My Approach To Heathenry

One of the things I get asked for on a semi-regular basis is an explanation of my approach to Heathenry, so I thought I’d provide a breakdown of the different “elements” that make up my perspective and methodology. First, and foremost, I believe Heathenry should be based on polytheistic reconstruction. The purpose of reconstructionist methodology is to re-establish historically accurate behaviors, thought forms, beliefs in an effort to create continuity of ritual traditions. It is not historical reenactment. Polytheistic reconstruction is in contrast to the syncretic beliefs of Neopaganism or “channeled” systems like Theosophy. In 2004, Bill Linzie listed the primary difference between polytheistic reconstructionism and Neopaganism from the 19th and 20th centuries, which include different efforts at Germanic mysticism like Ariosophy. According to Linzie, the differences are:

  1.     There is no attempt to recreate a combined pan-European Paganism.
  2.     Researchers attempt to stay within research guidelines developed over the course of the past century for handling documentation generated in the time periods that they are studying.
  3.     A multi-disciplinary approach is utilized capitalizing on results from various fields as historical literary research, anthropology, religious history, political history, archaeology, forensic anthropology, historical sociology, etc. with an overt attempt to avoid pseudo-sciences.
  4.     There are serious attempts to recreate culture, politics, science and art of the period in order to better understand the environment within which the religious beliefs were practiced.

I found some interesting commentary that I think actually sums up much of the attitude within Heathenry towards being called “pagan.” I think it’s absolutely fair to say that those of us who rely on reconstruction reject being called “pagan” or “neopagan” in order to distance ourselves from more common elements of Neopaganism, namely eclecticism, syncretism, cultural appropriation, esotericism, mysticism, and Wiccan or Ceremonial Magic inspired ritual structures and practices.

Second, I believe Heathenry is not just reconstructionist, it is also revivalist. This element means that I believe that we are working towards a renewal of our customs and practices in the modern world and addressing Heathen belief and practices in a modern framework. This should not be taken to mean that we are free to just run any which way we want with the material we gain from our reconstruction efforts. Quite the opposite is true, actually.

Our revival must take into account that we do not live in a world from a thousand years ago but we must make every effort to maintain that continuity of tradition. We are forced to deliberately evolve those customs to address the needs and realities of the world we are in. Yes, it is fairly true that Heathens do have some element of rejection of what can be called a plastic, consumer culture that we often find ourselves at odds with but even in this, we enjoy a great deal of modern benefits and our lifestyle is vastly different from those of our ancient ancestors. This necessitates that we adapt certain things for our modern life. Being a revival, however, also means that we must adapt our modern life to certain ancient customs and norms. Where that balance is found is one of the many things that we are still sorting out so there is going to be a great deal of experimentation for a long time yet to come, but it is a sign of the genuine effort being put in to the revival that we are doing this.

The third element to my approach is Tribalism. This is a bit of a thorny subject because Tribalism is a term that poses difficulty in definition due to various uses. For the sake of Heathenry, I am going to define Tribalism as advocating for the creation of modern tribal units based on continuity with ancient tribal structures. These tribal units are predominantly reciprocal, culture-based, and socially distinct from the dominant culture resulting in a specific sense of identity and membership.

I believe that tribal thinking and behavior is inherent to human nature. Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool argued that the average person is capable of understanding only about 150 individuals as fully developed, complex people (Dunbar’s number) and I believe that we are only really able to develop meaningful relationships within that limitation. Others have argued that the number might be greater, in fact, almost double according to H. Russell Bernard. Regardless of what the actual number is, and I am inclined to think that Russell may be more correct, the point remains that we are not truly able to see a limited number of individuals as “real people” that we can identify with meaningfully. This natural inclination causes us to create “tribal” identities around various subjective associations, particularly when we lack customary tribal membership.

Finally, I take a liberal approach to interpretation of these influential elements. I believe that all of our sources provide guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. We are regularly called upon to deal with issues in an adaptive, utilitarian manner. We must strive to remain consistent with tradition as we do this, of course, but the poem Havamal is not the direct word of Odin, which we must not violate. The sagas provide us insight into the mores and norms of our Viking Age ancestors but they are also good examples of what not to do. We are also not limited to just that one specific place and time. Each tribe must decide for itself where and when it draws inspiration and cultural continuity. The only true moral imperative we have is that we must maintain frith with our kin, our clan, and our tribe. What is good is that which is beneficial to the tribe.

 


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