Heathen and Pagan
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“Heathen and Pagan: Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet?”
The subject of the relationship, if any, between the Heathen revival and the far larger (by a factor of ten at the very least), Wiccan-dominated Neopagan movement comes up periodically on many Heathen e-mail lists. Just about every time, it leads to a highly polarized flame-war. As I have over ten years of experience as a Heathen, preceded by four years as a more generic “Euro-Pagan,” I believe that I am well-qualified to speak on the matter. Do bear in mind, however, that while I have been in a position to do a great deal of observation in a wide variety of contexts, your own experiences may vary widely from mine, and they are what you should heed most in the long run.
My own opinion is that Heathenism, Odinism, Ásatrú, Forn Sed, the Elder Troth, or whatever name you choose to give our path (which until recently neither had nor needed a name) is one thing, and that Neopaganism is a mostly incompatible “something else.” At best, a very large portion of the members of the “Pagan Community” are distant relatives of whom I’m more ashamed than not. I will discuss in detail the reasons which led me to this conclusion, and suggest some areas where Heathens and Neopagans can work together productively.
For starters, Heathenism and Neopaganism had very different origins. Heathenism goes back thousands of years, arguably back, along with Vedic Hinduism and Hellenic, Celtic, Slavic and Baltic religions, all the way to the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their religious beliefs. Thor’s roots, at least, go back to a red-bearded prototypical Thunder God found in many of these cultures. I suspect that Heathenism never really quite died out. There was active worship of the Aesir and Vanir long after the conversion of Sweden, the last of the Germanic countries to be pressured into Christianizing. The Icelandic Galdrabók and similar texts, often called “Svartbók” are the smoking guns, so to speak, in this matter. The Sámi/Lapps were apparently worshipping several of our Gods, whose worship they had borrowed from the Heathen Norse, into the 19th Century. “Horagalles” = “Thórr Karl” = “Old Man Thórr” was the one with the most clear Norse derivation, although they also may well have been worshipping either Oðin and Freyr or at least Gods heavily influenced by them. It was a fair enough trade for all the help they gave us with our Seiðr work! Folk magic invoking the Gods, either openly or in disguised form, continued virtually into the present. A folklorist recorded an ethnic German woman in the US (North Carolina I believe) invoking Thórr along with several Christian wights. I suspect that there have been spontaneous revivals of Heathenism all along.
The public, conscious Heathen revival began in the early 1970’s, when within a few months of each other and quite unaware of the existence of the other groups, Heathen societies were organized in Iceland, Great Britain, and North America. These groups were founded very consciously as Germanic Heathen groups, not as Wiccan ones. An exception, of course, would be the Anglo-Saxon retro-Heathen group Théod, which began a few years later as a Wiccan or Wiccan-ish group and eventually evolved into what it is today.
Wicca, on the other hand, got going in the late 1940’s at the earliest, although its Ceremonial Magic predecessors began in the early 20th Century. While particularly fond of borrowing from Celtic lore, Wicca isn’t Celtic at all. In the unlikely event Gerald Gardner actually found surviving witches in England, I suspect they had maintained a worn-down or garbled form of Vanir worship, rather than anything “Celtic.” The other Neopagan religions go back no further than does Wicca.
Theological and cultural contexts vary greatly as well. We Heathens are for the most part hard Polytheists, while Wicca is depending on how you look at it, either Duotheistic (worship of two Deities, i.e. the “Lord” and “Lady,” although the latter usually gets top billing in practice) or Monotheism (both of the former are held to be manifestations of “The One”). For this and a number of other reasons, I’m not the first Heathen to remark that Wicca can look an awful lot like Christianity in drag!
Wicca has borrowed and continues to borrow almost everywhere imaginable, and as a result is rapidly changing and diversifying. Heathenism is very different. Our faith is rooted in the religious beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples (either variants of one culture or even at their most different a family of very closely related cultures). We borrow hesitantly and as a rule only in case of great need. As a result, Heathenism is innately more conservative and changes much more slowly. Magic plays a far greater role in Wicca and other Neopagan religions than it does in Heathenism. One can easily get the impression that Wicca is a magical system first and a religion second, while plenty of fine Heathens never do magic at all.
A further theological difference is that a great many Neopagans see their Deities as Jungian archetypes or some other construct that does not involve them being living, real entities which can act whether or not human beings believe in them. Most Heathens accept that our Gods are just as real as we are! In that respect, we are more like religious believers in more “mainstream” faiths than we are like Neopagans.
Politically and socio-economically we tend to be quite far apart as well. Heathens as a rule are politically well to the right of most Neopagans. Few of us seem to have much use for socialism, “intentional communities,” apocalyptic scenarios, and other darlings of the Pagan Left. While we do love Earth, and other various names, especially Nerthus, rank her as one of our Goddesses, we are not an “Earth Religion” in the same way Wicca and many other Neopagan faiths are. In addition, we are more likely to be hunters and much less likely to be vegetarians or radical environmentalists. We have guns and sharp thingies, and will use them in case of need. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Heathen pacifist! Some have observed that Heathenism tends to attract upwardly-mobile working class people while Neopaganism draws mostly the downwardly-mobile fringes of the middle class.
Heathen values tend to be those of the American middle class as a whole, sometimes with Libertarian tendencies on social issues like abortion. Heathens who are more on the liberal to free-wheeling side in terms of sexuality, drug use, etc. are usually very discrete about it, just like such folks in mainstream society. Neopagan “family values” often have much in common with the remnants of Hippiedom and the Rainbow People. The gatherings very often have a sexually charged atmosphere and sometimes the sex and drug shenanigans are right out in the open, even when minors are present. Sure, there are tons of exceptions and I am the first to admit that I have met and continue to meet Neopagans who are decent and honorable folks and very serious about their spirituality, but I’ve seen these generalizations prove mostly true and quite useful over and over again.
From the conclusions I have outlined above, I have reached some very practical personal guidelines which inform my limited interactions with the Pagan Community. Pagan Pride Day? Forget it! I’m a Heathen, not a Pagan, so I really don’t belong there, and truth to tell I’m ashamed of most of the Pagans I know. The worst of them rank right up there with certain Deliverance-extras-type “shirt-tail kin” of mine living in various Northeast Tennessee “hollers.” I reluctantly acknowledge the relationship when asked about it, but otherwise keep my distance! This is based on over ten years of participating in the Pagan Community in the Southeastern USA, and my only regret is that I didn’t get out long before I did. Nevertheless, there are those fine Pagans folks I’ve already mentioned, and in some areas they predominate in the local Neopagan communities. If this happens to be the case where you live, count yourself lucky and enjoy yourself!
Now, if you think that what I have just written adds up to “Heathen good, Pagan bad,” then all I can say is “I wish!” It ain’t that simple. There is an unpleasant side to the Heathen Community as well. We’ve got enough deadbeats, nuts, political game-players, etc. of our own, not to mention racists, which by the way, the Pagan Community fortunately seems to mostly lack. With all the unsavory Heathens out there, and with plenty of Heathen Wars (the equivalent of the Neopagan “Witch-Wars) of our own to deal with, the last thing we need is to be brought into contact with the “problem children” and petty squabbles of an even more dysfunctional community! At least Heathen beliefs can help the Neophyte in dealing with co-religionists. Instead of “perfect love and perfect trust,” which is a formula for a “perfect disaster,” we advise keeping a sharp eye and wit about you, especially when entering someplace new and dealing with people you’ve just met!
Believe it or not, there are Heathens to the Right of me on the issue of relations with the larger Pagan Community. Some view as hopelessly contaminated and refuse to consider for admission to their Kindreds anyone with a Neopagan/Wiccan background. While that is their business, of course, I think that position is extreme. The fact that the individual has opted to LEAVE that milieu and become a Heathen speaks volumes. Most are no doubt (re)educable. I sure as Hel was!
In my view of dual and multi-faith individuals my viewpoint is moderate as well. Many Heathens are dead-set against it, period. My position is more nuanced. If you’ve made an oath, especially a lifetime one, to a Deity and do not think keeping that oath would make you less a Heathen, then by all means keep it! Sometimes breaking Troth is the best thing to do, but there is still a price to pay. I’m not the only Heathen to have to deal with a year and a half to two years of jangled nerves after leaving Christianity. By the way, the “recovery time” from leaving a serious religious commitment is about the same as the typical recovery period from a divorce, and similar processes are involved.
As for the concurrent practice of two religions, if they are closely related, like for instance Heathenism and Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, then there will probably be relatively few problems. However, in the long run, seriously practicing two very different faiths is a bad idea and probably not workable. I personally have no use for mixing pantheons in the context of a single ritual.
Nevertheless, one religion, one culture, and one pantheon are more than enough to keep me busy. Let your conscience and your own experiences be your guide on this one! After all, Heathenism IS a Polytheistic religion. Individuals are free to acknowledge Divinity wherever they encounter it. I belong to the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, which has absolutely no creed, for reasons of socialization, hobbies and interests, and working for religious and personal freedom issues, none of which have anything to do with my religious beliefs per se. They know this and have no problem with it.
What use is Neopaganism to us Heathens, then? If we are seeking greater tolerance and acceptance from the general public, being associated in their minds with the larger Pagan Community is the absolute worst thing that could happen to us. It’s bad enough that a lot of people think we’re Nazis. Let’s not make bad matters worse. However, whether we like it or not and for the most part I don’t, most people find it before they find us once they’ve opted out of Western society’s currently dominant religious paradigm and started looking for alternatives. It behooves us to keep enough of a friendly if somewhat distant contact with the larger Pagan Community so that seekers there can find us without too much trouble. In return, “for a gift looks aye for a gift,” we should be ready, willing and able to refer interested people who come across us to the Pagan Community in our respective areas. This can be done without our having to go to “Pagan Pride” events, “Witches’ Balls,” generic rituals likely to strike the average Heathen as silly or even dangerously unfocused, etc. All it takes is a little courtesy and tact, including keeping one’s more negative attitudes toward Pagandom as a whole to one’s self when networking with Pagans and referring seekers. A simple “if you don’t find what you are looking for in the Pagan Community, you are more than welcome to come check us out” should be all that is needed.
Many Neopagans want to work with Runes, Galdr, and even with our Gods and Goddesses. I cannot for the life of me figure out why someone would prefer to do that in a Wiccan/Neopagan/Ceremonial Magic context. One can get so much better results by interacting with such forces in their cultural and historical context. A reasonable reconstruction of the original Heathen religion is readily available, so why bother trying to do the work elsewhere, and with only a partial “toolkit”? Nevertheless, I don’t have to or even need to understand the mentality for this sort of thing, including the widespread “Norse Wicca” and “Seax Wicca” phenomena. It’s the individual’s business, and I would rather such folks have good information to work with than bad information. I certainly think it is possible and no insult or sacrilege to contact the Aesir and Vanir, as well as the Runic Potencies, outside a Heathen context. If this dishonors the Gods, and I personally do NOT think it does, they have ways of making their displeasure known to even the densest of Ask and Embla’s children! For many of these folks, these “borrowings” (I won’t say “thefts” although some other Heathens do) will still give good results, and be the first step in moving on and in most cases “growing up” into Heathenism.
Setting limits while still developing and maintaining useful contacts takes work, and sometimes a bit of firmness. One of the hardest-held Neopagan dogmas is that “we’re all doing the same thing in a different way, so all paths are valid.” When you dare disagree and say why, things can turn ugly in a hurry! Another belief often found among the most alienated and self-marginalized Neopagans is that “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” Many think they need to set up hardscrabble communal farms to get ready to survive society’s collapse. These of course seldom produce anything but weeds, legal and otherwise, and unwanted pets which are in my experience sometimes left to starve when the pathetic little dystopia inevitably falls apart, usually dramatically and viciously so. It would be funny except that several people usually lose their life savings, and may even wind up in bankruptcy court, when this happens. In the meanwhile, the US religious Right wants to send Pagans to concentration camps! Yes, many Neopagans actually believe this, and when you don’t join their community and stand up with them in public on “Pagan Pride Day,” there’s a real chance some of them will accuse you of aiding and abetting “the enemy.” A Heathen standing on his or her own two feet and looking realistically but nevertheless optimistically toward being a free and valued member of our currently existing society (the freest and most prosperous yet known) is apt to see all this as irrational and paranoid, and if interested in religious freedom issues (and many if not most of us are), to pursue them via the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way, or some such similar group rather than becoming allied with the Neopagan Community.
I’ve had Neopagans I thought were friends and whom I thought understood my beliefs go absolutely and viciously ballistic the minute I dared to disagree with their viewpoints on such matters. “You’ll be sorry when the persecutions start! It’ll be your fault!” These days, I’ve pretty much grown inured to such things. When a Pagan tells me “it’s all One anyway,” I’m apt to respond: “No it ain’t, and here’s why: I occasionally practice animal sacrifice, and may well vote for George W. Bush in the next election. These attitudes and practices are by no means rare among Heathens.” When the persecution talk starts, I ask “how many guns do you have and are you willing to kill people with them if that’s what it takes to preserve your life and freedom? If you don’t and you aren’t, then you are essentially asking for it. Hot air is cheap.” That usually gets the point across.
In brief, my take on relations between Heathenism on one hand and Wicca and other Neopaganisms on the other is that it is a question of two very different and mostly incompatible religious worldviews, which have some overlap mostly due to Neopagan interest in Runes and Germanic Gods and the unfortunate tendency of the general public to lump us all together. The two communities should try to maintain a polite but distant contact in order to refer interested people in both directions, and possibly to co-operate in matters of common concern, such as environmental protection and freedom of religion, although I personally think this would best be accomplished by both Heathens and Pagans with those interests joining mainstream environmental and religious freedom organizations. We US Heathens have rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We don't really need the Neopagan Community's help to see that they are enforced, but those who feel otherwise are welcome to work with organizations like Lady Liberty League run out of Circle Sanctuary. Just remember that if you do, pay your shild. Don’t just take, give something as well. Other than that, as the old saying goes, “good fences make good neighbors,” and it is better to give each other some space and to leave each other alone rather than to squabble with and pick at each other, or to frustrate ourselves and each other trying to find a common ground that simply is not there.
Those who are interested in learning more about Heathenism as it relates to Paganism would benefit from the following resources: The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler (both books), and “The Pentagram and the Hammer” by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead, online at http://www.webcom.com/~lstead/wicatru.html.
All the best in navigating the shark-infested waters of modern Heathendom and Pagandom,
last modified 01/13/2004