Language and Mysticism

Heathenry in the Anglosphere has this penchant for using foreign languages in its rituals. Most commonly this is Old Norse, but periodically you’ll see Old English, which is just as foreign to most by virtue of its age. (Amusingly, I’ve yet to see Old High German, among others, used in this way, but I feel that this is related to the dearth of language resources.) There’s a level of mystery when you use a foreign language, which many seemingly feel is a requirement for religious activities. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

I feel that this comes from two different things:

  1. The usage of Latin in Christian rituals, even though that usage has declined considerably in recent decades in the wake of such events as the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965).
  2. A way to impress others by showing that you know another language, despite how badly it’s being butchered oftentimes. In monolingual communities, especially America, this can carry a surprising weight.

The earliest works in modern Heathenry came at a time when Latin was still used in church services, but poorly understood at best. The first organisations were founded in the 1970s and their membership had grown up with a foreign language being on the public conscience, even if other Christian denominations didn’t aways go that route. Simultaneously, Wiccan rituals had a similar knack for using language in order to provide mysticism. Materials were then written with these in mind. These resulting rituals, such as the Hammer Rite, were then thoughtlessly copied, barely with changes, over the decades to the point that contrasting opinion barely exists.

Multilingualism is notably absent in the United States, although it’s a bit less of an issue in Canada and the UK with the presence of French and other languages. The 2007 American Community Survey found that only 20% of households spoke a language other than English1United States Census Bureau, “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes Nation’s Linguistic Diversity” (2010)., although this does not mean that 80% of households are monolingual or that 20% are multilingual.2Michael Erard, “Are We Really Monolingual?” in The New York Times (2012). Fluency in another language, however, is nonetheless lacking. If anything, it’s overwhelmingly Spanish.

Thus I take issue with Heathen ritual and the absorption of these things. Language should not be mysterious, nor do we need mysticism of that stripe. We are a pragmatic bunch, just as our forebears were, but many come with baggage that they don’t see.

Words matter. Orthopraxy is ultimately among the more important concepts for us, but doing the right actions should require you to understand what you’re doing. If you’re uttering broken Old Norse without an inkling of what’s being said or completing actions without understanding why they’re done, this is hardly orthopractic. You might as well sign a binding contract without actually knowing what is written.

There is nothing wrong with plain English (or whatever else you wish to use). If spoken truthfully, your words are just as powerful. The gods will understand you just as well. Your ancestors would presumably understand you, especially the more recently departed who are likelier to have spoken what and how you do. We have no evidence to show that religious happenings were conducted in another language, so we emulate nothing in doing so now.3Poetry did have a habit of using otherwise archaic or dialectal words, but these were still understood.

Oddly enough, people do not seem to realise that this idea of using another language is not followed everywhere else. Icelanders use Icelandic, although that’s not far off from Old Norse in many respects. The rest of Scandinavia uses their modern languages. When you watch a video made by adherents of Urglaawe, it’s in Pennsylvania German and English. And let’s not forget the many Christians who worked historically to have church services done in the vernacular instead of Latin or to have translations of the Bible at all. They had an issue like we do and they got over it in many respects. We don’t need to repeat the mistake.

I’ll conclude by saying that there’s nothing wrong with learning a dead language for enjoyment and enrichment. You can learn a great deal by learning a language, as it shows you how a people saw the world. But let’s not obscure what we’re doing now and make it opaque to those around us.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. United States Census Bureau, “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes Nation’s Linguistic Diversity” (2010).
2. Michael Erard, “Are We Really Monolingual?” in The New York Times (2012).
3. Poetry did have a habit of using otherwise archaic or dialectal words, but these were still understood.

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