Commentary on Jon S. Mackley’s “The Anglo-Saxons — and their gods (still) among us”

Today Medievalists.net posted a link to Jon S. Mackley’s The Anglo-Saxons — and their gods (still) among us. I’m always excited to read what people have written about Anglo-Saxon culture, but I’m distinctly disappointed by this article. It started out well enough, but went downhill quickly after that.

My biggest complaint stems from the fact that Mr. Mackley conflates cultures and languages. Right on the fourth page he cites Lughnasadh as a Saxon holiday that became known as Hlāfmæsse, later Lammas. Not only is this just wrong, but then he worsens the situation by saying that the name became Lammas because of an association with lambs. Such a theory was advanced historically, but it’s been thoroughly disproven and only sound changes gave us Lammas, not folk etymology.

But that isn’t the only place where he doesn’t understand etymology or even spelling.

  • He says that the word for harvest is “hær[ƀ]fest”. <ƀ> does not exist in Old English and the word was simply hærfest.
  • Wōden is consistently written as Woðen.
  • He claims on the ninth page that Tīw comes from Old Norse Týr, but then immediately after says that this comes from Proto-Germanic *Tîwaz. (Even this is incorrect, as it’s *Tīwaz.) A page later Týr is now suddenly spelled Tir.
  • He proposes that Dienstag “Tuesday” may derive from an abbreviation of “O-Dienstag”, referring presumably to Óðinn then. This fails to take into account the local spelling for that god—Wodan—and is in no way attested anyway. He then says that it may be a corruption of Ziestag, which is used in other German-speaking areas. The currently accepted etymology is from a variation of ding “thing, assembly”.
  • Without proper citation, he mentions that Þunor may be from the Celtic “Jupiter Tanarus”. Such a name strikes me being purely Roman or, at best, Romano-Celtic, as the Celts wouldn’t have referred to a god by such a manner. And it ignores the thoroughly settled etymology for þunor “thunder”.
  • Marking of vowel length and accents are largely absent.

He doesn’t know when he’s mixing cultures or making very silly mistakes, like in the aforementioned Lughnasadh nonsense.

  • Yule is celebrated, yes, but then he goes on to say that the Saxons celebrated Jólnir, a byname for Óðinn, not Wōden. Wrong language and time period.
  • He says that the Saxons had Frigg, who is a Scandinavian goddess. The correct form would be Frīg, which is pronounced [fri:j].
  • Óðinn’s wife is apparently Freyja, which he spells Freya.
  • Frigg is apparently the Saxon Earth Mother. That doesn’t even make sense in any context, considering the attestation of Norse Jǫrð and possibly Anglo-Saxon Folde.
  • Only the Saxons are ever mentioned. Apparently the Angles, Jutes, and Frisians never got involved.

If I were grading this work, it would get a failing mark.

UPG and Mysteries

If there is one thing that baffles me at times about Heathendom, it’s that people with little understanding of history and culture will gladly tell everyone about their UPG and mysteries, while those with a much stronger background in such will almost never discuss them. Periodically this goes so far as to say that all UPG is false and should be discouraged entirely. Others, such as Ale Glad of An Ásatrú Blog, will say that such things shouldn’t be discussed publicly, as doing so would diminish the power of the events.

I can understand why Ale Glad could feel that way. Some things are very private and are only to be discussed amongst close friends and family. But I also think that it’s a disservice to the religion that we don’t discuss anything of what we’ve experienced; we’ve left those discussions to the fluffiest of people who in turn put serious people off. We’re allowing the discussion to be dominated by people who have little interest in learning more and whom many circles would rather not have around. Not only this, but we are likely holding back the religion by not finding commonalities, thus moving from UPG to SPG. This stifles growth potentially.

I honestly don’t know how to fix this. Convincing people to discuss what they’ve experienced can be difficult, although asking directly eventually causes some to talk. Organising this is next to impossible and, as far as I can tell, no one really catalogues anything outside of a few, poor, ill-conceived attempts on Tumblr. When the more well known heathens talk, however, it can have the problem of causing people to follow it blindly as truth; Galina Krasskova is the source of many insanities, for example.

For now I can only talk about what has happened within my family, as short and simplistic as the list may be.

  • In my very early teens, if not slightly beforehand, I was in the kitchen. I happened to look back through the living room and into the backyard. Just outside the window stood a shadow of sorts. I looked at it for a moment, didn’t feel any alarm whatsoever, and went back to what I was doing. It took me a moment to register what happened and I immediately looked back, but saw nothing. In the years after I thought that it might have been Wōden for whatever reason, but I’m entirely uncertain. The skeptic in me compels me to admit that I had been watching a lot of ghost movies at the time.
  • In Summer 2003, my mother, brother, and I were visiting my grandmother in Virginia. My grandfather had died just a few months earlier. These trips happened twice a year and were painful for me; there was no Internet connection and the TV was often dominated with uninteresting news. During this particular trip I managed to secure the living room for myself, allowing me to stay up late and watch Adult Swim. I had been asleep for a bit when I woke up to the feeling of someone sitting at the foot of the bed. I opened my eyes and, instead of the expected darkness, I saw a screaming, gaping, black mouth, two black eyes, and swirling, bright colours. I wasted no time in fleeing to the kitchen and turning every light on. Eventually venturing back to the living room, I found nothing. I slept with the light on for the rest of the week.
  • When my mother was 6, she and her parents returned to Germany and were visiting the Black Forest. Part way through the trip, she saw a black boar walking nearby. No one else saw it.
  • My mother is a part of a group that does shamanic journeying. She can’t stand most people in these groups, but she uncomfortably admits that they see a lot of things in common during their journeys. She’s unsure what to make of this.
  • While my husband and I were getting ready to leave after this last Thanksgiving, my father was packaging some things for us to take home. Two packages were destined to go with us, while a third was put to the side for him. We took our leftovers, but the third package entirely vanished. My brother wasn’t present, my mother wouldn’t hide it, and my father had just placed it on the counter where I had seen it last. He attributed its disappearance to elves, an oddity from a quasi-atheist.

All in all I don’t have many things to report. My family is rather mundane and can in no way claim to have spiritual or magical events happen often. I have no concrete experiences to tell me what the gods might prefer. I haven’t prayed for something unreasonable and suddenly had it the next day. I don’t hear voices, for better or worse.

But I do know that people have learned or experienced odd or interesting things. I can only hope that they talk about them eventually. It would be a great service potentially.

Wind Gods

I like to ponder what we’re missing in our religion and what we’re ignoring for simplicity’s sake. We tend to gloss over a lot of things; many act as though our world is a simple one and seemingly want as few divine entities as possible. A notable absence in my mind are wind gods.

The Greeks have a very detailed list of wind gods, mostly contained within the Anemoi (“winds”). The Romans have the Venti (“winds”), who mostly took on the attributes, but not the names, of their Greek counterparts. Slavic religion evidently has Stribog, god of winds, sky, and air. Hinduism has Vāyu, lord of the winds, also known as Vāta. There are also the Dikpāla. In Iranian religion, Vate is the god of air and wind.

Njǫrðr has this function, but to me this only makes sense in the context of sailing. Largely forgotten, there are also Norðri, Suðri, Austri, and Vestri. They are mentioned in Gylfaginning as four dwarves and may be related to Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr, and Duraþrór, the four stags of Yggdrasill. (I’m personally inclined to say that they are unrelated, that the four stags are a later invention, and that Eikþyrnir was the original, sole stag.) Whether they are related to wind is up for debate.

I’m conflicted about these dwarves. They hold up the skull of Ymir, although this seems like an odd job for dwarves. I’m of the opinion that they were not dwarves originally or at least had a much more detailed story to themselves once. We’ll likely never know anything else.

Despite this, I decided to have some fun in reconstructing their names in Old English, even if we have no such evidence for them. Undoubtedly at least one deity governed the winds, so let’s go with what we have.

Barring any mistakes on my part, the names of the dwarves are merely the names of the cardinal directions (norðr, suðr, austr, vestr) plus the suffux –i (< Proto-Germanic *-į̄, which forms an abstract noun from an adjective). In Old English, the cardinal directions are norþ, sūþ, ēast, and west. The cognate suffix is –u, which later became –o, and causes i-mutation:

  • norþ > *nerþu
  • sūþ > *sȳþu
  • ēast > *īestu (*ēstu in dialects other than West Saxon)
  • west > *wistu

Let’s go further into Modern English. Vowel changes were drastic during the Great Vowel Shift and all word-final vowels in polysyllabic words were lost, thus erasing the suffix entirely.

  • *nerþu > *nerth /nɛ(ɹ)ð/
  • *sȳþu > *sithe /saɪð/
  • *īestu > *eest or *east /iːst/
  • *wistu > *wist /wɪst/

Had things gone very differently, we might have been worshipping Nerth, Sithe, Eest, and Wist and asking for good winds from them.

Priesthood in Heathendom

Two weeks ago Amanda at A Heathen Naturalist posted about the need for a priesthood:

One of the recurring debates that comes up in pagan blogs and forums is the question of pagan clergy. Do we even need a distinction between clergy and laypeople, and if so, what would their roles be?

Well, I’m a layperson who really wishes there were some good pagan clergy available, but what are clergy for anyway? Why can’t we all be our own priests and priestesses? One common thing I see is that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is that clergy can “hear the gods” and laypeople can’t.

It’s a good piece. I haven’t always agreed with her work, but I found myself nodding quite a bit while reading this. Let’s quote another bit that I liked:

I know this is sometimes used as a slur, but you know what I think we primarily need good pagan priests for? Marrying and burying!

This is painfully true. When I was married in April 2013, it was not by a Heathen or even some generic pagan, as I know no such people. It was a justice of the peace and the words spoken by her were completely secular, as we wanted to make sure that no references to Yahweh would slip in if we allowed her to mention religion. My vows, which are still saved on my computer to this day, came the closest to mentioning religion when I swore an oath to stand by my husband. That was it. I knew that any attempted Heathen things would be botched or not understood by the justice of the peace.

When my grandmother died a few months ago, there was no funeral. Admittedly, she had no friends up here, so it would have come down to my mother and me. There was no priest of any sort who could help. My mother received no comforting from such a person. I conducted rites by myself in private once I received the ashes; this was hardly a comfort for me. My grandmother was my last grandparent and her death marked a sudden, irreversible loss of family history that I didn’t yet have recorded.

At the rate Heathendom has done anything right, I can safely say that there also won’t be a priest for my first child’s birth once such a day happens.

Egos and Individualism

Amanda touches upon another issue that bothers me:

I’ve seen self-proclaimed pagan priests say they don’t serve people, they serve the gods. A lot of them seem to not really like people at all. Well, I don’t like people either, but I think that withdrawing from humans and focusing all your attention on communing with your deity isn’t actually being a priest. It’s more like being a monk or nun. And the monastic life is perfectly fine if that’s your calling, but being a priest is about serving humans AND the gods by helping humans connect with the spirit world. And that requires priests to be compassionate and trustworthy individuals who are really good with people. After all, you’re talking about taking care of people’s souls here.

Within Heathendom I haven’t seen too many people proclaiming themselves priests, but I’ve definitely seen it, especially in other pagan religions. It’s remarkable how often these people care nothing about the needs of the people. For Heathendom, a religion that is supposedly about the community and its wellbeing, there’s so little help for that very community. People would rather elevate themselves and feel needed as an exalted intermediary between the gods and man or, perhaps even worse, simply stay uninvolved.

Marc at Of Axe and Plough, which is an awesome name for a website, has written about people’s need to feel special:

Because we, as a society, are dedicated to the idea of extreme individualism, we seek to try to find something that represents ourselves; something that can differentiate us from the mass of our fellows.  Something that is, in effect, a large neon sign proclaiming who or what we are.  I have a few thoughts why people strive so hard to make Paganism seem like such a big deal:

  • They might come from a religious background where they were simply one practitioner among hundreds of others, their voices drowned out in the back of the church and no longer want to feel like “one of the herd”.
  • They require external validation because they’re coming from a largely secularist society which, founded upon reason and logic, innately positions them against an expenditure of time or energy on “unfounded ideals” on something like religion or spiritualism.
  • They simply want something to differentiate themselves from the mundane.

In response to such people, lubutu had a fantastic way of describing historical priests in just how mundane they could be:

Besides which, it’s clearly not about social stratification: the clergy are not ‘higher’ in any sense, they’re pretty much just the caretakers of the pagan temple, as it were.

The other side of this worthless coin, however, is the belief that everyone is his own priest. This is incorrect. People bring in baggage from Christianity that they don’t even understand. Broadly this comes from the idea of forming a close, personal relationship with Jesus. More specifically it comes from Protestantism, where it is a foundational concept known as “universal priesthood” or “priesthood of all believers”. Martin Luther brought up the idea in 1520.

At least the Protestants had a possible theological basis for this belief. They also still have people in positions of power, just not as a spiritual authority necessarily. These preachers teach, direct, and help people in theory. We don’t have that at all; we have a foreign concept taken to an extreme that does not work in the slightest.

It’s quite clear that Heathens of the past did not have this idea of a universal priesthood. If everyone were his own priest, we wouldn’t have words for the concept and records of people holding such offices. In Old English, for example, we have heargweard and wēofodþegn, while Old Norse has goði and Gothic has gudja. Bede in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum even mentioned a curious thing that implies a hierarchy, if accurate:

This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundinghan, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

We have no other such reference and it’s possible that Bede was simply mistaken, but it’s also a fact that he had access to information that we’ll never know again. I’m inclined to believe it. Once you start having large populations, a level of organisation is both likely and often needed to a degree.

Today’s Organisations

Many have issues with hierarchies as polytheists. People are opposed to the structure seen in Christianity, but they falsely assume that it’s all or nothing. The world is never so black and white. There is nothing wrong with a network of qualified priests with regional leadership. Similar things were common enough in the past and it still works now. It provides goals and organisation that we sorely lack today.

Unfortunately, we don’t have such hierarchies even loosely. We have self-serving organisations that act as a platform for the leadership. A glance through the Troth’s lore programme bibliography shows a stunning number of authors who are or were directly affiliated with the organisation, even though many of those books are no longer easily found and/or just outright full of misinformation. One of the most often updated parts of the site is the Troth Authors and Musicians page, which suffers similarly. There are 31 books by eighteen authors. Of these, I know fourteen of the books to be junk and they’re by just five of the authors. Of those five authors, I know that four of them served in an official capacity in the organisation and are known for poor scholarship. Several other authors are questionable without even having to buy their books, while a few try to be scholarly, but fail at basic academic rigour.

The AFA has very similar issues. Their online store is a joke. Their website has a stunningly egotistical photo of Stephen McNallen right on the main page.

What sort of leadership is this? How is this helping the religion and not lining someone’s pockets instead? It’s no wonder that we have no meaningful priesthood for Heathendom.

It gets murkier from this point. The AFA has the courtesy to spell out some of their requirements and costs ($100 for the training itself) on their clergy programme page, which then goes into much greater depth on the application. It becomes a bit more of a mess when it requires two references from AFA members, which to me encourages cliques. I would go so far as to say that we should discourage such a thing in a clergy programme for such a small religion.

Sadly, none of the material used by the programme is available, so I cannot comment on its educational merits. It’s probably right to assume that the required readings aren’t impressive, but I hope that I’m wrong.

The Troth seemingly doesn’t have any clergy programme right now, as they no longer provide information on it publicly; presumably there’s more information available for members. I do know that the lore programme is a prerequisite. The aforementioned issues with the lore programme’s bibliography is reason enough for concern. The required readings, as currently presented, are even more worrying. Not counting the Eddas, which are available online obviously, there are fourteen required texts. Of these, ten are written by key people in the Troth’s history and leadership, plus one more by a Troth member whose role in things is unknown to me. Six of these are written by Stephan Grundy under his pen name, Kveldulf Gundarsson. Stephen Flowers, writing as Edred Thorsson, is somehow an authority on magic. (A third book by him is a required reading, but is no longer available and has an alternative on the list. This missing book is not counted in the above totals.)

Even more shocking is the final price for these texts. Again ignoring the Eddas, these books would come to $280 as of this writing. Some of them are barely available at the current prices; other purchasing options are considerably more expensive. This could easily be $400 if some of these texts become less available. And most of it comes from Stephen Grundy, whose knowledge is laughable, abysmal, incorrect, and uncited.

It’s unknown what other books the clergy programme would need in addition to these texts. Prices for being a part of both programmes are also unknown. Expectations are absent in available information, but surely things are similar to previously published information, despite an overhaul to the clergy programme a few years ago. The old handbook is still online, for example. In fact, the entire clergy page from days of yore is archived. The required books list adds two more over what the lore programme of today expects, plus some more that are in the public domain. The recommended book list is much larger and replete with awful things, although I cannot comment on quite a few of them.

For the sake of comparison,  let’s take a look at Ár nDraíocht Féin (henceforth the ADF), a rather fluffy group that likes to conflate cultures. This organisation has multiple programmes available. It starts with the Dedicant Path, a prerequisite for all later courses. From there one may join the Generalist Study Program, various guilds, the Initiate Program, or the Clergy Training Program; the Initiate Program is a stepping stone between the Dedicant Path and the Clergy Training Program, but is not required for the latter. All of these are free to dues-paid members, with the exception of some guilds apparently. It’s a good start.

Kevin Silverstag went through the Dedicant Path and partially through the Initiate Program before quitting; he’s my primary source for the ADF’s current programmes. The Dedicant Path is somewhat basic and suffers from the inclusion of worthless things, such as the “nine pagan virtues” and the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. It correctly has the student do book reviews. It sets up a basis for understanding nature and the ancestors, but thankfully doesn’t delve into the gods much. (Heathendom could definitely learn from that.) The Initiate Program is a bit more involved and—at least from what I can see of it—requires comparisons with other Indo-European cultures. It gets into ritual and important topics, although it brings up a bit of Wiccan nonsense.

What immediately jumps out to me is the lack of required reading. There’s a recommended reading list that is primarily scholarly works; these are good books from my experience. Out-of-print books have their own list. Some recommendations on a third list are wholly inappropriate, such as Diana Paxson’s books on runes or Stephen Grundy’s books from the ’90s. For some reason Galina Krasskova is on the list, even though that person is insane. This is where things start to fall apart. A fourth listing has members’ books. These are painfully fluffy and not always Celtic; three of them are Germanic. One of them is so bad that I have literally nothing but scathing remarks for the author.

Outside the immediate training programmes is the ritual listing. It’s painfully bad and surely it comes up later while training. A lot of it is very silly and inaccurate. The Proto-Indo-European rituals are a joke. The Norse rituals hurt my sides from sheer laughter. The álfablót ritual is stunningly awful. One page has a song that is in Middle English; I don’t know how that relates to the Norse. If these are any indication, any training that deals with complex topics, which a clergy programme would have, would be awful. And I’ve never heard anything but jokes when people discuss the ADF, which doesn’t help. At least everything started out well enough.

An Ideal Way

A proper priesthood is good and needed. It needn’t have a singular head like the Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch. Its governing body should probably be a council of sorts with an odd number of members in order to avoid ties; the members should probably be regional leaders in some capacity. Its bylaws should be publicly viewable; this is a requirement for incorporation in most, if not all, US states, I believe. All meetings should have minutes published, if not also public for attendance.

The training of said priests should be rather involved. Applicants should have background checks done in order to weed out the less desirable people, although they should have the right to explain themselves before dismissal. A nominal fee should at least cover the background checks, but probably also some materials. A higher fee would be reasonable only if the course provides more, such as entire books.

The topics taught should be rather varied. A firm grasp of lore, archeology, and history should be instilled in the applicants. The locations and contexts for everything should be discussed; Norse topics must be clearly marked as distinct from Anglo-Saxon topics when appropriate.

Like the ADF, the initial groundwork should help the applicant develop an understanding of the ancestors and wights, while the gods should come last in order to provide a hint that the gods aren’t everything in one’s religious life. This would help to correct a common issue in Heathendom.

Of utmost importance should be the teaching of comparative mythology. Understanding the neighbouring Indo-European religions goes a long way in understanding our own practices and provides a basis for both interfaith work and reconstruction efforts for Heathendom. This would place our priests as experts of a sort on the topic and would hopefully encourage additional research for the community as a whole.

Marriage and death rites would need to be emphasised; these are major life events that need proper support. In that vein, counselling skills must be taught in order to help people make transitions in their lives. Additional rites of passage should be encouraged and developed.

Rudimentary language skills should be encouraged at the least. Having a basic understanding of Old Norse, Old English, or Old High German goes a long way in understanding older works that are of importance in our modern research. Modern Germanic languages would be very useful as well because of the speakers’ increased awareness of different communities and research abroad.

Educational materials must be thorough, well written, and full of citations. Books and articles must come from scholars as often as possible in order to limit an echo chamber effect. Materials from members of the priesthood (or a supporting organisation’s leadership) must be reviewed for historical accuracy. No one author should have a majority of the required readings. Modern research should be as recent as possible, but anthropological work from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries should be reviewed as well. Books like Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough are important, as they show local, recent practices that may very well be survivals of an earlier time.

Expectations, required readings, recommended readings, and prices should all be public in order to encourage transparency and feedback. Periodically these should be reviewed and updated as new discoveries are made and better writing becomes available.

Conclusion

We’re more than capable of setting up something amazing for ourselves, but egos and individualism get in the way. The current organisations definitely need to be more open about what they do and teach. Indeed, they should probably relinquish their programmes entirely and do what they pretend to do now already: outreach. A separate, nonpartisan organisation would be useful in getting rid of some of the nonsense in our community.

We have a community with an unfulfilled need. If we are to grow as a religion, this must be fixed in a proper manner. Maintaining our islands of disparate, partisan organisations, never sharing information without fighting in some way, won’t help us in the long run. I would like to hope that we won’t just be a footnote in the history of twentieth and twenty-first century religions.

Correction: I had erroneously stated that Amanda is UsurpedLettuce on reddit, but it is, in fact, Marc. See comments.

Myth and Religion

There is a habit in certain corners of Heathendom—most often in /r/asatru, of the groups that I’ve joined—to decry the mixing of myth and religion. It comes up whenever someone, for example, asks how a particular story relates to the world around us. Almost invariably the response is unqualified and used to stop discussion.

Sometimes it’s just a simple statement:

Don’t confuse Mythology for religion.

Other times it’s buried with other things in a list:

3) Don’t confuse mythology with religion.

Perhaps it’s at the end of several paragraphs:

And stop confusing myth for religion.

And occasionally it’s given additional details that border on being useful:

You confuse Mythology with Religion

This is actually something that is very common in Heathenry, particularly with newer heathens. The Myths do have information, but they are not scripture. It helps to understand that the myths are born from ritual, they do not create ritual. With that in mind, you can reconstruct ritual from myth, but the cause and effect cycle must be understood or you will not make the best choices in your reconstruction.

There’s a singular issue with this: a religion without myth is no religion at all. Myth is an integral part. It informs us of so much. It preserves information. It provides reasoning for things. It gives context for things elsewhere within the religion. To lose one’s mythology is to lose one’s culture. The very people who complain incorrectly are also people who simultaneously mourn over the lack of information—practices, beliefs, rituals, and more—that has survived the centuries.

A person cannot necessarily say that all myths are not divinely inspired. It is a certainty that at least a portion—indeed, a probable, vast majority—of the tales originates from man. But to deny that the gods may have pushed some information onto us is a short step away from saying that the gods simply don’t provide anything at all. (As annoying as it is to make a slippery slope argument.) I have met many people who have claimed to have been told something or helped by a non-human entity in some manner. Perhaps they’re all insane, but this is an alternative that brooks no trust in the community.

My own favourite story to mention regards Óðinn’s missing eye in Norse mythology. So he gave up his eye for knowledge, but, according to some, this is just a story with no additional value. He’s just missing an eye then, although this could be stretched further to say that no myths mean that we know nothing about his description at all. Wouldn’t you want to know more? I certainly would. Perhaps there was a sacrifice of an eye, as the story goes. Perhaps it’s a reference to a ritual that existed in forgotten times, as seemingly excessive as that appears. Perhaps it’s an allegory for what one may need to give up in order to achieve one’s goals. Or perhaps it’s a mixture of the three. Regardless of the source(s), a myth has its value.

Myth is not a separable thing. It is not fully distinct from ritual, theology, and morality. All portions of a religion are interconnected and play off each other. In this sense, myth is not religion, but ritual is not religion either. All things must be together in order to make the whole.

People in unrelated discussions like to point out how holiness is defined in Heathendom: it’s about being whole, unbroken, and healthy. It’s literally the Proto-Germanic root. By this very definition, our religion without myth is incomplete and thus no longer worthy of being considered holy. If we can ascribe no acts to greater forces and choose instead to embrace solely science, why be involved in Heathendom at all? Be an atheist and free up some counter space now that you won’t need that altar.

People who want to see myth pushed to the side do not understand the value of myth. It’s our connection to the past. It shapes our religion and how we see the gods and the world. It gives us a narrative in which we find meaning; a meaning that changes over time because our world changes, too. It can be the result of practices, but it can also cause new practices. Forgetting its importance results in a loss from which we cannot recover readily.

Holidays and Calendars

I enjoy reading people’s lists of holidays. Some are very simple, like mine, while others are stunningly complex and may even require a different calendar system in order to calculate dates. But most people’s lists come from publications of  the Asatru Free Assembly or The Troth, whether they know it or not, and these lists are often ahistorical.

The AFA’s original list was relatively simple, as it was based on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year:

  • Yule — 21 December
  • Charming of the Plough — 2 February
  • Summer Finding — 21/25 March
  • May Day — 1 May
  • Midsummer — 21 June
  • Freyfaxi — 1 August
  • Winter Finding — 21/29 September
  • Winter Nights — 31 October

The Troth’s Our Troth (2006) has a longer list:

  • Yule — winter solstice
  • Þorrablót — late January to early February
  • Disting — late February to early March
  • Remembrance for Eyvindr kinnrifi — 9 February
  • Feast of Váli — Valentine’s Day
  • Ragnar Lodbrok’s Day — 28 March
  • Remembrance for Haakon Sigurdsson — 9 April
  • Ostara/Sigrblót — April
  • Remembrance for Guðröðr of Guðbrandsdál — 9 May
  • Einherjar Day — Memorial Day
  • Remembrance for Sigurd — 9 June
  • Midsummer — summer solstice
  • Remembrance for Unnr the Deep-Minded — 9 July
  • Lammas/Freyfaxi — 1 August
  • Remembrance for Radbod, King of the Frisians — 9 August
  • Remembrance for Herman the Cheruscan — 9 September
  • Remembrance for Leif Ericson and his sister — Columbus Day
  • Winter Nights — mid October
  • Remembrance for Erik the Red — 28 October
  • Remembrance for Sigrid the Haughty — 9 November
  • Wayland the Smith’s Day — Thanksgiving
  • Remembrance for Egill Skallagrímsson — 9 December

This was hardly the first version. Stephan Grundy’s Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern Tradition (1993) had a similar list:

  • Yule — 20 December to 1 January
  • Remembrance for Raud the Strong — 9 January
  • Feast of Thunar — full or new moon of January
  • Remembrance for Eyvindr kinnrifi — 9 February
  • Feast of Váli — Valentine’s Day
  • Charming of the Plough — new moon of February
  • Eostre — near the Spring Equinox
  • Ragnar Lodbrok’s Day — 28 March
  • Walpurgisnight — 30 April
  • May Day — 1 May
  • Einherjar Day — Memorial Day
  • Remembrance for Sigurdhr the Völsung — 9 June
  • Midsummer — solstice
  • Remembrance for Unnr the Deep-Minded — 9 July
  • Death of Olafr the Lawbreaker — 29 July
  • Loaf-Fest — 1 August
  • Radbod’s Day — 9 August
  • Remembrance for Herman the Cheruscan — 9 September
  • Winternights — near the Autumnal Equinox
  • Remembrance for Leif Ericsson and his sister — Columbus Day
  • Remembrance for Erik the Red — 28 October
  • Remembrance for Sigrid the Haughty — 9 November
  • Wayland Smith Day — Thanksgiving
  • Remembrance for Egill Skallagrímsson — 9 December

Still others have a “Feast of the Einherjar” or a “Feast of the Fallen” on Veterans Day. And let’s not get into the Asatru Alliance’s list of holidays, which is largely plagiarised with a splash of self-congratulatory nonsense and a lot of funny names.

With a start in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, there’s been little hope to see the US organisations admit to the error of their ways. All of them are trapped in cults of personality that don’t permit them to say that they made mistakes. To do so would dispel the public image that they’ve worked so hard to create over the decades.

The Troth’s beloved remembrances are silly at best. I’ve seen few of them ever actually practiced, though lots of people like to have them listed in order to show their piety. And I’ll never understand why they’re largely placed on the ninth of a month. If there was ever a reason for that, I’ve missed it or it’s been lost to the sands of time. I would almost bet that there was some numerological meaning behind that with no basis in Germanic polytheism, as the early days were filled with people interested in magical numbers and hidden meanings.

The glossing of US holidays is hilariously bad. These holidays already have meanings, even if one doesn’t care about them. The Feast of Váli? That’s not Valentine’s Day at all. Grundy says that it’s folk etymology, but it’s not. He clearly doesn’t understand that term. Stuff for Leifr Eiríksson and his sister, who is oddly never named in these lists? I get the idea behind putting it on Columbus Day, but it’s foolish. Americans are mildly obsessed with Columbus and they don’t even understand the history surrounding him, let alone where he actually sailed. Finally, Grundy openly says that he doesn’t know why Wayland Smith Day is magically on Thanksgiving, so why do some do it at all then?

I’ll never get over the idea of having “Feast of the Einherjar” placed specifically on a holiday about veterans, dead or alive. That creation was definitely a mixup with Memorial Day and thus why there’s a similarly named event on that holiday. How that persists is beyond me.

I find “Charming of the Plough” to be woefully misguided. It’s definitely an attempt to bring Plough Monday into Heathenry, although a month later than traditionally celebrated. But many places are not like England. Many places are frozen solid still, so the agricultural year can’t start by any means. Here in New England I laugh at the idea of doing any meaningful outdoor work in February, let alone January. But my main contention is simple: most people aren’t farmers these days. Why have an agricultural holiday when you have no relation to the event at all? People celebrated things that mattered to them. In the past, everyone was involved in farming in some way. That’s hardly so nowadays! Most can’t even describe what a crop rotation is or how soil drainage is important for some species, so why bother? It’s a hollow gesture.

Equally problematic is the fact that these calendars are a mixture of cultures. These events were not all celebrated side by side. Lammas did not happen seven months or so after Þorrablót, as Lammas (< Old English hlāfmæsse “loaf-mass”; mæsse < Vulgar Latin *messa < Late Latin missa “mass; Christian eucharistic liturgy” < Latin mittere “to send, announce, yield”) is attested in Anglo-Saxon England onward, while Þorrablót was first mentioned in extant records in the early thirteenth century, didn’t come to its current popularity until the late nineteenth century, and is in Iceland.

These calendars are also invariable for the most part. For a bit in the ’90s people were realising that setting exact dates for things that don’t have exact dates didn’t especially make sense. It seems that the last decade has seen people reverting to rigid dates again. It causes them to celebrate things that have no bearing. Midsummer isn’t on the same day every year, after all. Equinoxes move around. Seasons aren’t precisely the same everywhere. Why are people celebrating Winter Finding at the end of September in subtropical regions? Worse yet, why do people celebrate Yule in the middle of the Summer in the Southern Hemisphere?

Modern people forget a key fact about the past: people were often very pragmatic. If it didn’t matter, it was far less likely to be done. We’re accustomed to having edicts from far away officials who decide legal holidays for us. Our ancestors didn’t especially have that and were far more localised. This is exactly why we encounter such variation in relatively small areas. One village did one thing, while the neighbouring village did something potentially very different. Priorities and interests varied, so outcomes changed.

We’re very dogmatic about how things should be done. We want everything to line up neatly, even when evidence says otherwise. It’s important that we adapt and accept that we have differing needs and cares. I don’t farm, so I don’t do farming rituals. I do, however, value my female ancestors, so Mothers’ Night is celebrated every December as Yule begins.

Don’t blindly accept what some person far away pushes onto you. Learn your heritage. Find out what your ancestors considered important and see where there’s overlap in your life. Research locally important dates. We don’t need to be fully unified in our holidays; doing so would erase what matters to us and our kin. And, if you really want to make a new holiday entirely, go ahead, but admit to it and make it something meaningful because it matters, not because a poorly written book without citations says so.

What and How I Practice

Germanic polytheism is a religion that I’ve known my entire life. My mother raised me to understand the holiness of the world and the many gods who form a part of it.

From around 10 to 13 years of age, I would tell people that I followed the Teutonic religion. This didn’t get me very far, as few at that age had any idea what Teutonic meant. I had inherited the term from Stephan Grundy’s Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern Tradition. I wasn’t especially well versed in my own religion’s practices; I was functionally agnostic at the time and didn’t know what I was doing. My own ineptitude would earn me scorn from one classmate, a certain Robert, who would not accept my poor responses to his probing questions. This very person would a few years later tear my hammer from around my neck.

I stopped being so open about my religion once I entered high school. I knew that I wasn’t very good at what I professed. Around this time I had learned about the term Ásatrú. I used it sparingly, as I knew that it would get me just as far as my previous term. I dug into more books at this time, including a lot of books on magic. I was enthusiatic, but a lot of it left me uninterested at the same time. None of it was well written. It all seemed so hollow! My acts of devotion, such as they were, died for the most part until my senior year of high school. I was reminded by way of an English assignment of what I had dropped and started learning again.

University prompted me to examine my practices further. Many things were not practical by any means, living with four other guys in Providence, Rhode Island. I stopped saying that I followed Ásatrú and instead used Fyrnsidu, Old English for “old custom”. This hardly mattered at the time, as I didn’t know any other Heathens, let alone pagans, and wouldn’t meet anyone else until I was 21.

These many transitions caused me to look at what I did and why. While I said that I cared for the gods and offered things to them, in truth I did not care much about them. They were distant. After all, would a leader of a nation have any care about a random citizen who wanted help in improving something in his life? Not at all. I wouldn’t understand it yet, but it was my ancestors who received the most attention, if only without specifics, and that I was performing a marginally more historically accurate form of Heathenry.

Ancestors and Ancestry

A great deal of my religious activities is directed toward my ancestors, especially my grandparents, whom I knew in life with the exception of one. I have the ashes of my maternal grandparents at my altar, while the ashes of my paternal grandparents are (allegedly) scattered on my paternal grandfather’s old property in Kents Hill, Maine.

I spent a lot of time learning about my family’s past in my mid-twenties. I loved learning about my ancestors in my teens as well, but it was difficult at best to get information from my parents. My father is a bit of a hermit when it comes to relations with other people, while my mother didn’t know useful details. My own teenage laziness did not help. That finally changed when I was able to afford Ancestry.com and I gathered what I could and learned everything that I could. Ultimately my family tree accumulated 789 people, of whom a vast majority is on my father’s side.

I was shocked to discover that my direct paternal line had been in North America since 1638. Years of rumours had led me to believe that there would be a Welsh ancestor somewhere, too, but such a person was never found within several generations of me. I found remote connections to marginally famous people, including one who married into royalty, though no such people existed in direct relation to me. I located deeds to land long since sold. I learned much.

Ultimately I saw that I had a long connection to New England, just as I did to England through my paternal grandmother (and more distantly through my paternal line as a whole) and to Germany through my mother. All three became very important to me, although I always had a strong sense of nationalism, for lack of a better term, for New England.

In the years since, I’ve worked to make sure that I did better in regards to my ancestors. It was during this time that I received the ashes of my maternal grandparents; my grandmother had been in possession of my grandfather, but she died just two months ago. Near my altar is the flag of Germany. (I also have one of Iceland, which I desperately wish to visit, but I have no relation to that place.) I nurture a sawn log with lichens from a fallen tree; I’ve kept the lichens alive for a while now as my connection to the land here. This tree was damaged during a particularly bad storm and had been in the nearby cemetery; I’ve worked in that cemetery often in order to post data to Find a Grave and taken a particular liking to three individuals there. My items relating to England are rather lacking, I admit, but I periodically receive gifts from friends who visit London and use those where I can.

For my ancestors I burn oats, which is more difficult than it sounds when in an apartment. I try to learn the recipes to meals that they enjoyed in life, where possible.  I hope to build a hearg (Old English, “pile of stones, altar”; cognate with Old Norse hǫrgr) on my parents’ property with stones from their current and previous homes, as well as well from my grandparents’ various homes in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Virginia, if not more.

They are my everything. They’re important in everything. Their decisions made me in every possible sense of the idea. Without them, I would literally be nothing. Their triumphs and failures live on in me. I inherit what they’ve done.

I hope to live up to what they wanted for me, which I never heard directly from them in their lives. I hope to give them great grandchildren sooner rather than later and to teach those children about their ancestors. It is, in many ways, a singular goal of mine.

Gods

In some ways, the gods are more concrete than my ancestors. My family isn’t as firmly set in my mind, for they’re amorphous in their great quantity. My ancestors’ wants and desires blend together over the ages, while the gods have their affiliations, if loosely, that may remain rather consistent.

Throughout my many years as a Heathen, I’ve remained particularly fond of Ing Frēa. My early years were spent referring to him as Freyr; even now he’s often referenced in my head as “Frey”. His importance has been so great that my first tattoo at age 22 was of his associated Anglo-Saxon rune (ᛝ) on my right arm. One of the most influential people in my religious development was Jordsvin, a gay goði of Freyr. I gobbled up whatever I could find on the deity and went to him in times of need. His associations with peace, pleasure, fertility, and fruitfulness of the land remain very important to me. I have a statue and a woodburning of his associated rune dedicated to him.

There are, of course, other gods.

Wōden, whom others in Ásatrú may know as Óðinn, is rather important to me. Many, many people have said that he is a prolific recruiter. This isn’t completely true for me, as I wasn’t recruited by any means, but I can understand how that could be so for others. My parents and both grandfathers are lovers of history and writing. All of them have previously written for personal enjoyment at the least, while my parents also have written for profit. Like them, I have a strong love for history and writing. It was in this that I am not surprised that I may have once seen Wōden on my family’s property in my youth. (As someone who is skeptical to a fault in a lot of things, I don’t always know what to make of that, if it was anything at all.) I have a statue associated with him.

Tīw, known elsewhere at Týr, is not someone whom I’ve ever really experienced. He is for reasons of comparative mythology the leader of the ēse. He is the god of justice, war, governance, and oaths and is, for lack of a less overused term, the sky father. I called upon him once (in conjunction with my ancestors) when I had been wrongly and baselessly accused of a crime. The accusations were dropped a week later once they were seen for how empty they were. Additionally, I swear oaths on a long dagger that I associate with him.

Frīg, often erroneously written as Frīge and cognate with the Norse Frigg, holds a special place in my heart. She is both a mother and a lover. She looks over her family. She is Wōden’s wife. I have prayed to her when I have had  family issues and looked to her for guidance in domestic affairs. I associate with her a drinking horn that has the boutonnières from my wedding sticking out the top.

Þunor, known as Þórr in Norse sources, is the bearded god of thunder, the defender of the common man, and the wielder of an ax (or hammer, depending on other references and comparative mythology). He is the son of the Earth and is associated with oaks. He rides across the sky with his goat-drawn chariot. I have never called upon him directly, but he is included during more generalised offerings. Plenty of others pray to him for good rains or praise him during thunderstorms. I have a statue of him and a small blade with a goat foot for a hilt associated with him.

Earth (< Old English Eorþe), or alternatively Folde (< Proto-Germanic *fuldō < Proto-Indo-European *pelth₂- “broad, flat”; cognate with Old Norse fold and Old Saxon folda), is quite obviously the goddess of the Earth. The aforementioned sawn log with lichens is dedicated to her.

Sun (< Old English Sunne) and Moon (< Old English Mōna) are self-explanatory. I have nothing associated with them on my altar, but I have a copy of the Nebra sky disk nearby.

At this point, I go into more obscure territory or have not found a way to honour the god or hero properly.

Bēow is the (putative) god of barley, to whom I have assigned the attributes of John Barleycorn. I also view him as being largely synonymous to Byggvir. I have nothing associated with him, nor do I honour him, as I don’t grow barley and I know no one who does.

Ēostre remains elusive. Plenty of people celebrate her, but often without any sort of historical understanding. The name shows that it might have belonged to a local deity, which is nice to know, but it doesn’t provide much more than that. How this name came to be so widespread then is another issue, though. Nothing is conclusive.

*Hreda/Hreþe/Hreþa has even less to work with and there’s no consensus by any means regarding the name. This goddess, if there is one there at all, is thus ignored.

Seaxnēat‘s exact role in the world is lacking in extant sources, either as being a “sword-companion” or as a national god of the Saxons. He seemed important once, but there’s little to go by.

Wēland is worthwhile as a god of smithing, but I do not do smithing and any construction that I do perform is far less laborious. I am interested in smithing, so perhaps one day he’ll be more relevant, but for now he goes unnoticed specifically.

Hengest and Hors have no function for me, but they are undoubtedly similar to other horse twins in Indo-European mythology.

There are other possible deities out there, such as Garsecg, Metod, or Fornet, but they remain even more hidden than the others in extant sources. Vague things may be gleaned here and there, but most information comes from a single sentence or etymology at best.

The Land

I would like to say that I honour the land second only to my ancestors, but truthfully I do not. Living in a city and a degree of laziness have stopped me from going out and offering to the land as much as I should.

This is not, however, to say that I do nothing. I offer milk to the wights regularly on my altar, typically alongside offerings of alcohol to the gods. I also paid my respects to the local river for a while and hope to give offerings to it eventually.

Everything else is less spiritually inclined and more of a general kindness. Scraps of food are left outside for animals. Native, flowing plants are grown on the balcony for bees and butterflies. Less directly impactful I use only energy-effecient LED lightbulbs for the most used lights.

While I cannot do too much within a city, I do work on my parents’ property. Large numbers of flowering plants are grown for bees and butterflies. Many vegetables are grown (and often consumed by rabbits before harvesting). Bird feeders are fully stocked. Additional trees are planned alongside the many preexisting ones. A hearg is partially built.

Holidays

Holidays are loosely defined for me and relatively few in number.

The equinoxes and especially the solstices are fun. If it’s a quieter time, candles are lit and small parties are had. Midsummer in particular involves a larger fire on my parents’ property, the burning of offerings, the consumption of alcohol, and other celebrations.

Yule is a magical time for me, as I’ve always had wonderful memories from that time while growing up. Decorations are everywhere, gifts are hidden until the right time, music is played, and the world actually starts to shut down for once. The celebration is started with Mothers’ Night, which for me involves honouring ancestors and cleaning the home.

Outside of these, I have little in particular that may be considered Heathen. I do not celebrate the start of the growing season, nor its conclusion, as I do not grow anything of substance. I have no set time for honouring the elves. Halloween is a purely secular affair in my mind, so no veneer is put over it. Most things are ad hoc.

More loosely I at least take note of important events and people in history. These do not have celebrations attached to them currently, but I keep them on my mind when the time rolls around. They had their impact on history in ways that would have changed my life considerably otherwise, if my life were even to happen at all without certain events, so it behooves me to understand that.

Conclusion

This is the more involved overview of my practices. I am undoubtedly forgetting some particulars, but the framework is there.

As a reconstructionist, historicity is utterly important. While new growth in the religion is needed and must be done for it to survive, a proper foundation must be laid first.  As nearly clichéd as it may be to say, this truly is a religion with homework, just as it is for the other reconstructed religions. More mainstream religions have centuries or millennia of scholarship, spiritual growth, and traditions behind them, while we are trying to bring something very old into the modern world. Many things will survive this transition, some of will go away, and others will be modified, but this will happen regardless.

Many Heathens are first generation by virtue of having converted. Some, such as I am, are second generation. It is during this time that we will make an impact. If we falter in what we do now, future generations may not have Heathenry available to them. We could be relegated to being a footnote in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

So we read and write. We get the word out to the population at large. We get involved in our communities instead of hiding as small groups that are unknown even to other Heathen groups. We do the work so that our children will have an easier time and a fuller experience with our gods and ancestors.

I hope to see more posts like this one from people in the future, not to mention more websites. It would show that our religion is healthier than ever and that we are on any path at all, rather than stagnant and forgotten.