We took an insult hurled at us by Christians, and claimed it for our own.
noun: heathen; plural noun: heathens
a person who does not belong to a widely held religion (especially one who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim) as regarded by those who do.
synonyms: pagan, infidel, idolater, heretic, unbeliever, disbeliever, nonbeliever, atheist, agnostic, skeptic; archaic paynim
We had a word, Asatru, that meant true to the Aesir. Not being a perfect word, it failed to include the Vanir, and lent itself better to Icelandic or Scandinavian based practice than Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Germano-Slavic, Frankish, Frisian or other Germanic Neo Pagan folk ways. Heathen had come to the term that our community used to differentiate ourselves from the Wiccans and other Neo Pagans. Inside the Pagan community it had come to be the term both sides used to divide our two groups into separate encampments beneath the polytheist umbrella.
There are a lot of parts to being Heathen, some of which are easy to see, and some of which are easy to miss. It is described as the religion with homework, for we take our lore seriously. We are not a people of the book, like the Christians or Islamics who practice a dead faith; one that begins on page one, ends at the back cover and will never contain anything that is not already written. We are however a people that read books. From the lore to archaeology offering us new insights into the lives of our ancestors, as a group you rarely find a community whose lay people have that much depth of scholarship on various levels of their faith and ancestral cultures.
We are a living faith, which means that each community is busy coming together, celebrating, and continuing the traditions of our ancestors in ways that fit with their own communities needs and experience. There isn’t really one right way to do it, and a whole lot of lore allows you to assert with some degree of foundation a wide number of mutually excluding things. We argue a lot about them, partly because we love the lore and get attached to the meanings and lessons we have taken from it, and partly because the love of argument seems built into the community at almost a genetic level.
You can be a solitary Heathen, and lots are. Not all are so by choice. Most agree that Heathenry has elements that can only really be experienced in a flesh and blood community. Living Heathen means that you understand there is a sacral purpose behind what we do when we come together. Hospitality is the highest form of magic in that it binds strangers into friends, friends into kindreds, and kindreds into families. A ridiculous amount of our lore concerns hospitality, and the use of it to build, correct, and maintain relationships.
Heathens understand community and worth in a way that modern peoples are suffering for forgetting. We understand as our ancestors did that community is not an abstraction, it is a deliberate construction, and act of will and faith that takes the wyrd of many people and binds them through common cause so that the success or failure of the collective is enjoyed, or suffered, by all. You can look at this on the symbolic level as how our kindreds function, and the purpose of our oaths and the sharing at sumble, or you can look at this on the practical level on how our physical communities either prosper or not based on the degree of cooperation and commitment to collective effort they demonstrate.
We understand worth. Our post 1960’s culture enshrines self worth, but psychologically we suffer from the gap between our own self worth, and the worth we are held in by various definitions of community. It can be as disastrous and destructive to be outwardly held in high esteem while you feel a crushing guilt or shame, as it is to be held in contempt or mocked when your own deeds and conduct has been nothing but upstanding. Where your perceived worth by others and your self are at odds, you will feel it.
Each decision we make will establish our worth in those who see it. This worth will be judged by the standards of that particular community based on its understanding of your relationship and the duties you held. A given act can be seen a hundred different ways, by a hundred different slices of the community. One person, one act, all specifications agreed, yet a hundred different understanding of how that affected your worth. You can be held in high esteem, moderate esteem, contempt simultaneously by different parts of the community for exactly the same deeds. Our ancestors understood this, our own generation struggles with this, believing our intrinsic self worth should be exportable to all our communities in some magical fashion. So far as I can see, this has never actually worked. People will judge by what they see, based on the standards they hold.
Heathens talk a lot, but we back it up. We tend to do a lot of things, as once we decide we support something, we pretty much have to translate that support into a concrete action, or admit we don’t really support it at all. For this reason many of us have served in the military, and have or do volunteer in many areas of the community. We offer real things, rather than Facebook support for those things that we acknowledge are important.
We judge. We judge and we don’t even pretend that we don’t. Justice is depicted as blind, holding scales. This means justice is supposed to be blind to the differences between us, and weighing only the evidence. Heathens function in a similar way. You will find more acceptance for gays, lesbians, transgendered, or other marginalized peoples in Heathenry than almost anywhere else, and outsiders are always shocked. We are not the kindest or gentlest folk, we argue constantly and are quick to take offense more often than we should. We really do hold to part of that old silly word, Asatru. We judge above all things your adherence to this one simple question.
Are you living true? True to yourself, true to your gods, true to your beliefs?
That above all we judge you for. I will grant you that the vegan pacifists in our community may sound like an odd fit, but they are living true to that belief in the face of a community that compares firearms as they swap BBQ recipes, and that takes some real strength of commitment. You show that you are living true to your ideals and we will judge you; judge you to be of great worth.
We disagree on language, on definition, on the names of the gods, who is to be worshiped, how they are to be worshiped. We can and will argue anything, if you don’t believe me, someone right now is arguing that we don’t argue and utterly failing to see the humour in it. The gods forgive us much for the laughter we bring to them, even if much of it is unintentional.
I have never felt prouder to be Heathen than when our great community from sea to shining sea, ignoring national borders altogether, came together as one to denounce hatred in Declaration 127. Racism, sexism, homophobia; regardless of the mask it wears, the promotion of hatred against our fellows is hateful to the gods, and unacceptable in our communities. We came together and denounced this spreading of hate in one voice. We are a fractious people, but I love our community as I love my own family, my sacred ancestors, the wights of the lands and waters, and the holy gods themselves.
By in large, we get it right. We could do a better job at many things. We need to be better at recognizing the worth of our women as evenly as we do our men. We need to be better at keeping division and hatred from sneaking into our community and turning worthy hands against each other. We need to be better at realizing the other side of any given argument has reasonable cause to believe they too are correct.
We get a lot right. We don’t’ care where you came from. We don’t’ care what you look like. We care that your deeds match your words, your oaths are kept, you come to raise the horn with us in open and honest love for the community and the teachings that bring us together.
Someday I hope we will get over the knee-jerk reaction against national organizations. We are moving into the main stream of our society and collectively we have a voice that will be needed to defend our rights against those who first turned the word Heathen against us as not only a perjorative, but as an excuse to attack.
Our gods left us no single book telling us how to live today. They left us with lore that shows us how to recognize and care for important relationships. They left us with lore that shows us how to live justly, honourably, and successfully in a world that can be harsh, cruel, and heart-stoppingly beautiful by turns. They left us the understanding of how to look at the world, recognize our duties, and shape the question. It is for us to show our gods, our ancestors, and our descendants what OUR answers will be.
I am a Heathen. I love this world, for all the pain it has given me, it has also given me love and joy beyond measure. The spirits of this world sing to us if you have the ear to hear them. The ancestors whisper to us, if you have the patience to listen for them, and the gods stand beside us as we face the challenges in our lives, witnesses to the choices we make. This life is ours to live, our decisions and consequences our own to make and to bear, but we are all connected. From the first sacred ancestor, to the last of the descendants yet unborn. To be a Heathen means to accept a definition of self that stretches beyond your skin, a definition of place that extends far beyond both your birth and your death.
I left offerings to my house wights when I rose, poured out onto the earth of my place firsts and best of my coffee. I live largely joyfully because of the Heathenry that has shown me how the bits of my life weave together, how my worth is built in the ten thousand daily decisions that most people never think about at all. I travel far to be with my community at every opportunity to raise a horn, and join our voices together in celebration as the connections between us do not just bind us together, they heal not only ourselves, but our connection to the lands and waters that our cities tried so hard to strip from us.
At a certain point in your practice, you will no longer be able to separate your life and your practice. Above all else, this is what our ancestors had that I wish to reclaim. I study how they lived not because I want arraigned marriages for my daughters, or to settle my interpersonal disputes with a battle axe, and related weregild discussions, but because I wish to grasp even imperfectly how they saw themselves at a time when they could conceive no other way than living in harmony with their ancestors, their lands, and their gods.