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Cult And Identity In Modern Heathenry
Cult And Identity In Modern Heathenry
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Date:August 5, 2014
The transition from the intellectual effort of reconstructing pre-Christian and conversion-era Germanic worldviews and religiosity to a practical living religion can be a bit of a conundrum for modern heathens.  There are two extremes that find frequent and common commentary in modern heathenry.  On one end of the spectrum is the tendency for reconstructionist heathens to attempt to replicate cultic ritual precisely as it is portrayed in the literary or archaeological remains.  At the other end of the spectrum is the tendency to create an entirely new ritual model that has no basis in historic heathenry whatsoever.  As a matter of necessity, most heathens fall somewhere in between[2] and they often do so with remarkably little variation.

The pine that stands in the village
no bark or needles to cover it;
so is a man; that no one loves
Why shall he live long?
— Hávamál, st. 50.[1]

There is a number of reasons for this apparent lack of variation among average heathens.  The combined research efforts and tendency to share resources dealing with the limited nature of the data regarding these subjects tend  to result in homogeneity of models, terminology, and conclusions even when those involved focus on different branches of the Germanic tribal tree.[3]  Another contribution to this is the taboo among some heathens regarding speaking of the particulars of their own group’s thew.  The most conservative of heathens adopt the position that speaking of specific and/or personal religious experiences is strictly off limits.  On the other hand, the least conservative tend to share their experiences with everyone with little regard to the appropriateness of their actions.  The latter has acquired for themselves a negative reputation among many reconstructionists.  The result is an unwillingness to share personal variation in cult and the tendency to shame those that do.  This leads us back to the issue of sharing the same data and applying them to the same models regardless of any individual focus or variation.  This becomes the standard, the core of heathen reconstruction that is used to measure the validity (which very nearly amounts to conservativeness) of conclusions drawn and practical application of the results of reconstructionist efforts.

Reconstructionist groups that focus on a specific Germanic culture within a particular time frame find themselves with the least data to work with.  Their rituals often show little variation from those portrayed in the sources.  This is part of their dedication to reconstruct as accurately as possible the culture’s worldviews and religiosity.[4]  The ability to reconstruct accurately is obviously limited by the data and therefore the robustness and uniqueness of their reconstruction becomes related to their willingness to model elements of their reconstruction on elements from cultures and groups of varying degrees of relatedness.  Too strict a methodology leads to a lack of variety of ritual because the value and models for many rituals go undocumented in the extant source material.  Too liberal a methodology risks developing a model that is only barely recognizable as being based in a particular culture’s thew.

Limited resources and shared information are not a problem for neo-heathen groups that create new rituals from the ground up.  Nonetheless, even these groups demonstrate a lack of variety.  The models which the new rituals are designed around are often the same; generally derived from those already familiar to the individual, such as various denominations of Christianity, or those models common to many modern alternative religious movements, such as Wicca and ceremonial magic groups.  The robustness and uniqueness of the rituals of these groups is only limited by the group’s creativity. Unfortunately very little in the religious repertoire of these groups resembles anything that would be recognizable to historic heathens.  Often the only thing that ties these groups to historic thew is vocabulary, and many times the modern meanings differ greatly from the historic as well.

None of these situations are overly problematic in their own right.  What happens as a result is that heathens appear to lack creativity and a willingness to develop their thew beyond the source material.  Where these situations do create an issue is in the establishment of identity and the survivability of heathenry into the future.[5]  To all outsiders without specific knowledge of the groups in question, the identities of all of these groups appear very similar. Once pressed for specifics, many of these groups will define themselves, or be defined, by who they are not and what they do not do.  In other words, their identity becomes established through the association of negative statements.  Outsiders seeking information on heathenry will often find themselves confronted with many more statements of what a group is not and what it does not do than who they are and what they actually do.  These comparisons often come in the form of contrasting or comparing heathenry with Christianity or one’s own group with other heathen and non-heathen groups.[6]  Where statements of positive associations are encountered the statements are often vague and perceived to be commonly identifiable elements of heathenry.  As a result, identifying with a particular group becomes inconsequential, as all groups appear essentially the same and perceived commonality is shared with all groups.

These statements can be useful for a cursory introduction to a particular group’s brand of heathenry, but do little to provide any real information about the group in question.  Heathens are needed for heathenry to survive.  In order for would-be heathens to identify with other like-minded heathens, then identities must be established and differences between group thew must be discernible and relevant to prospective heathens.[7]  If heathens rely on negative statement associations as a means of demarcating identity from other groups, prospective heathens will lose interest and no identity or thew will be established for the future.  Maintaining an identity that relies on negative statement associations is only possible as long as there are related groups from which the group in question can directly differentiate itself.  The negative statements retain value as statements of demarcation.  Additionally, once the laundry list of negative statement associations runs out, what remains for many heathen groups looks quite similar, being multiple adoptions of the “heathen standard” mentioned above.  This coupled with the fickle nature of men results in a high turnover of membership as interests and associations change over time.  The resulting anomie often leads to the dissolution of the group and many times the religious conversion of those involved towards what is hoped to be a more fulfilling religion and away from heathenry.[8]

To guarantee the survival of heathenry and heathen thew it is necessary to combat these trends.  Heathen thew, which includes cult and identity, needs to develop beyond the heathen standard while maintaining its heathen origins.  Since culture-specific and modernist neo-heathen groups are both limited by their objective and vision, they are considered the extremes of reconstruction for the intent of this piece.  Therefore, this article will be directed at the average heathen who is involved in reconstructing and applying historic heathen thew in a living and meaningful manner in their modern lives.  The primary claim of this article will be that there is no heathenry that is not relevant to the modern lives of heathens in its expression.  Examples will revolve around this expression of heathen worldview in a manner that reflects and informs the lives and worlds of both historic and contemporary heathens.  This will illustrate that relying solely on a precise replication of imagined historic expression may cause modern heathenry to take on a non-heathen quality.


[1] All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
[2] The extant source material does not perfectly describe every ritual and situation of significance in the lives of historic or modern heathens.  This results in the development of beliefs and behaviors reflecting those historically undocumented situations.
[3] Harvey Whitehouse, Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (Altamira Press, 2004) and Oliver Roy, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (Columbia University Press, 2009) discuss the process of religious standardization and formatting.  Both standardization and formatting describe the dialogical process of adjusting and reforming of expressions of religiosity with the intent of making disparate conditions and resulting conclusions compatible and acceptable.
[4] Theodism is a modern reconstructionist religious movement that involves groups focusing on the reconstruction of specific Germanic cultures.  For more information on Theodism and reconstruction see Shane Ricks, “Theodism and Retroheathenry.” Axenthof Thiad. 2009. Web. Nov. 2011. <http://www.axenthof.org/theodism_and_retroheathenry.html>.
 [5] Abby Day, Religion and the Individual: Belief, Practice, Identity (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 14.: “Underlying great people, the sacred places marking ethnic, national or religious identity, or natural locales of ecological health, the issue of survival predominates.  It is evident in long-standing and widespread graves that should not simply be viewed as memorials of the past but also as symbols of endurance, of the ongoing survival of a society, often in the link between ancestor and descendant that is perpetuated in the rites of ancestors that are performed by the living.  Survival, perhaps the foundational drive is as evident amongst human beings as amongst other animal species and cultural intensification is a way of describing the social manifestation of biological life.”

[6] Jan Snoek, Similarity and Demarcation: Studies in Ritual Behavior (Brill Academic Pub, 1995), 53.: “…if there is a wish to distinguish the in-group from an out-group, then greater similarity between the two groups will stimulate a stronger demarcation by the in-group.”
[7] See Karina V. Korostelina, Social Identity and Conflict: Structures, Dynamics, and Implications (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 25-6, for further information regarding the dynamics of self-conception and social identity and categorization.  Of particular importance is the necessity of the salience of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral claims of the group with which the individual is identifying.
[8] Day, 8, states that “[l]ittle is to be gained by isolating the social facts constituted by values, beliefs and the social organization of life from the psychological facts constituted by emotions and varieties of feeling states as is increasingly acknowledged within religious studies at large, even though the formal study of emotions is, itself, in its early stages…the notion of ‘cultural intensification’ [is] a means of fostering the integration of cognitive and affective streams of life.”
[9] Bonnie Effros, Creating Community with Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Yuitzhak Hen, “Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul” in Dieter Hägermann and Brigitte Kasten, eds., Tatigkeitsfelder und Erfahrungshorizonte des landlichen Menschen in der fruhmittelalterlichen Grundherrschaft (bis ca. 1000) (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006), 99-110.