Hardship, Growth, and the Gods

Recent conversations with a young relative facing difficult times prompted a conversation that I think bears repeating here.

Heathens have a different relationship with our gods than the people of the major religions do, and as a consequence,  we also pray in a different way. We don’t tend to ask to be taken care of, or protected. We might ask for help, we might ask for a specific boon to be granted, but we do not in general look to our gods to take care of us.

To illustrate my point, let me retell the popular “Footprints In the Sand” story from an Odinic perspective.

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with Odin.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to Odin.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked Odin about it.
“Odin, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He yelled, “Of course I left you, you @^%#$ idiot! How the hel will you ever learn anything or become strong if I go around carrying you? Use your head!”

The heathen way is to develop the self, and to try to become a better person, in all the different ways we heathens define that. We heathens do not wonder why there is evil, hardship, and bad luck. We do not expect that our gods will protect us from these things. Instead, we try to use these things to learn and grow.

The Dawkins Delusion

One of my pet peeves is the pseudo-intellectual BS put out by Dawkins and his uber-atheist crowd of New Skeptics. The cheap debating tricks and bad logic they pass off as scientific work has done a lot of damage to the advancement of human understanding. Now, I have no problem with intellectually honest agnostics and atheists, but Dawkins’ crowd are not intellectually honest. They use all of the same sleazy tricks and are guilty of the same poor reasoning as the people they are constantly complaining about.

This has had the effect of making a lot of heathens and other polytheists make one of two mistakes: either try to “prove” their religious and spiritual beliefs scientifically, or to reject science and rational thought as being somehow opposed to and inferior to religious and spiritual thought. Both approaches are foolish. Neither are in keeping with the way the ancient heathens and other polytheists looked at matters.

I have written an article on the subject that has been published in the Walking the Worlds journal. It is here, if anyone wants to check it out, and the many other fine articles on philosophy and polytheism it contains.

Hierarchy as a Religious Concept

Today, it is time to talk about an important, yet increasingly overlooked part of heathen religious philosophy: hierarchies. Ah, I can hear the outraged howls and lunatic rants of the Righteous Radical crowd already. You know who I mean. The crowd that believes that all hierarchies and ranks are inherently evil. The crowd that spends all of its time online ranting about how everyone except for them are fascists who need to be forced to think and behave Correctly. The crowd that starts screaming “Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!” every time anybody expresses an opinion that contradicts one of their own. The crowd that has to spend all of its time foaming at the mouth in cyberspace because it can never get anything real done. Because when they get together, every least detail of every proposal has to be debated by everybody. Because everybody’s voice has to be heard about everything. Because only the person who is holding the Talking Feather at the moment can talk, and there are a lot of people waiting for their turn with the Talking Feather.

When everybody gets to be Captain, nobody’s a Private. Trouble is, Privates are the ones who get the actual work done, and part of the reason why they can get the work done is that only one person is giving them orders. Instead of, you know, an unruly mob of puffed up egos all trying to give orders to each other. The reason that all human societies create hierarchies is that it is stupidly, fatally inefficient to reinvent the wheel for every single problem you face. Experience is required to solve any significant problem, to perform any important task. Not everybody has the right kinds of experience to solve every kind of problem, and the totality of human knowledge is so vast that no one person can understand all of it. So humans develop specialists. Some gain the experience to govern societies, others gain the experience needed to master a science, others learn how to educate children, and so forth. This way, each job can be done well, and there is no need to waste the enormous amount of resources needed to educate everybody about every single thing.

Look at it this way: when the leopards start dropping out of the trees, which group of people do you think is going to survive? The one where one strong, experienced leader instantly shouts out orders for defense, which are instantly obeyed because everybody knows their roles? Or the one where everyone sits down and pulls out the Talking Feather to determine whose vision of a defense strategy should be used?

Odin is the heathen embodiment of the understanding of the need for hierarchies. He is the chief of the gods, the lord of Valhalla. He is the leader of the einherjar and the valkyries. In many ways, Odin is the god of hierarchy. His people tend to not only believe in hierarchies, but to see the spiritual world expressed in a wide array of hierarchies.

Odin is not only a god of leaders, societies, and hierarchies, though, he is also a god of individuals. He is the god of the young warrior trying to work his way up the military or political hierarchy of his people. He is the god of the scholar who seeks to learn and grow enough to work his way up the academic hierarchy. He is the god of the wargs and loners who reject hierarchies and choose to live outside of them. This seems like a contradiction, but in fact it embodies a profound understanding of human nature and the way in which human societies function.

Human societies function because of dynamic tension. A society run by conservatives would be a nightmare. So would a society run by liberals, though in a different way. A society where both conservatives and liberals hold some power, and pull society first one way and then the other? That manages to be almost livable on frequent occasions.

A society which is too rigidly hierarchical tends toward the fascistic, the bureaucratic, the inefficient, the evil. A society which tends completely toward the individual at the expense of hierarchies tends towards the chaotic, the savage, the divided, the unjust, and the inefficient. What is needed is a society that has hierarchies that are counterbalanced by strong individuals, some of whom work within the system and some of whom live outside of it or even fight against it. THIS is a healthy society. The individualism in it restrains the hierarchies from excess, and the hierarchies tame individual excesses.

This is why Odin is god of hierarchy and of individualism both. He represents the dynamic tension that a healthy society needs to survive and even thrive.

Journal Article Published

I recently got an article published in Walking the Worlds, an academic journal of polytheism and related issues. This issue was about building regional cultus in a modern context. That is to say, about how polytheistic religions change from place to place to incorporate local religious foci. Ancient polytheistic religions such as heathenry often had different local deities for different lands and even for different towns. Every article in this issue discusses how such practices fit into modern polytheistic religions.

My article discusses how the ancient heathens incorporated local sacred rocks, trees, and spirits into their religious practices. It describes the modern local cult that has grown up around the Lobsterman statue in Portland Maine, and how it has been incorporated into local polytheistic worship.

The issue is also filled with a lot of other great articles by renowned pagan authors. To order individual issues or subscribe to the journal, go to their website.

Getting Started

When I first came to the heathen path, some twenty years ago, it was very difficult to know how to get started. Back then, before the Internet was much of a thing, you had to search the local bookstores and hope you got lucky if you wanted to find any useful information at all. You might be fortunate enough to find a local group of pagans that included another heathen, if you lived in the right area, but this was probably too much to hope for. Many heathens back then had to make their way on their own, without much guidance from others or from quality books. (Thanks to Llewellyn Press, there were unfortunately a lot of useless and worse than useless books, though.)

Today, things are much better. There are a lot of resources online. There are many heathen groups that modern heathens can go to for help. That does not always make it easy for new heathens to know how to get started, though, because there are now so many voices that it can be difficult to know who to listen to. To help with this problem, I will share here the way I got started on the heathen path.

  • Read the primary sources, the Eddas and the Sagas. These are the oldest written records of what the ancients believed, so they are the best source for understanding the ancient ways. No amount of reading what other people have to say about these works will tell you as much. If you can, read multiple translations, to get a better sense of the original meanings. You must also remember: these stories were recorded by Christian scribes. While they were attempting to preserve a historical record of a vanishing era, there were parts of heathenry they liked, and parts they didn’t like. Because of this, they skipped a lot of things, like goddess lore. What we have left are more the beliefs of the ancient heathen warrior caste rather than the entirety of ancient heathen belief. Helpful hint: read the Hollander translation of the Poetic Edda. It not only retains the original meanings best, it keeps to the ancient poetic form pretty closely too.
  • Pray often. Nothing will bring your mind and spirit closer to the gods than regular prayer. Begin each day with the prayer from the Sigrdrifumal, that begins “Hail the day, hail day’s sons….” Make the sign of the Hammer over every meal, and say “Hammer, please hallow this food to my might.” This is an ancient blessing. Make the sign of the valknut over alcoholic drinks. This is a more modern blessing, but it fits.
  • Make a traditional altar. The ancients used piles of stones for altars, and poured offerings over them. River stones would be most appropriate.
  • If you are devoted to a particular god, do work that advances the god’s goals. An Odinist might write poetry, for example, or practice the martial arts, or join the armed forces. Someone devoted to Bertha or Perchta might weave.

Just following these practices is a good start. After a couple of years of such practices, you should start developing an idea of how to go further.

Wes thu hal. May the gods bless you.

Heathenry and Patriotism

Well, I haven’t been posting for awhile. I am self employed, which means there are times when I have to put in a lot of overtime. But during these past few weeks, I kept running across an interesting term in the media. After thinking about it for a while I decided that I had to write about it from the heathen perspective. This term is “American exceptionalism.”

This seems to be a term used by the Fox News crowd as one of the core beliefs that all true conservatives are supposed to hold. This is the belief that America is an exceptional country, and that Americans are all exceptional people, by virtue of being Americans. Signs of this belief include never condemning any action that America has ever taken, affirming that America’s accomplishments are superior to the accomplishments of all other nations, and always assuming that Americans are better than other people.

This is not a very heathen idea. The nine noble virtues counsel against it. Remember the virtue of Truth? Well, that virtue means that real heathens should always speak the truth. In truth, America has accomplished some truly great things, including creating a society that values individual rights more than most societies have managed. However, she has also failed to live up to her own ideals, far too many times. The genocidal campaigns against the First Nations, the enslavement of people of African descent, the horrors of Company Towns, laws outlawing the practice of minority religions and alternate sexual orientations, and a system that has often regarded women as property and that was designed to keep the poor poor while the rich grow fat off of their labors. The truth is, America’s past is not pretty. Much of it is brutal. Some of it is downright evil.

Other nations have accomplishments of their own that outstrip many of America’s. Iceland has maintained a near one hundred percent literacy rate. They also pioneered a much purer form of democracy than we use, much earlier than we did. China invented many of the devices that allowed us to gain the upper hand over the rest of the world, militarily. A large amount of modern science was pioneered by Germans, not Americans. Many countries have much lower rates of violence than we do. Many Asian, African, and South American peoples have pioneered psychological and physiological science that Americans are mostly still ignorant of. We have accomplished much. But so have other people.

It takes courage to speak unpleasant truths, or even admit them to yourself. Especially when those truths maybe mean that you have a responsibility or two that you otherwise wouldn’t. Courage is another of the nine noble virtues. Heathens should therefore have the courage to speak the truth, both to themselves and to others. This means speaking well of America and Americans when they deserve it. It also means speaking poorly of America and Americans when they deserve it. To not dare to speak the truth is cowardly.

Fidelity and discipline are also important amongst the nine noble virtues. Fidelity means loyalty. Loyalty to America, in this case. Loyalty does not, however, mean blind support no matter what. That isn’t loyalty. That’s enabling. Loyalty means providing true support. Showing fidelity to America means doing your best to keep America strong. To be strong, America needs to know herself. To be honest with herself. A strong house cannot be built on a weak foundation. Discipline means doing what needs doing, even if it’s difficult. We can only figure out where we need to go as a country, and how to get there, by knowing where we’ve been. That is, where we have actually been, not where some Fox News revisionist fantasy would place us.

Have you ever known somebody who thought that they were the greatest thing since bottled mead? Somebody who could somehow never admit when they were wrong? Not only are jackasses like this really unpleasant to be around, they’re also incredibly stupid and incompetent. They have never really learned how to do anything, because they are convinced that they are great already, without making any effort.

This is what the modern conservative movement, or at least the Fox Brigade, wants to make us into, the kind of loser described above. That is patriotism? Desiring to make the national character into a hyper-annoying boorish loudmouthed loser? Bullshit. That isn’t patriotism. Those who refuse to speak the truth, even in the name of national unity, patriotism, or anything else, are liars. Those who lack the courage to look at the truth without flinching, who lack the courage to speak that truth to themselves and others, are cowards. Those who boost any action that America takes show no fidelity. They are faithless, and the very worst kind of faithless too: the kind who hide under the disguise of fidelity. Those who do not do what needs doing to make America truly strong are undisciplined. They are children. Those who believe that it is always more important to feel joy than guilt are weaklings and cowards. Guilt has a place. It is a useful tool, and it leads to the more true, enduring form of joy.

The plain truth is, the rabid mania about American exceptionalism is just another kind of philosophical drug. It appeals to losers who know they are losers, deep down inside. It allows them to feel special, just for belonging to a group, without having to do any work at all to earn that feeling. That is a profoundly non-heathen thing to do. This is the same sort of thing that makes people become racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and homophobes.

I am a true patriot. I love this country, and want her to be strong. I want her to live up to the incredible promise that she has. I will show my loyalty by helping her become truly strong. This is heathen patriotism. This is heathen pride.

The Real Vikings

Vikings: giant, hairy manly men who rarely bathed and made most of their money by raiding other countries. The society of the Vikings was a heavily male dominated one that was heavily insular, worshipped strength and viciousness above all else. It was a society where might made right, manners were unheard of, and intellectuals were derided as wusses. Right?

Wrong, actually. Dead wrong. About as far from the truth as it is possible to get, as a matter of fact. The picture painted above describes only the modern, popular culture image of Vikings, made by people who never cracked open a history book in their lives, but did read a lot of comic books and pulp fiction. The real Vikings were far more complex and interesting than that. They were also surprisingly modern in many ways.

To start with, Viking men were peacocks. They wore fancy, bright colored clothing and covered themselves in jewelry. They bathed a lot by European standards of the time. They combed their hair and styled it. They styled their beards too. In fact, hair styling was so important to Viking men that combs are a very common find in their graves. Can’t go to the next world with messy hair! Viking women tended to be much more plainly dressed, and not as given to ornamentation. The men were definitely the display gender.

Vikings only rarely went viking, or pirating, which is what the word means. The Viking Period was actually only a tiny fraction of the history of the people commonly called Vikings. Even at the height of the Viking Period, most Viking nations made 60% or more of their income from the manufacture and export of textiles. That’s right: not only were the Viking economies never driven by Viking raids, they were actually mostly driven by women. Most of the time, Viking men preferred to farm. Raiding was only undertaken under desperate circumstances, when the crops and economy were so bad that their families might starve. As soon as there was any other choice, they stopped raiding. Although all men and most women were expected to know how to fight, most men were not warriors.

In fact, not only were the Viking economies dominated by women, by their societies tended to have a strong feminist bent. Nowhere in the ancient world were the rights for each gender nearly equal. Make no mistake, they were still tilted in favor of men, but women were closer to achieving full social equality with the Vikings than with any other ancient culture. They had absolute right of divorce, could own property, lead families, and even serve in government. In the home, a wife had more authority than her husband, at least theoretically, by custom. Women were actually considered to be inherently more in touch with the spiritual than men, and were often highly influential as advisers and prophets. The female deities were actually seen as stronger and more capable than the male deities in many ways. Every time Odin goes up against the will of Frigga, for instance, he loses, for all that he is the god of victory. It is from goddesses and human women that Odin gains the bulk of his power and knowledge, not from other males. If one of the gods wants to be able to fly, they must go to a goddess, Freya, for that power. If they want to keep their immortality, they must receive it from Idunn, another goddess.

Why, then, are modern images and stories of the Vikings and their gods so dominated by warrior-themed, male oriented stories? Simple: the stories were recorded by Christians. The Viking traditions were oral. The only reason we have anything written down is because of Christian scribes, after the Vikings were conquered. The heavily patriarchal Christians particularly hated the goddess lore, and stories centered around women, so they simply didn’t write much of that down. All we have left now are fragments and hints of the original, much wider body of lore, but what we do have points to a much more gender-balanced picture.

Nor was Viking society insular. Popular depictions of the Vikings show them cut off from the rest of the world, stuck largely in their own. Many ill-educated people, particularly Folkies, even depict this supposed isolation as being the result of a powerful cultural racism. This picture, however, does not match what history shows us. The Vikings had colonies as far off as North America and Africa. They had trade relations with Greece. They, as mentioned above, made most of their money from trade with other nations. They were actually a well traveled people.

And not only were they well traveled, they were in many ways downright cosmopolitan. They were well aware of other religions, other ways of looking at the world, and they loved them. Real Vikings enjoyed the experience of interacting even with cultures radically different from their own, and adapting elements of those cultures that they took a liking to. One Viking king put “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” on all of his coins, in Arabic. He was not a Muslim, but he did have trade relationships with Muslim nations, and admired their culture so much that he wanted to imitate some of the trappings of that culture. Upon meeting the Greeks, there is reason to suspect that they adopted major aspects of Greek religion, including changing their male deity of fate to three female deities, like the Greek Fates. Upon encountering the Romans, they adopted many of their titles and forms of government. Bronze Age Denmark was the social and artistic capital of the known world.

This cosmopolitan attitude toward the world was reflected in Viking philosophy. They adopted a remarkably rational perspective about religion and human knowledge. The Vikings saw the world as vast and mysterious, and did not seem to think that any one person, or any group of people either, for that matter, could have absolute knowledge of The Truth. They did not view their religion as the result of divine revelation. They did not assume that it accurately described the whole of the world. They conducted their affairs like they believed that other people, other religions, other ways of looking at the world, were also potentially valid. They knew theirs was not the only way. Not only did they adopt elements of other religions, they would even take part in foreign religious ceremonies when traveling to other lands. This practice was so extensive that the early Catholic Church even had a special rite, called Prime Signing, that allowed visiting heathens to go to Church when in Christian lands.

In some ways, the Vikings were so open minded and accepting in their world view that they even make modern nations look backward and repressive by comparison. Archaeologists in England have found a statue of a one-eyed god, clearly Odin, with both male and female genitals. Although modern Western nations are only just beginning to address issues of transsexuality, the ancient Vikings were comfortable enough with it that they ascribed a transsexual nature to their chief god. This does not mean, by the way, that the Vikings were completely accepting of trans people, or homosexuals, or other non-standard forms of sexuality and gender identity. They still had their issues. They were, however, comfortable enough with them to have an open and recognized place for them in their world view.

The Vikings were a truly fascinating people. The world has changed a lot since their day, and heathenry itself is in many ways a completely different thing. But still, were an ancient Viking somehow brought forward to this day, he would not entirely find himself a fish out of water.