Saturday, April 21, 2012

H is for Heathen

All right. So I committed myself to writing a post on Heathenry, and I'm going to do it. I'm not really looking forward to it just because it's probably going to be so loooooong and you know. You know how it is, readers.

So. Here we are, I suppose. I'm going to talk about what stuff I think you'd want to know, on a basic level, and link to other things I've written when I've gone into more detail on a subject elsewhere.

This has probably been done better elsewhere and by others, but nevertheless here it is. Enjoy.
(Also blogger keeps fucking up my spacing. What's the deal with that?)


Heathenry is, basically, Germanic reconstructionist religion. The degree to which each Heathen relies on reconstruction for crafting their religion will vary; personally I like the term "recon-derived" because there's a great deal of personal experience that I believe is relevant to the individual. Being hide-bound I think is a mistake. But we're not limited to that; while we can acknowledge our UPG is UPG, and not something anyone else is obliged to accept, it can still form a relevant part of our practice.

"Heathenry" is something of a minor umbrella term and encompasses sects such as Theodism, Asatru and Forn Sed (among others). There are Heathens who go for specific regional variations such as German, Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. Personally, I prefer the more general, as I feel like I can explore the different variations of belief without boxing myself in. Having said that, I do have a growing interest in Anglo-Saxon Heathenry.

Being a reconstructionist religion, we look to the past - through the lore, particularly the Eddas and Sagas; through history; through archaeology - to ground our faith and our practice. Heathenry is a revival; we want to recreate the religion of the Northmen, but we recognise that in doing so we are doing it in this world, not in theirs. Times have changed, the world has changed, cultures have changed. While we look to the past, ours is a living religion, so the past cannot hold all the answers.

Gods, etc.

Heathenry is polytheistic. Though this is the nature of Heathenry itself, there are certainly Heathens who are more agnostic, or who focus their worship on local wights and ancestors and only rarely honour gods. This has historical precedence and is therefore OK.

Non-god spirits of various types are actually an important element of the religion and give it tremendous texture, I've found. There's a great deal on various spiritual concepts to be dug into and uncovered by the intrepid Heathen beginner. Spirits are important, and they were important to our Heathen ancestors - perhaps more important than the gods on a day-to-day level.

I won't spend much time on this section. You know the gods. There's Oðinn, and Thor, and Freyr, and Frigg. And Loki - though a caveat on Loki. You know me, I adore Him. Some others do not. There are claims that Loki was not historically worshipped (which I say is suspect - there's enough post-Heathen folklore that honours or calls on Loki that the idea that he was never worshipped seems a bit ridiculous to me). Others appear to be outright afraid of Him, or viciously angry at Him, or both. He has been called homophobic slurs to my face. At any rate, suffice it to say, it is generally wise, if in the company of Heathens you do not know well, to refrain from raising the horn to Him, just in case. For the most part, though, I think many people tend to just be wary of Him and that is fair enough.

I've written several posts as a part of 30 Days of Paganism on Heathen deities, if you'd like to see my personal take on some of the gods.  


There are forms of magic within Heathenry, but let me start off by saying that not every (or in fact, not most) Heathens are interested in using magic themselves. It's not a major aspect of the religion as it is in some forms of Paganism, such as Wicca wherein every practitioner is also a witch.

Some major forms of magic are:
Rune-magic, in which one inscribes (or intones) a rune to invoke its energies;
Seiðr, sort of what one might describe as "Norse shamanism" just to simplify shit;
Galdr, a type of singing magic (although some people use this term to describe intoning rune-names too);
Spae-craft, which more or less refers to divination.

At this point I would refer you to a totally awesome website about Northern magic that I used to pop into every so often but it appears to be down. Damnit.

The Runes are a topic unto themselves, which I will tackle at a later date, when this PBP rolls around to R. The quick version is: They are sacred Mysteries, that can be invoked to create magic, and can be drawn as lots as a form of divination. Whether or not one uses magic, I think Runes are a fascinating subject to study and that they can give real insight into Heathenry as a religion, so I reckon every Heathen would benefit from spending some time with the Runes, if only briefly.


I've actually gone into Heathen ritual in some detail here. I'm not keen on going over it in detail again; the basic ritual or blót involves sharing a food or drink sacrifice with the gods (or wights, or ancestors, etc). Many Heathen groups also hold "sumbels", formal drinking parties and feasts, which involve three rounds (sometimes more) of toasting. It's said that anything said in sumbel affects the wyrd all present, and in particular an oath you make in sumbel will affect all those present if broken. You will be held to it! and if you break your word, you'll have to make it up to people. A blót you can hold yourself, but a sumbel is more of a group thing, so it's not something I have personally experienced.


Heathen ethics revolve around personal responsibility, honour and hospitality. We take our guidance and inspiration from the Havamal. In Heathenry, there aren't really "rules" as such. Different kindreds will have rules, of course, and acceptable vs unacceptable behaviour. But for the most part, it's essentially more about responsibility and about valued virtues than it is about "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots". One tries to live an honourable life, and to live up to the values of Germanic cultures. (Of course, things like murder and the breaking of oaths are heavily frowned upon. How you act will reflect how you are treated by others, e.g., thrown in jail for the rest of your life.) The focus is on living well, and living Tru.

Some groups codify these values into the "Nine Noble Virtues" or NNV. To be honest, I think this list is pretty arbitrary. It's apparently mostly gleaned from the Havamal but there are some major virtues from the Havamal that are stressed - friendship, wit, moderation - that do not appear in the NNV. I don't really think we need such a simplistic list, when we have the great bulk of lore to draw from and to inspire us.


Heathenry as a whole is more focused on living well than on the possibilities of the afterlife. But having said that, the dead, whether one actively believes they still exist as entities, are an element of Heathen practice. We honour the ancestors, we remember the heroes. There are a variety of beliefs too on what precisely the afterlife involves, be it the warriors in Valhalla or in Fólkvangr, those in Hel, spirits residing in burial mounds, or in mountains, or family spirits who sort of stick around to watch over the family such as the Dísir. Suffice it to say that the dead remain a part of life: referred to, remembered, and loved.

See my entry on the Dísir for more on those entities particularly, and H.E. Davidson's "Road to Hel" for a look at the various afterlife beliefs of the Germanic peoples.

Our sources on afterlife destinations may have been influenced by the Christian recorders, so whether or not there is an aspect of a place of punishment to Helheim is something I for one am highly sceptical about. At any rate, we don't live and act in the hopes of gaining a good afterlife or avoiding a bad one. Heathens live to be remembered well by those living. The Havamal says:
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.

- Havamal 75, trans. Bray
...the idea being that if you live well, then you will live on in the memories of those left behind. This is really the primary idea. Even Heathens who don't necessarily believe in an afterlife seem to adhere to this idea that great deeds, great love, great friendships, bring a sort of immortality.


Wyrd is sort of the Norse version of fate. But fate that's sort of interactive.

I find a metaphor is the easiest way of explaining it. Think of everything like a tapestry. All the people are threads. Certain things are set: you can't control the colour of your thread (your personality) or where you start in the tapestry (your family, your country, the time of your birth), and there's an over-arching pattern to the point where at certain points, your thread has to cross. It has to be at certain places in order for the pattern to work. But aside from that, your thread can wander. As your thread wanders, the secondary patterns form. Once they're woven, though, they're set. You can't undo it if it makes a mess. And everywhere your thread wanders will change those secondary patterns. Each decision you make reflects in the pattern, and if your thread crosses in a particular way, it will mean another thread cannot. So your thread and your patterns affect the threads around you, and their lives, their patterns, their choices. It ripples out, no matter who you are. Your thread and its place in the pattern is your wyrd - or sometimes called your orlog, which is essentially another word for the same idea - and even the gods have one.

This idea may seem a bit "mystic" in comparison to the more "practical" aspects of Heathenry, but it relates to the idea of living well. You can't change parts of your orlog, parts of your destiny. The only thing you can change is how you respond to them. Like the gods meeting their own fates at Ragnarok, will you stand tall and courageous? The Havamal (71) reminds us that it's better to be alive than dead, but if you're going to die either way, die well.

There's no "karma" in Heathenry. Wyrd has been compared to karma, which to me is weird because even with the Western bastardisation of the term I can't see what they really have in common.


The primary days of celebration are Yule (held at midwinter) and Midsummer, but there are others, such as Thorrablót, Freyfaxi, Dísablót, and Ostara. The Troth has an eight-spoke wheel of major celebrations similar to (but not the same as) the popular Neo-Pagan "Wheel of the Year". Aside from Yule, what you celebrate, and how, is more or less up to you; you honour who you honour at each celebration based on what the holiday means to you and/or your kindred. We look to historical precedence, we look to what the Northmen were doing at that time of year, as to how we choose to celebrate. I had great trouble for a long time because I wasn't sure who I was meant to be honouring at each holiday. I had a look around the internet, and realised that different groups were honouring different gods, and for slightly different reasons. In different places, the Dísir were honoured at different times of year, and that's still true today, with different groups choosing different holidays on which to honour these entities or to particularly stress their worship.

I like that. It gives Heathenry an element of "folk religion", of personal variation. I think that lends to it being a "living religion". The important thing is that you take the time to worship, and to celebrate. Having said that, there are some general themes about who to honour when. Freyja tends to get worshipped in late spring and summer, Oðinn in winter.

Some people hold "Days of Remembrance" for Heathen heroes and martyrs, generally on the 9th of each month. I tend to forget about them, to be honest. I don't think it's something many Heathens actively do. If actually remember on the 9th, I'll tend to reflect on the hero in question, maybe read some of their saga or look them up in a book or online, rather than pour a glass of mead for them.

For more, or for some ideas, there are several websites that list various holidays across the year, and speak about who they worship at these times and why.

Groups and Priesthood

The basic group - which I suppose you could compare to the "coven" or "grove" in other religions - is called a kindred. Different kindreds work in different ways; there's no real set rules to how they should be constructed or how they should function, at least not that I know of. Kindreds that are part of a larger group such as the Asatru Folk Assembly or the Troth may have particular rules of structure or behaviour that they have to adhere to for their kindred to be listed as a member-kindred of the organisation. Some kindreds have set leaders, corresponding perhaps to a High Priest/ess in other religions; other kindreds are more egalitarian and different people may lead different rituals.

A kindred will celebrate, feast and worship together at particular times of the year, assembling for holy-days, blóts and rites of passage. Often different members of the group will specialise in particular "Heathen skills" - brewing, smithing, poetry, spae-craft - and contribute these skills to the group and to individual members.

Some Heathen organisations run a priesthood program. But on a basic level, the priest is more or less the head of the household. Heathen priests are called goði (sometimes Anglicised as gothi or godhi) and priestesses are gyðja (gythia, gydhia). The goði or god-person is basically someone who has formed a close relationship with a deity, who leads a ritual and who has a good and thorough knowledge of the lore. Historically, the person leading the ritual was often the chieftain or head of the household, and there is no standard system for what makes a goði across the religion. A person considered a goði in one organisation won't necessarily be considered so elsewhere. In practice it's often a title of affection and respect for the leader of a kindred.

For those interested, Diana Paxson includes a fictionalised kindred in her book "Essential Asatru" at the beginning of each chapter. I have never personally been a member of a kindred and so can't comment much.

Race: Folkish vs Universalist Heathenry

Let's start by saying that some Heathen groups and organisations are racist. Some individuals are racist. Some individuals even use Heathenry as an excuse for their racism. Within Heathenry there are Neo-Nazis. Within Heathenry also there are many, many individuals who are actively speaking out against racism. Heathenry is NOT a racist religion, or a race-based religion. There are however particular groups that may not accept certain people based on their skin colour, ancestry or ethnicity.

There is this idea that Heathenry is an ancestral religion, and that one should only be a Heathen if one's ancestors were Heathen. I think this is silly, firstly because most of my more recent ancestors were Christians, and secondly because I don't see any historical precedence for non-Northern Europeans not being allowed to worship the gods. The Vikings travelled widely and traded happily with all sorts of people. Fostering and adoption were an aspect of the culture, so I have no problem with the idea of adopting someone into the culture. I can see it being more difficult for someone outside of a Germanic, Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon cultural base to acclimatise to the religion, in the same way that I would have a bit more trouble with Greek, Kemetic or Celtic religions, but that doesn't mean it is impossible or that they shouldn't try. 

Our ideas of race, of "White" and "Black" and so on, are quite modern ideas. It's unlikely the palaeo-Pagan Heathens thought about things that way at all, and the more I become acquainted with different European cultures then and now, the more ideas of race seem.... ridiculously limited. And arbitrary. And silly.

Anyway. The term "Folkish" implies that "the folk", that is, Heathens, should be of the same race or basic culture. Some people are Folkish but more or less easy-going about it. Others are very angry and aggressive, hateful people. (It's like in Heathenry, fluff takes two varieties: the ones who ignore history and involve a thick layer of New-Ageism, and the ones who ignore history and turn Heathenry into this giant racist, homophobic hate-fest.) The other end of the spectrum is Universalism: the idea that there are no ancestral or blood ties to the religion and that anyone can join. Personally I'm somewhere between the middle and Universalism: I think that one is more likely to find one's home in a religion that one shares cultural roots with, but if one is called to Heathenry, one is called to Heathenry, regardless of the colour of one's skin or who one's parents are or what country one lives in. Overall I just try to avoid that whole "folkish vs universalist" thing because all the yelling makes me sad.

TL;DR: You don't have to be white to be a Heathen, but not every group will accept you with open arms.

Why "Heathen"?

The worshippers of Germanic gods were called "Heathens" by their Christian contemporaries. Admittedly, this was mostly because they were the only Pagans still hanging around at the time. Other Pagans may well have been called "Heathens" also. But hey. We are resurrecting the word, and claiming it.
I have heard that the word was used back in the 1970s as a Germanic-root alternative to the Latin-root "Pagan", and came to mean this specific Pagan religion. Now many Heathens describe themselves as both Heathen and Pagan, with Heathenry being the name of a Pagan religion. Others still reject the "Pagan" moniker (but I haven't come across many such people, to be honest).

Outside of the context of Paganism, "Heathen" is still used as a synonym for "Pagan" and that's fine. Inside the context of Paganism, if you identify as a "Heathen" you will get a lot of people assuming you are a Germanic recon polytheist. Technically even if you're not, you'd still be right, but those assumptions will be made, so thorough is the association with the term Heathen. Likewise if you lived on a heath you would also be correct.

Some Slavic and Finnish Pagans identify as "Heathens" also. Honestly as far as I'm concerned that's fine by me. As long as everyone's clear about what they mean.

Further Information

This has been a very basic overview. I have tried to keep it general across Heathenry, but there are a lot of variations I'm not fully familiar with. There are aspects of this article that some Heathens will disagree with. And that's fine. I've been a Heathen for maybe five years now, at most, though it took me a while to start identifying as one. I'm only a beginner, and I have a great deal to learn still. At a later date, I may expand this. I keep feeling like I've missed something.
Further major posts of mine on Heathen subjects:
All this and more at the Heathenry tag
Beginners' resources:
"Essential Asatru" by Diana L. Paxson
"True Hearth" by James Allen Chisholm
Poetic Edda (various translations)
Prose Edda (various translations)

Further resources:
"Our Troth" vol. I and II by various authors
"Elves, Wights and Trolls" by Kveldulf Gundarsson
"Gods and Myths of Northern Europe" by H.E. Davidson
"Road to Hell" and in fact practically anything by H.E. Davidson
The many and assorted Sagas

There's much, much more to read and go digging into, but I'm not going to list everything here, at least not today.


  1. Very insightful and interesting post!

  2. Excellent overview. I'm fairly new to this path and your post answered a lot of questions for me. Thanks.

    1. Thank you very much! I'm glad I could help :)