning faith.
Interestingly, the modern days of the week are named after Norse gods (or their Anglo-Saxon equivalents). Tuesday comes from ‘Tyr’s day’ (Tiu), Wednesday from ‘Odin’s day’ (Woden), Thursday from ‘Thor’s day’, and Friday from ‘Freya’s day’ (or Frigg). Sunday and Monday refer to the Sun and the Moon. Saturday is said to be named after the Roman god Saturn, however some sources argue that this is a misinterpretation of a variant of Loki.
One of the major concepts in Heathenry is wyrd, which can be thought of as fate or personal destiny. Heathens believe that wyrd is a force that connects everything in the universe, therefore all their actions could have far-reaching consequences (similar to the concept of karma). Fridh (‘frith’) is also important to most Heathens, which stresses the maintenance of peace and friendship within a group.
Some Heathens, particularly Ásatrúar, follow a moral code of conduct known as the Nine Noble Virtues, which include Courage, Truth, Honour, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self-Reliance, Industriousness, and Perseverance.
Heathens organize themselves into small groups called kindreds, hearths, lagur (fellowships), tribes, félagið, godhordhs, or garths.
The two main styles of ritual celebration in Heathenry are called the Blót and the Sumbel. A Blót is a blessing ceremony involving offering food or drink as sacrifice to the gods, such as pouring out mead/ale onto the earth. Blóts were held to honour the gods or gain their favour for specific purposes, and are usually followed by a feast or Sumbel. Literally meaning “blood”, Blót is a historical term for sacrifice or ritual slaughter.
Blóts are celebrated throughout the year, similar to the Neopagan Wheel of the Year:
- Plough Charming – January
- Thorsblot – Late January
- Disfest / Disting / Frigga’s Blot / Disablot – 31 January / 1 February
- Hretha Blot – March
- Sigrblót / Ostara / Ostarablot ~ 21 March
- May Eve / Walpurgisnacht / Valpurgis – 30 April / 1 May
- Midsummer / Summer Solstice / Midsumarsblot ~ 21 June
- Freyfaxi / Freysfest / Freysblot / Lammas – 1 August
- Fallfest / Harvest Home / Harvestfest / Haustblot ~ 21 September
- Vetrablot / Vetrnætr / Winternights / Ancestors Night – 31 October
- Yule / Jol / Mothers’ Night / Yuleblot ~ 20th December
A Sumbel (or Symbel), often accompanying a Blót, is a ritual drinking ceremony where cups or drinking horns are filled with mead (or another alcoholic beverage) and the gods are toasted. Participants often pass the horn around the group, where common practices include speech making, boasting, oath making and other tributes to the gods or ancestors. It is thought that any oath or boast made during a Sumbel is binding due to its sacred context.
Heathenry is associated with the Runes, used for divination, magic, and writing. It is thought that Odin hung from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights in order to gain the knowledge of runes. He later passed on this knowledge to the Vanir goddess Freya, who in turn, taught him the magic of Seiðr (‘sayth’).
Some modern Heathens incorporate Seiðr into their rituals, which involves a shamanic-like trance or altered state of consciousness used to gain wisdom and advice from the deities. Some also practice Galdr, or Galdor, which involves carving runes onto talismans and chanting charms.
The modern Heathen community is divided over the issue of ancestry and how Heathenry should be practiced. The two main camps are referred to Folkish and Universalist Heathenry. Folkish Heathenry, or Heathenry for the Folk, maintains that the tribal religion should stay true to Northern European heritage and ancestry. However, Universalist Heathenry believes that anyone can practice Heathenry, regardless of ethnicity. There is also Tribalist Heathenry, which states that one can practice Heathenry as long as one makes sufficient effort to understand and adopt the culture of the ancient heathens. Personally, I am against any form of attempt to control the racial background of inherents of a spiritual path they feel particularly called to and am disappointed by the racism which seems to be rampant in some Heathen groups.
© The New Pagan (2015)