One of the more mature and clear thinking polytheists has just posted an important reply to the most recent round of BS from some of the Righteous Radical Social Justice Warrior crowd. It describes the concerns and lives of those who are devoted to the gods first and foremost, and rejects the pernicious foolishness that says that all things, including religion, are primarily political.
Right-wing leaning heathens tend to hate me because I value other religious and spiritual traditions, and many different points of view about our own traditions. Left-wing leaning heathens tend to hate me because I insist on maintaining standards, and not automatically putting every other belief on par with my own. Certain perennial debates have recently surfaced again in the larger pagan community, leading me to think that it’s time to remind the more strident and knee-jerk left-wing types why they dislike me.
We need standards, people. I respect that everyone has the right to their own beliefs and opinions. I believe that even beliefs and practices that I personally find ridiculous can contain genuine worth and even insight. These things do not, however, mean that all beliefs and practices are themselves worthy of my respect. I have a right to my own beliefs and opinions too, including the opinion that this or that idea is really freaking stupid. People have the right to believe any damnfool thing they want to, but that doesn’t mean I have to pretend it isn’t a damnfool thing to believe.
There is a fair amount of mysticism of one sort or another in the heathen community. Seidh workers, berserkers, thules, godhis, and more practice some sort of communion with the gods or lesser spirits. Many private devotees experience a divine presence in prayer, or have their prayers answered through omens or revelatory experience. This is, after all, where the concept of the UPG (Unusual Personal Gnosis) comes from. This is a good thing. The ancients were a very spiritually oriented people, and wide embracing of the spiritual in daily life means that we are finding their ways again.
This does NOT, however, mean that any and every claim of mystical experience should be given equal weight. Any and every culture that uses a spiritual practice of one sort or another has very strict standards about what did and did not qualify as a genuine mystical experience. We need such standards as well. Because frankly, we’re drowning in drivel. So let me here offer what I think are a reasonable set of standards, mostly cribbed from those of traditional mystically-oriented cultures and supplemented by my own experience.
How To Spot Fake Mysticism
1) Actual historical mystics have experiences of speaking to gods, visiting other spiritual realms, and communing with spirits only after years and years of difficult, rigorous, and even dangerous training. Did you learn to travel to Asgard after a weekend seminar? You’re a fake. Did you set yourself up as a seidh-worker after a week-long intensive? Then you’re full of $&!^. Have you been studying out of Llewelyn books on your own for a year now? You may have some talent, but you don’t have the skills to be claiming anything, Buddy.
Yeah, yeah, there are powerful natural talents who don’t need training. But such people are VERY RARE. They are the Van Goghs of the spirit-worker world. You seriously claiming you are THAT good? Ha. And double ha.
Look at Vodoun. Vodouisants regularly have spirit-possession experiences. However, not every devotee has one, and even then, it is considered only to be possible with large, well-trained groups working in unison. Are you seriously trying to claim that you alone are more powerful and knowledgeable than every Vodouisant ever? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.
2) Actual historical mystics, even the powerful and talented ones, have such experiences only rarely. The Buddha is held to have been visited by a particular god THREE TIMES in his entire life. And this was taken as proof of the Buddha’s great spiritual power and enlightenment. Even when everything is set up just right in a Vodoun ritual, even highly experienced horses cannot expect regular experiences. Even the greatest of heathen heroes have been visited by their gods only a few times in their lives.
Do you claim that you are more enlightened than the Buddha? Do you expect us to believe that you are more talented than each and every Vodouisant in the world? You think you are so much more awesome even than Sigurd the Volsung that Odin is in your social circle? Go away child, grown-ups are talking.
If you claim your practice lets you speak to the gods at will, if you blog about your spirits sitting down to watch TV with you every night, if you claim to get infallible answers from the Outgarths at will, then you are a fake. You are impeding both heathen progress and the overall progress of the human race.
3) Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This is THE gold standard of every traditional spiritual practice ever. Including ancient heathenry.
The ancient berserks claimed to become possessed by spirits under certain extraordinary circumstances. Not just anybody could demand that their claim to being a berserk be taken seriously, though. They had to demonstrate enhanced strength, reflexes, and combat ability. They had to demonstrate GENUINE fearlessness (think about what that meant to a Viking). They often had to perform extraordinary feats, such as fire resistance.
Seidh workers couldn’t just claim the honor of the title, they had to produce results. As in, actual relevant answers to questions, solutions to problems, etc.
Vodouisant horses claiming to be ridden, or possessed, have to demonstrate the actual presence of one of the lwa. After all, a god should be able to demonstrate miracles, so a claim of possession is only validated when the ridden one chews glass, resists fire, has hot pepper extract blown into the eyes without flinching, etc.
Tibetan Bon shamans have to demonstrate such feats as drying wet towels draped around their bodies while naked in the snow in sub-zero temperatures using only body heat.
You say you talk to the gods? Prove it. Put up or shut up. A person who claims such advanced spiritual powers and knowledge can back those claims up with actions. A person who can’t is a fraud, a buffoon, or both.
4) Actual successful spirit work requires constant practice. The mental state that is required is not at all easy to get into, even with a lot of experience. It requires maintenance with serious, regular devotional practices that involve a lot of time and effort. One sure-fire way to spot a fake mystic is if they have the free time to post daily blog entries about themselves and their supposed spirit work, or if their spirit work consists of watching TV while thinking earnestly about them. If you have such abundant free time then you probably aren’t doing it right.
5) If the gods look and act exactly like you expect them to, and if they reinforce the things you have already decided to believe, you are not having spiritual experiences. What you are experiencing is called “the imagination,” and everyone can do it.
Real mystic experiences are transcendental. They leave you in tears, or laughing maniacally, or passing out from the sheer overwhelming SUCHNESS of everything. They blow your preconceptions away. They force you to see things as they are whether you want to or not, and they constantly challenge your beliefs about yourself, the world, and the nature of the gods themselves.
6) Do you talk constantly about your experiences? Do you constantly demand validation of your experiences from others? You’ve had no experiences. The true spiritual experience is powerful and personal, and the person experiencing it almost never feels like sharing it. It is far too personal, and difficult to put into words. A person who has had a genuine spiritual experience KNOWS it, and does not seek to have everyone affirm that it was genuine.
7) Anyone who has become a god-spouse to Loki shortly after one of the Marvel Thor or Avengers movies has come out is a fake. This also applies to any other works of popular fiction that use names or images of gods and spirits.
It is possible for someone to hear The Call through such a medium, yes. But it is not bloody likely. In general, such characters are fictional characters used to tell a story. They usually bear no resemblance whatsoever to the actual god or spirit portrayed.
Look at Marvel Loki. He has NOTHING in common with the actual Loki from the ancient stories. Marvel Loki goes into a lovely hammy speech about the evils of freedom. Actual Loki is all about freedom. He may even be THE god of freedom. Marvel Loki betrays his kin. Actual Loki pranks his kin and betrays outsiders, but does not betray kin who have not betrayed him first. Marvel Loki is an enemy of Asgard, actual Loki is an agent of Asgard. So to all you Marvel-inspired Loki spouses: you don’t know a thing about Loki.
We need to have standards when it comes to spiritual experiences in this religion. If we don’t then the traditional ways of personal and spiritual development will be hijacked by people who are deluding themselves, lying, or even essentially LARPING. There is a lot of value in the old ways, the spiritual approach to life. Anyone can benefit from it, anyone can take up the spiritual path. However, not everyone will succeed. Worth proves itself. Heathens believe that deeds are more important than words. Those who genuinely have something of worth to add to our spiritual lore will prove it. Those who will not are not worth listening to.
And speaking of standards, I wish to add a word here about religious standards apart from spiritual practices. Not everybody who says they practice our religion does. We need to be open to other beliefs, other points of view, yes. But if these points of view are radically different from the traditional ones, then they are not representative of traditional beliefs. Humanist heathens, and chaos magicians, and especially xaos magicians, are not heathen. They believe that they can believe anything they like about the gods and heathen ideals. They believe that worshipping the gods is nothing more than building up thoughtforms in the head. These people will, for instance, worship Marvel Thor and demand to be taken seriously by traditional heathens.
They have a right to their beliefs. It is a valid enough spiritual tradition of its own. However, it is essentially atheist, and not in any way heathen. They are free to use our images and names, they are part of their heritage too. But this does not mean that they have the right to be considered actual heathens.
I have been an Odinist for decades now. In that time I have often approached the Old Man for guidance in my spiritual development. Although mysticism is often frowned on in the modern heathen revival, it has always had a place in both the ancient and modern versions of the religion.
Let me take a moment here to give my definition of the word, as it is tossed around far too often for far too many different purposes. In addition to the mysterious union and the ecstatic experience, which is a whole topic itself, I believe that mysticism is a science, devoted to the analysis of the inner self, the subconscious and preconscious minds, and how these matters apply to behavior. It is designed to optimize the inner self, in order to bring a wide array of benefits. For one thing, the self knowledge that it brings can cure or ameliorate many psychological illnesses. It can change a person’s instinctive reactions so that they handle most situations much better than they normally would, maximizing the gain they get out of every situation. It helps a person approach even great pain and loss with equilibrium, and it minimizes suffering. It can improve physical health and speed healing times. It can improve physical capacities, increasing the effective strength that a person can use, via greater muscular coordination and hormonal changes. It can improve reaction speed and hand-eye coordination. And much more.
Of course, almost all knowledge of ancient heathen mysticism was lost during the Conversion. Stupid oral traditions. Fortunately, though, as mysticism is a science it can be approached via the scientific method. Meaning that simply observing myself, forming hypotheses as to why or how my inner mind was working, and then testing those hypotheses would carry me a great way. The few hints from the ancients we do still have served as touchstones. I freely studied every other mystic tradition the modern world had to offer. And I asked Odin to guide these pursuits. The result has been of great benefit to me, so I will here try to summarize, very briefly, the things that I have learned over the years.
The ultimate purpose of the mystic’s path is to develop the shift in perspective necessary for awakening the Svipal-self. Svipal, one of Odin’s names, means “changeable,” and the person who has awoken the Svipal-self has no permanent self or personality in the sense that most people understand those terms.
Of course, there is a lot of simplifying going on there. The idea of “awakening the Svipal-self” is not really correct. It’s something of a lie. But it’s a very good lie, and conveys more accurate information than trying to describe it truthfully would, as that would require dozens of pages. You see, the thing is, the Svipal-self is never asleep. You can never be separated from it. It is present in everything you do and think.
The Svipal-self is the original mind, the mind as it was before dualistic, conceptual thinking began. In other word, it is the basement level of the mind that lies deeper than the part that thinks in terms of things as being “this and not that.” It sees things as they are, without naming them, without being limited to a single point of view concerning them. The Svipal-self does not follow after feelings or thoughts, trying to hold onto them. The Svipal-self does not reject feelings or thoughts, trying to push them away. Instead, the Svipal-self allows feelings and thoughts to arise naturally, develop naturally, and pass away naturally, without interference. The Svipal-self is pure observation. It is the Odinic nature that everyone carries within them. Like Odin on the High Seat, nothing is hidden from the sight of the Svipal-self.
It is unfortunately very easy to be mistaken about the Svipal-self, though. Many people confuse it with the ego, the image of the self that everyone carries around in their own heads. However, the ego is not the true self, it is just a map. The map is not the territory, it is just a map. The ego is the product of discriminatory, conceptual thinking. The ego is this, and not that. It is the product of a limited perspective. Paying too much attention to it will produce only delusional thinking. Because of this, it is necessary to absorb certain lessons, to break the habits of thought that lead to such confusion. In this sense the concept of “awakening the Svipal-self” is an accurate depiction of heathen mysticism. The process of unlearning bad habits of thought and ending the narcissistic fascination with the ego is kind of like waking up.
There are many different causes of these bad habits of thought. The senses are chief amongst them. The human mind has evolved to pay a LOT of attention to the senses, as that is how one survives in the physical world. This causes the mind to think in an analytic and definite way. Emotions also give rise to these bad habits of thought. They are by design a form of dualistic thinking. They cause the mind to pay attention, to view everything in terms of the emotion. Beliefs also cause the same effect, all kinds of beliefs.
These aren’t in and of themselves bad things. You need your senses to get around. You need feelings to guide and fuel you. You need beliefs to make even minor decisions. The trouble is THAT these things are good and necessary things. We have to use them, even rely on them, in order to do anything at all. So it becomes so very, very easy to forget that all of these forms of perception and thought are limited, and convey only aspects or parts of the truth. It is easy to forget that they are merely useful tools, and that they cause blindness and ignorance as much as they produce knowledge and clarity. Once a person loses the habit remembering that these thoughts are only images, tools, approximations created by the mind to further survival and some kinds of pragmatic functionality, then bad habits of thinking are firmly established, and Svipal-nature is confused with the ego.
The need to disrupt these habits of thought are a big part of why the Odinic path is so difficult, so full of challenges. The concentration, surprise, and fear that Odinic challenges bring disrupt the normal flow of thinking. There is nothing like danger and hardship to clear and focus the mind. This stops the bad habits in their tracks. It may last for only a moment, or only until the crisis has passed, but with enough interruptions, better habits of thought can be learned.
The key thing to remember about the Svipal-self, at least at first, is that it has nothing to do. It is not like the ego, a thing that is full of desires and plans for fulfilling them. There is nothing at all that the Svipal-self feels that it has to do. However, like the bit about awakening the Svipal-self, this is also a convenient and informative lie. The surface interpretation is almost entirely wrong.
It is true that the Svipal self has no goals to pursue because they are enjoyable, or good, or noble, or even the right thing to do. The Svipal-self does not do things for the reasons that motivate most people. These motivations are based on limited, conceptual thinking. The goals are not truly understood, and misfortune often results.
Instead of doing things for the reasons that most people do them, the Svipal-self eats when hungry, and sleeps when tired. The Svipal-self will return a lost wallet to its owner because his or her own knowledge of the social bond, and the concepts of honor and orlog, prompts that behavior. The Svipal-self will teach when someone who can benefit from a lesson is nearby, and learn when a lesson is to be had. The Svipal-self acts in these ways naturally, in exactly the same manner that water rolls off a leaf.
It is important to remember that a person awakened to the Svipal-self is not a person who tries to do nothing. Such a person is not a person who tries to live simply. A person who has awakened the Svipal-self does not try to get rid of everything that is unnecessary or try to leave things as they are. These are also all deliberate actions, conceptual goals. When the life of a person who has awakened the Svipal-self requires simplicity, then that person will live simply. It is neither more nor less complex than that.
I do not mean to imply, by the way, that I have made any great strides in awakening the Svipal-self. These are just things that I have come to understand. There is a HUGE gap between an intellectual understanding and actually living something.
Over the years that I have been an active member of the heathen/Asatru community, I have often been questioned concerning my focus on the afterlife, on Valhalla. Many modern heathens seem to regard the idea of Valhalla or any other aspect of the afterlife to be superfluous, not relevant to life as a modern heathen.
This attitude has always puzzled me. If you have an actual belief in the literal reality of the gods and the afterlife, then having some thought for the afterlife does indeed matter. If you do not have an actual belief in the gods, or if your belief does not include the concept of an afterlife, both perfectly valid heathen paths, then having some thought for the afterlife still matters.
I do not actually have any solid belief in an afterlife one way or another. Having no direct evidence for or against the idea, my own philosophy holds that forming an actual opinion on the subject is unwarranted and intellectually dishonest. I do not focus on Valhalla because I have some real hope of one day going there. I focus on conducting myself in a manner worthy of someone who hopes to be chosen to go there because it makes me a better person in this world. I focus on Valhalla because I believe in the ideals of Valhalla, of Odin.
The einherjar, the chosen slain, seek perpetually to develop themselves. They train each day to better their arts and abilities. This drive, this desire to change for the better, is an invaluable tool in any and all endeavors I will ever pursue. The einherjar do not shy away from fear or from pain. The ability to face my fears and endure even great pain gives me great courage and confidence that will grant me victory in all of my endeavors. The einherjar know how to party, how to play. The ability to relax, let go of my inhibitions, and truly enjoy myself give me the ability to endure great hardship. They allow me to focus and work hard when I am at work. They give me a sense of humor, and the perspective to see that most things that seem like problems don’t really matter, and this makes me a better person.
It doesn’t really matter to me whether I go to Valhalla someday or not. But that won’t stop me from trying like hel to get there. When I accepted Odin’s path, I accepted it all, instead of picking and choosing the parts I liked. That includes the goal. It’s made all the difference in the world to me.
Heilsa. I am Wayland Skallagrimsson, author of the Uppsala Online website and several books on heathenry / Asatru. I used to be very active in the heathen/Asatru community. I took part in several forums, ran my own forum, published books regularly, and attended heathen gatherings and celebrations. In recent years I have had to drop almost entirely off the radar. The economic recession hit me pretty hard, and I have had my hands full just with survival. And frankly, I’m just not a social person, in any way. I am the solitary wandering type of Odinist, and I have my own path, my own work. However, a number of friends have pointed out to me recently that I could retain some involvement while keeping space for my own path by starting a blog on heathen issues. This seemed like a good idea to me, as it will allow me to write on a number of topics I had wanted to write on but didn’t necessarily have a place for. So welcome to my blog. The topics covered will be random, just whatever occurs to me when I sit down to write, but most will be related to heathenry in some way or other.