Sunday, September 8, 2013

Heathen Identity: Asatru, Wicca, and The Germanic Gods/Goddesses

Identity seems to be a hot-button issue in the Asatru and heathen communities, in a way that, for someone on their way in from the outside, seems to beg the question of when one will be safely inside the fold...if ever. I've watched a lot of discussion, and a lot of not-part-of-discussion posturing, and I think that although some of the points that come up are interesting and important, an awful lot of them come down to non-Wiccan communities having a sort of allergic reaction to any possibility that they will be lumped in with Self-Ordained High Priestess Nummymuffin Coocoolbutter by an unnamed observer.

Orthoprazy vs Orthodoxy

So first of all, we have to look at orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy. These are the two ways religions tend to build cohesion. Orthopraxy is "right action," which means that to belong, one must live the right way, follow the right practices, show up for the right rituals, and so on. Orthodoxy means "right belief," and it means that one must adopt the right beliefs. Now, obviously, these occur on a spectrum, because to some extent you have to have both. There's not much point in calling yourself a heathen if you don't believe in any of the heathen gods; and no matter how much you love Jesus, if you're loving him from the middle of a sacrifice to Ba'al, you're not a particularly good Christian. But on the whole, Christianity has tended to be weighted toward orthodoxy more than most previous religions - Islam is up there as well - whereas most pagan or tribal religions have been weighted toward orthopraxy. This means that the important thing is how you behave.
Why do I bring this up? Because there are modern heathens who seem to want it both ways: they want there to be rather strict rules about both behavior and the beliefs prompting the behavior. One gentleman said that to his mind, someone with Wiccan beliefs could follow the heathen gods and perform blot and symbel perfectly, and still not be a heathen. Now, this can only be termed orthodoxy: he wants to dictate what the mythical Wiccan can believe about the gods before even the more general "heathen" label can attach. But this is an entirely modern idea. To the best of my knowledge, we have no evidence - none! - that any ancient Pagan religion was weighted toward orthodoxy. We have, to the contrary, lots of evidence that they were orthopraxies. Certainly there's a minimum standard - the Germanic gods must be present, and must probably dominate the field (a new can of worms for later) - but there's only so far you can carry it and still be in tune with the original mindset.

The Varying Beliefs

Another interesting aspect of this, by the way, is the limited definition of "belief." Almost invariably, when the issue of right beliefs comes up, the two banners waved are Germanic Gods Only and NNV (The Nine Noble Virtues of Asatru) not the Wiccan Rede. This is a very narrow and, to my mind, superficial way of looking at what the original mindset of our ancestors was. No mention is ever made of whether it's important to have Yggdrasil as one's cosmological map, for example; nor of the Germanic concepts of time and fate (except by the occasional Saxon tribalist or Irminist), what the rituals or holy days really mean and their context, and so on. Sure, these things get discussed with some interest in the better neighborhoods, but they are never anywhere to be found when the "right belief" spectre raises its head. Germanic Gods Only. NNV, not the Rede. That's it.
Firstly, NNV and the Rede are not incompatible. It would be theoretically possible to keep both, which means, by orthopraxic standards, that attempting to do so is nobody's business until the person screws it up. Second, heathens worrying about the presence or absence of the Rede at all is the allergic rash reaction. If it is not a heathen concept, then it should not be relevant to the discussion at all. Third, and this goes back to the allergic rash as well: the popular conception of the Rede is not the traditional conception of the Rede. Judging the Rede as an idea based on what untrained solitaries who read a Silver Ravenwolf book think it is makes about as much sense as trying to understand the nuances of Christian theology by watching the snake handlers. The Rede: either understand it or ignore it. If you're not any kind of Wiccan it doesn't matter to you anyway. If idiots don't get that then it's their problem, not yours.
So okay, on to Germanic Gods Only. Surely it will not come as a surprise to anyone to discover that "The Germanics" were not one unified civilization. Neither were "The Celts" or even, for that matter, "The Greeks" (although they were a little closer). These are blanket terms for what were in fact a variety of tribes that shared distant ancestry and certain cultural markers in common. But, as we still have abundant evidence of today, each tribe could and did have a different set of gods, and different names even for those that were essentially shared by several tribes. Each had different "favorites," and gods could be present in some tribes and absent from others. So when we present a list of "these are the Germanic gods to whom we must keep troth," unless we are really being anal about uncovering a particular tribe's list, we are already generalizing and borrowing to some extent.
Add to this the overall kinship of all the Indo-European groups, the degree of interaction through both war and trade that we know took place and that we know historically always leads to ideas being exchanged, and particularly the fact that there has been scholarly debate over whether the Celtic and Germanic tribes are actually different enough to constitute two different groups. We don't know that deities never crossed the picket line between one group and the other. In fact, in other polytheistic religions past and present, we have plenty of evidence that this happens on a regular basis: for crying out loud, the Irish Brigid managed to become not only a Christian saint but also a Vodoun loa. As long as the overall structure (the orthopraxy) was kept intact - as long as, for example, Maman Brigitte showed a side of herself that fit in with Vodoun and accepted Vodoun-flavored rituals in place of her old Celtic digs - nobody worried about it.
From this perspective, I fail to see how Morgan (a near neighbor), for example, could single-handedly destroy every vestige of heathenism by appearing at a faining. The only reason to think so is the allergic reaction - the assumption/fear that even the slightest capitulation will lead inevitably to people inviting Thor and Yemaya to a peace pipe ceremony.
The other thing that seems to bring on the rash is any similarity, or any comparison whatsoever, to Wiccan ritual of any sort. (Oh, and I forgot to mention the divine law that polytheists must be hard polytheists. But that's covered in orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy, I think, and by the whole rash thing. There are gradations that aren't noticed in this struggle. If you think that Oshun and Aphrodite ultimately spring from the same source, you're a mystic: if you think that you can call Oshun "Aphrodite" and give her Freya's favorite presents on Hathor's altar, you're an idiot.)

Comparing Mystery Based Ritual and Folk Ritual

So I'm going to go through basic Wiccan/witchy ritual structure and make comparisons. My basic theory is that many of the differences, while present, are exaggerated and actually stem from the difference between mystery-based ritual and folk ritual. We have evidence aplenty that these two forms, in a general sense, can exist side by side in the same religion. The Greeks, for instance, had several different mystery cults to which a person could belong simultaneously with following normal "city" religion without any conflict. In other tribal groups it is not uncommon for the shamanic class to participate in normal folk ritual but also to keep other rituals and practices that are unique to them. The needs of those who do magic and move between worlds are in general slightly different than the needs of other people, and likewise, the ritual needs when doing such work are slightly different than what is called for in normal religious celebrations.
  1. Setting up the altar: Both Wiccans and heathens do this. What precisely goes there is a bit different, but then again, this also varies within each group between denominations, so there's not much of a set standard. Everyone, however, includes a drink, most traditionally but not invariably alcoholic. Most have a candle. Some Wiccans next have to say special woodgy over the altar to dedicate it.
  2. Setting the ritual space: In old heathenry this didn't always have to be done, because there were permanent ritual spaces. However, in both new heathenry and Wicca this usually isn't the case, so - although this seems to be one of the most virulent topics for debate - both groups temporarily consecrate the space in some way. This almost always involves circumambulating the area ritually: a Wiccan while doing so creates an energetic vessel with strict barriers, while a heathen usually leaves it permeable. (Please note, however, that an Anglo-Saxon charm for casting a circle with a wand or staff does exist from olden times, and that Irminists do make use of this.) The heathen may walk the round carrying a flame and chanting, or carrying a hammer and chanting, or may instead use "The Hammer Rite," which I will hit next.
  3. Acknowledging the directions: Heathens seem to be more open to this than neo-Celts, but not all of them do it. The Wiccan association of four directions to four elements is, I'll be the first to say it, entirely Greek in origin (as in fact, it was a Greek, Empedocles, who came up with the four elements in the first place, as well as the mystery of a cosmic balance between Goddess and God, Love and Strife). The Hammer Rite sometimes goes here, and it is very much influenced by ceremonial magic: it is basically a heathened-up equivalent of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. The Hammer Rite also acknowledges eight directions instead of four...but then again, so do some Witches. One thing that Wiccans are doing along with this step is acknowledging the level of beings that a heathen would think of as the alfar, disir, and/or wights. The heathen will also tend to do this, but rather than doing it here will give those beings part of what is set aside for the gods.
  4. Invitation of the deities: Both groups seem to put it here. Wiccans will tend to invite one or a pair, whereas heathens will tend to invite the whole pantheon, perhaps with an emphasis on the deity or deities particularly associated with the ritual at hand. Wiccans of adequate training/talent "draw down," or "horse." There isn't really evidence that this happened in old heathenry, but some heathens do it anyway because it works and is a powerful way of experiencing the deities.
  5. The sprinkling: By this point, the Wiccan will already have blessed a bowl of water, usually by putting salt in it and performing a simple charm, and sprinkled the area and the attendants. In old heathenry, what happened instead was that after the gods were invoked, a blood sacrifice took place, the blood was caught in a bowl, and this was used to sprinkle and bless the area and attendants. Nowadays this seldom happens, and a share of the ritual drink is usually used instead. Still, the overall idea of the thing seems to be the same. Irminists, according to James Coulter, save this step until the very end for some reason - they are probably seeing it as a final sharing of all the good energy of the ritual. That's my guess.
  6. The celebrations and ritual dramas: To be honest, I'm still not solid on where this step goes for heathens. I know they have it: several books attest to it and suggest very amusing ideas on how it can be done for various holidays. The Troth seems to put it here in the middle, like Wiccans do, but for all I know, everyone else waits until after formal ritual is over. Wiccans and Irminists, not uncommonly, seem to like to sing here (Wiccans may also dance). This is also where the "what are we all doing here in the first place" speech tends to go, if present, for both groups.
  7. Ritualized food and/or drink: In both groups: A ritual drink is shared around, out of a single cup (or horn, but even in heathenry cup happens) if possible. Wiccans tend to bless the drink in a particular way, referring back again to that Empedoclean borrowing that emphasizes sexual polarity. This is, again, a mystery-based addition. Heathens don't seem to need a special drink blessing, but will sometimes preserve the sanctity of the vessel by only allowing a woman of particular ritual standing to carry it from person to person. They also take this opportunity to specifically toast the gods, goddesses and/or wights relevant to the ritual and to themselves, which Wiccans usually do not. Ritual cakes do not have to be present for heathens, although in the case of the Troth, the ritually sacrificed animal cookies are "killed" and shared around at this point.
  8. Bringing it home: At this point, everyone says thank you and goodbye to whatever nonphysical beings were invited. Wiccans, having put up a formal enclosure, have to take it down: heathens, who merely blessed the space, don't. Fires are put out, and everything is generally put back the way it was when the ritual started.
  9. Post-ritual feasting: This is again common to both groups, and is in fact an Indo-European standard. Originally, the meat from the sacrifice would be cooked up and shared around at this point. The gods' and goddesses' share must, of course, be consigned to the fire or to its special leaving-place, and this happens at various points depending on the culture. Heathens and (trained) Wiccans both likewise dispose properly of the gods' share of the ritual food and drink, plus a portion of any other feast items, usually before going to the feast themselves (but not always).
You can see how those two structures are totally different. Many of us are "eclectic" in how we practice and live our spirituality. Overall, if it works for you, then by all means you are encouraged to pick and choose. It certainly works well for this author.

The Swedish Asatru Society) holding a blót (an Asatru ceremony).
The Swedish Asatru Society) holding a blót (an Asatru ceremony).