heathenism

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Modern Heathenry: A Study of the Modern Worship of Norse and Germanic Gods

Published December 3, 2013 by Paige

This is a paper I wrote for my Mythology and Civilization class. Please feel free to comment and give input – I’m always looking to improve!

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In a world where so many practice Western religions such as Christianity and “New Age” or “Neo-Pagan” religions such as Wicca, it is easy to forget that other, older religions still exist. Before Christianity, the most dominant religion in Europe was the Norse and Germanic religion. This pagan[i] religion venerated such deities as Odin, Thor, Tyr, and Freyja. Today, these Gods are still worshipped, but often in new form. While some attempt to stay as close to the old ways as possible within their worship, others have strayed, either by mixing their Norse or Germanic religion with other religions such as Christianity or other forms of Paganism, worshipping on a basis of disbelief, or worshipping based off of an interest in the modern pop culture references to the Norse Gods.

Norse and Germanic religion dominated the northern part of Europe in the days before Christianity reached the area. From Germany to Sweden and further (due to Viking exploration), the same Gods were venerated, thanked, and worshipped. Uppsala, Sweden, was one of the largest and most important religious centers for this religion. Most of the knowledge about the Temple at Uppsala comes from an 11th century Christian author named Adam of Bremen. He writes:

In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Odin and Freyr have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather crops. The other, Odin-that is, the Furious-carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Freyr, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus. But Odin they chisel armed, as our people are wont to represent Mars. Thor with his scepter apparently resembles Jove. The people also worship heroes made gods, whom they endow with immortality because of their remarkable exploits, as one reads in the Vita of Saint Ansgar they did in the case of King Eric.

A golden chain goes round the temple. It hangs over the gable of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach, because the shrine stands on level ground with mountains all about it like a theater solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted.

The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Mow [sic] this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.[ii]

            (qtd. in Jorybu)

            As shown above, much of what was written about the Norse religion by Christians was written in bias, often using words with excessive imagery in order to show the gruesomeness and barbarism that was perceived by the Christian missionaries there. Today, however, more and more people are moving toward honoring the old Gods. In Sweden today, children are taught the old stories in school from a young age (Jönsson). In comics and movies, Thor, Loki, and others from Norse mythology play prominent roles. More and more are turning toward the Old Religion in some way or another.

One way people are doing this is by mixing Norse Religion with other religions. In a survey participated in by 23 people, six people chose the “other” category when asked how they describe their religion mixed Norse Gods with Gods from other religions. One of those six, Finzie[iii], identified himself essentially as a Norse Christian, and stated that his family has worshipped this way as far back as they can trace their heritage. When asked about this, he replied, “as far as Christianity Nordic faith evolved and melded into Christianity, we are taught lessons of the white good [sic] which you would know as Jesus. I believe him to be real. so yes. but with other deities as well,” (Finzie). When asked how he worships, Finzie stated that he follows the Nine Noble Virtues[iv], prays, hunts his own food and dedicates part of the kill to the Gods, raises his horn when he drinks, and studies runes. He explains that they (he and his family) do not practice animal sacrifice; however, they do hunt for their own meat instead of going to the grocery store or butcher, allowing them to dedicate part of the kill to the Gods[v]. They also occasionally put out an extra plate in case a traveler comes by in need of food. He says he does not believe that the Gods need anything from them, and he doubts that what he and his family do will cause the Gods to grant them any favor, but it acts as a sort of attention getter so that the Gods recognize his family’s deeds on Earth. The other five mentioned earlier identified as “Eclectic Pagan,” polytheist, or pagan. All but one, Keith (whose beliefs will be looked at in detail in the following section), said that, in addition to worshipping Norse Gods, they worshipped or followed Gods from other pantheons as well, or at least were open to doing so. One person, M, who was unable to take the survey but was willing to allow information from a personal interview, primarily worships the Egyptian Goddess Bastet. However, lately, she’s been feeling like the Norse God, Loki, has been calling to her more, stating that, “I’ve been drawn to him since childhood but he didn’t start appearing tangibly until recently,” (M). Such mixtures of pantheon are, from my experience, relatively common within the pagan community. Many believe, like one survey respondent, that “the gods are real, individual beings, as opposed to the idea that they are all aspects of a single divinity,” (CelticCoyote). As such, it is possible to draw from many pantheons because they all fit within the same belief system.

Interestingly enough, some people also admitted to worshipping on a basis of disbelief. One participant in the survey, Sceadugenga, admitted to being an atheist. Due to his belief in a human’s ability to have a non-human soul, and identifying as such, he stated that, “Believe it or not, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in gods as a human. As a lupine[vi], the concept of ‘god’ is more complex and less accurate than in the ways humans use the term. My connection to Fenris is closer to a natural affinity than a form of worship,” (Sceadugenga). Sceadugenga identifies as primal, or a person who identifies with the animal portion of himself. The animal he most closely identifies with is a wolf. “I do have a spirit wolf…” Sceadugenga explains, “Shadow, my wolf… in the most scientific terms, is a visualized representation of the primal parts of my soul, and gives me a construct to dialogue with the opposed lupine and human elements in my consciousness. But I consider Shadow a part of me, and I am a part of the wolf pack in the abstract.” He considers himself to be in a pack with all other lupines, and views Fenris, or Fenrir, the great Wolf attested to in the Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson, as the “packmaster,” or leader of the lupines. Another name he gives for the packmaster is the ur-wolf.

The other person in the survey who based his worship on non-belief identified as pagan, but continued on to explain that he “considers the gods and goddesses to be keys that unlock ‘archetypes’ … found in the mind and not only keys that unlock archetypes but also some of them can unlock ancestral personality types,” (Keith). His information on archetypes and ancestral personality types is based on Jungian theory of archetypes and collective unconscious, respectively. Continuing on in his explanation, Keith stated, “I believe we are the gods and goddesses and the gods and goddesses of pagan mythology exist inside us as deep psychological forces we can embody. I also believe in worshipping living human beings as part of my paganism, in that sense I am a polytheist because I see humans as gods and goddesses. Also I worship nature, the sun and the moon and the stars. I also venerate animals. I worship rocks. I believe the material universe is sacred and has always existed.”

Not everyone, however, worships Norse Gods due to heritage, calling, or belief in gods as archetypes of human personality. The prevalence of Norse imagery within media today has brought many people into the world of Norse religion, many considering themselves Lokean due to following the Norse God Loki. One survey respondent admitted, “They [Loki and Tyr] both announced themselves to me via games and sci-fi. Their names came up repeatedly and resonated with me in an odd way that drove me to learn about the meaning of the names,” (ChosaDei)[vii]. Belle, a Norse Heathen who mainly works with Odin and Frigga, worries about this trend: “I see a lot of people, since the Marvel movies came out, saying, ‘Oh, yea, I totally worship Loki! (giggle!) He’s so hot!’ or I see, a lot, people claiming to be Norse Heathens who say they worship Loki and Thor because they are brothers, but they aren’t, that’s just in the comics. I respect Comic!Verse, I really do, but I think it should be remembered as a fictional creation that is in no way an indication of the actual faith system or myths. It says ‘an adaptation’ and ‘based off of’ for a reason,” (Belle). The issue is that many people, due to the Marvel comics and the movies, are coming into Norse religion believing all of the information from the movies, or are purely joining the religion because they think it is “cool,” an extension of their love for the comic characters. So while the comics and movies are certainly normalizing and giving more exposure to the Old Religions, they are, at times, doing them a disservice by putting out “non-cannon” information, or information that is not true to the actual stories.

In contrast to those who have mixed their Norse religion with other beliefs, base their beliefs on an essential lack of belief, or are part of the trend of those following a Marvel-ized idea of the Norse Gods, there are those who attempt to follow the Norse religion in a way that is as close as possible to what we know of it before Christianity. Belle is one of those people. Belle, as stated before, mainly works with Odin and Frigga; however, she venerates all of the Norse Gods. Before moving states for graduate school, Belle worked with her local wolf shelter in order to protect the wolves there, which are symbols of Odin and allow her to feel close to him. When asked about how she was called to her patron deity, Belle replied, “Actually, Odin called me to me first during a tarot reading. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember being really frightened by him at first. After that, everything fell into place. Everything about the faith fit everything I had been looking for since I was a small child,” (Belle). Now, she worships through ritual, altar studies, pagan study (which is like Bible study), and offerings to her Gods. She says she “lives her worship,” meaning that by simply being alive, she is worshipping because she constantly thinks about and thanks her Gods. When asked about Odin further, Belle explained her interaction with him, saying that while she likes Odin because he values wisdom and learning, working with him is often difficult because he also values strength in all things. Belle explained that there were times where she really needed his help, but because she was showing weakness by being upset about the situation, Odin left her to fend for herself. Once she succeeded, Odin would return, but only once she had proven her strength. This situation has led to some difficult situations for Belle. Once, she called upon Loki for help when she and her boyfriend were having financial difficulties. While she got a job, and her financial woes were mostly abated, calling upon the Trickster God of Norse religion had its problems. Money went missing, car keys were lost, and, most importantly, Odin left her for a while until Belle realized her mistake. Since then, she has not had many issues outside of the norm with Odin or her other deities (Belle).

Belle’s boyfriend, Beast, worships only one deity – Hel. He says, “I did not find her, she found me. I actually mistook her for Hades to begin with,” (Beast). Beast explains that he finds Hel to be very sarcastic and straight to the point – characteristics he himself embodies. When asked how he worships, he says he mostly does so through Tarot cards, a method which does deviate from the “normal” form of Norse worship, and guided meditation. However, Beast is more relaxed in his worship than Belle, one might say. Whereas Belle makes sure to thank her Gods every day and does pagan study once a week, Beast worships when the mood strikes him and often does no alter work at all.

Contrastingly, Raven Kaldera, another follower of Hel, or Hela (as he calls her), is much more active. Author of “Pathwalker’s Guide to the Nine Worlds,” as well as many other books on the subject of Norse religion, Kaldera speaks of Hela, stating, “Hela came to me when I was very young, and was a constant presence all throughout my early life. I did not know who She was, although I was aware that She was a Death Goddess. Eventually I discovered who had chosen me. She then began introducing me to her family and friends,” (Kaldera). He explains that he “belongs” to Hel, but that he works with many other Norse Gods as well. He has online shrines for them, has physical alters and prays to them, has facilitated gatherings and rituals for them, does favors/errands, and gives offerings. Of Hel, he says, “For my Boss, Hela, I pretty much do what She tells me,” (Kaldera). Kaldera considers himself Northern Tradition Pagan (NT), a newer denomination within the Norse tradition. However, he also called it Norse Pagan, a term used by many who participated in the survey in conjunction with the term Heathen. Kaldera, via northernpaganism.org, contrasts NT with Heathenism and defines Heathenism as “a generally accepted umbrella term for a number of religious reconstructionist groups (including Asatru, Forn Sedh, Vanatru, Heithnir, etc.) that base their religion on the early-medieval Iron Age writings about the Gods and myths of Norse, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon peoples.” In contrast, he states that NT is a reconstructionist-derived practice, meaning that it is not completely Reconstructionist and begins with the lore (which is where the Kaldera says Reconstructionist practice stops) and continues onward, adding things through inspiration as well. The website also notes that those who follow the NT path are allowed to work with Gods from other pantheons within their private practice and that the NT groups do not encourage theological separatism (Northern-Tradition Paganism). Elsewhere on the website are his shrines, online dedications to the various Norse deities, neatly separated into Æsir, Vanir, and Rökkr, as well as “other” and “Russian” shrines. Each God or Goddess has his or her own page with pictures and information of the particular deity in question. For instance, the shrine for Hel gives a brief bit of information about her with links to more specific information, such as who she is, her history, her gifts, and her rules. In this way, Kaldera honors all of the Gods within his pantheon.

Another survey respondent, John, is also rather traditional with worship, but with a slight twist. He considers himself neo-Asatru, meaning he is follows a newer path and works with the Gods of the Æsir, and found his Gods through study after he left the Christian faith. John worships Tyr, Thor, Odin, and Loki. He says that what he does for worship is he tries to make offerings; when he has to deal with “stupid people” at his work, he asks Tyr to let him see truth, Odin to give him his strength, and for Loki to play tricks on them; he also has runes on his body, weapon, bulletproof vest, and other gear, stylizing him as a modern warrior, which is fitting given the Gods he worships.

In short, there are many different ways to worship. As Kaldera says when explaining the Northern Tradition:

It’s always hard when you have two religions who worship the same God(s), but do it in different ways with different theology. Just ask the Christians. People have to work to get over their issues and leave each other alone. Being able to say, “It’s not my way, but it’s a way,” is sometimes a difficult place for people to come to, especially when they are already members of a small fringe sect and have insecurities about that.

Still, I’d make the (perhaps ambiguous) comment that merely screaming at someone that they’re doing things in a wrong and evil way never (as in never, in the history of the world!) made the recipient of that screaming change. At best, it made them dismiss the message because of the attitude. There’s also that for all their complaining, orthodox religious organizations have often found alternative groups to be a good place to dispose of their heretics: “Look, clearly you don’t belong here; why don’t you try going over there and getting out of our hair?”

And, finally, all things pass and that includes ideological conflicts. We prefer to be frith-makers rather than instigators of conflict. Neo-Paganism has always been a demographic with underlying values of tolerance, and we are carrying on that tradition.

(Northern-Tradition Paganism).

While it may be difficult to deal with differences, sometimes it is best to concede that there is no real “right way” when it comes to religion. While some prefer to try and stay as close as possible to the original religion, others find it necessary to adapt, whether due to synthesis of the religion into other religions such as Christianity, due to personal beliefs or difficulties, or more. And while it is certainly disagreeable that some take clearly fictional information about Gods and apply it to a religion, or join a religion as an extension of comic fandom, one must admit that no press is truly bad press, as the comics and movies bring Norse mythology and religion into the realm of the “normal” within society, helping those who due truly practice and believe this religion to feel less out of place and objectionable. And who knows, perhaps one day, those giggling girls who say they worship Loki because he’s “so hot” will figure out that they truly do want to worship Loki, but not because of his portrayal in a fictional movie, but because of his cunning and how many of his followers portray him as caring for them in many ways. If that happens, that is certainly progress.


[i] “Pagan” is a term used for non-Abrahamic religions.

[ii] Germanic names changed to Norse equivalents by author of article so that they would be more readily understood by the reader.

[iii] For the protection of those who took my survey online, many have elected to provide pseudonyms.

[iv] Courage, Truthfulness, Honor, Fidelity, Self-Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance, and Steadfastness (Finzie).

[v] This could be considered a Blót. Defined by Heathen_Master, a Blót is “a ritual that involves a sacrifice to the Gods. Something I’ve hunted, food, drink, etc.,” (Heathen_Master).

[vi] Sceadugenga identifies as a primal, or “a human who identifies with an animal in a deeply spiritual, psychological, or emotional way, to such an extent that this animal identification forms the strongest determining factor in that individuals relationships with others and/or with self.” His definition of lupine is just “of or relating to wolves” and can be understood as a primal who identifies with wolves.

[vii] Please note that in no way am I connecting ChosaDei to the trend of people “worshipping” or “following” Norse Gods off of false information within the Marvel Universe.

Works Cited

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