The word Heathen is not a bad word! Old English hæðen, Old Norse heiðinn It has the same meaning as the Latin paganus, which is where we get the modern term pagan. Both mean the “people out in the countryside.” While the cities usually quickly converted to the prevailing version of Christianity, those out away from civilization did what they had always done. The word is used by those who are re-creating the old faith and world view from the literary and archaeological sources. They describe themselves as "Heathen" in part to distinguish themselves from other pagans whose rituals come from more modern sources.
The Faith itself does not have a name so there are many names used. The most common modern name is Ásatrú ( Ā sa troo), which means “Truth/Way of the Gods.” It is a modern word and there is an implied focus on the Icelandic forms of practice, which not everyone follows. Therefore it is not a preferred use for all who practice this faith. Old Norse Forn Siðr, Anglo-Saxon Fyrnsidu and its modern Scandinavian analogues Forn Sed, all meaning “old custom/way,” are mostly used in European countries. Other names for practice -specific groups include: Theodism, Irminism, and Odinism Modern “descriptive” names include: Germanic Neopaganism and Norse /Teutonic paganism. These terms are not used by those that currently practice.
Heathenry is a Reconstructionist faith. Heathenry attempts to recreate the culture, political structures, and art of the pre-Christian Northern European world in order to better understand the environment in which the ancient beliefs were practiced. Heathens also take multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the ancient heathen world, utilizing results from various fields as historical literary research, anthropology, religious history, political history, archeology, forensic anthropology, historical sociology, etc. with an overt attempt to avoid pseudo-sciences. This does not mean we do not take into account the modern world, but rather take the best of the past to better apply it to our modern world and lives.
Heathenry is a polytheistic faith. There are many Gods and Goddesses. Odin, Frigga, Thor, Freyr, Freyja, and Heimdal are just some of the Deities. There are two tribes of Deities: The Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir, in general, are about Order, Ethics, and Family. The Vanir, in general, are about Wealth, Nature, Sexuality, and Magic.
Another aspect of the Heathen faith is a strong focus on honoring one’s Ancestors, their culture, and ways. This mostly comes out within Heathenry as an interest in Genealogy, a love of history, and wishing to better understand not only when and where they lived but how they lived.
Another part of Heathen Faith is the importance of animistic spirits called Vaettir (V ī tier). Such beings as the Alfar (elves), Svartalfs (dwarves), Tomte, Nisse (Gnomes), and other “Hidden Folk.”
These beings along with the God/desses, our Ancestors, and Us live in Yggdrassil, the Worldtree. This kind of cosmology is common among Indo-European cultures. Gladsheim/Asgard – Land of the Aesir Vanaheim (West) – Land of the Vanir Alfheim – Land of the Ljossalfar (light elves) Midgard – Our Realm Muspelheim (South) – Land of the Fire Giants Jotunheim (East) – Land of the Ice Giants Svartalfheim - Land of the Dwarves Niflheim (North)– Land of Ice Helheim – Land of the Dead
At the base of Yggdrasil are the Norns. They weave Wyrd into the Ørlög of the Gods and Mankind. The Norns are not the Greek Fates Wyrd is a person’s words, and deeds. A Heathen’s Orlog (destiny/fate) is shaped in part by what is in his past, in part by what he and others are now doing, by the vows he takes and obligations he enters into.
To gain positive Wyrd, Heathens use the Nine Noble Virtues as a moral and ethical guide. The NNV were developed in the 70’s and were gleaned from various sources including the Poetic Edda (particularly the Hávamál), Icelandic Sagas and Germanic folklore.
Modern Heathenry, as in the ancient times, does not have any central authority. Each group, often called a Kindred, Hearth, Sippe, or Tribe, thus organizes itself in whichever way is best for that particular group. Some groups are consensus driven, some are more hierarchical or tribal, others follow a business model. However, there are some general “offices” that understood across the US heathen landscape. Goði (Go thee, female Gyðja, Gee thya, plural Goðar) – The best translation to English is priest. However, “spiritual expert” is closer to the way it is used in modern Heathenry. The person that leads ritual and provides clerical functions to people who want it.
While the Godhi covers the spiritual dimensions, the administrative side is covered by the Chieftain. Not all Kindreds have chieftains, but those that focus on a Tribal pattern tend to. Sometimes the Chieftain may have other names like Jarl, or Aethling. Sometimes Kindreds are ran not by Chieftains but by the Godhi, essentially combining the spiritual and administrative. This was common in the 70’s and 80’s but the roles began to separate in the 90’s.
The last “office” is a developing one. It is called the Thyle (Thool) or Lawspeaker. In modern practice, this office combines two different ancient offices, both focused on protecting and enforcing a tribe’s Orlog. The Thyle’s job is to makes sure that the words and deeds of the Kindred are not only kept up with but that no ill words or deeds are done in the first place. In addition, they usually are the one’s that keep up with and enforce any rules the Kindred comes up with much like a Parliamentarian would.
A 14th century manuscript of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda Initial “P” in the Codex Regius (The King's book) of Gragas
Heathenry is not a scripture based faith. However, it does have texts that are considered vital and sacred. The primary texts are the Poetic Edda ( collected sometime in the early 11 th century anonymously ), the Prose Edda ( written early in the 13 th Century by Snorri Sturluson ), and the various Sagas of which Beowulf and Nibelungsaga (Old Norse: Völsunga saga ) are but two. There is also information from Roman writers, and even an Arabic trader.
The word “Edda” has only been applied to the two documents, and refers possibly to “inspired” or “important” poetic dialog. In the Poetic’s case the poetry itself, and in Snorri’s Prose Edda, explaining about the poetry. A 13th-century illuminated Icelandic Saga manuscript. A Saga is a narrative telling of the adventures of a hero or a family, essentially writing down an older oral story. It is also the name of a goddess who collects and retells these tales.
These make up the majority of what Heathens call Lore. When Heathens use Lore, we do not treat it as an absolute authority. Heathens view it more as a glimpse on how our ancestors perceived and interacted with the world around them. It is something modern Heathens can follow, if possible, or we may have to do some interpretation. When reading Lore, one has to take into account who wrote it, when it was written, and why it was written. Sometimes this means we have to look beyond bias, usually Christian, and “pull out” the ancient heathen ideas or concepts.
Two important texts from the Poetic Edda, though all the texts are considered valuable. Hávamál – The Sayings of the H á r – This is said to be from Odin himself. It is written from his perspective and in the second and third part he brags about his ability to woo women and that he knows quite a bit of magic, respectively. The first part is considered the most important, as it consists of practical advice on how to be a solid heathen. Völuspá – The Prophesy of the Seeress – This poem gives us the basis of most of the myths within Heathenry. It details the creation of the world, the war between the Gods, and then gives us detail on Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods. The Prose Edda’s first part, the Gylfaginning, helps us better understand what is only mentioned in the Voluspa. While the second part, Skáldskaparmál, helps us to not only understand ancient heathen poetry but also how to write it.
The key thing one takes away from Snorri’s poetic treatise is that ancient heathen poetry dealt a lot in what is called Kennings. This is a phrase or word in allegorical speech, often a pun, for any person, place, or thing. An example would be referring to the fields of wheat that grow on the Kansas plains as the Grain Sea, and a tractor as a Cornwhale.
Heathens also use different translations for different reasons and purposes. For something formal, we may use a more poetic version. For esoteric or deeper theological understanding we may use a more academic literal version or one that has been translated by a fellow heathen.
Chisholm Edda 2005 Cattle die and kinsmen die and you yourself shall die. But I know one that never dies that is the doom of each one dead. Hollander Edda 1962 Cattle die and kinsmen die, Thyself eke soon wilt die, One thing, I wot, will wither never: The doom over each one dead Bellows Edda 1936 Cattle die, | and kinsmen die, And so one dies one's self; One thing now | that never dies, The fame of a dead man's deeds. Larrington Edda 1996 Cattle die, kinsmen die, The self must also die; I know one thing which never dies; The reputation of each dead man. Coulter Edda 2003 Cattle die, kinsmen die: You will also die someday One thing I know that never dies Is the judgment of the dead. Waggoner’s Bubbamal 2007 Yer cows'll die someday, yer kinfolks too, and one day you'll be dead. I only know one thing what don't die: a man's reputation.
Heathens also pay a great deal of attention to secondary texts, generally academic in nature, that help us better understand the primary texts, and archeological, anthropological, historical, and other scholastic endeavors that expand an understanding of the ancient heathen world. Heathenry jokes about itself as the “Religion with Homework.”
Within Heathenry there are two main rituals. The first is called the Blót or Faining and the second is called Sumbel. The first and primary ritual is called the Blót (like boat) and is the historical Norse term for sacrifice or ritual slaughter. However, such blood sacrifice is rarely done anymore and the term has come to be a generic term for ritual. There has been a switch to calling this a Faining (Old English, celebration), taking the concept of blood sacrifice out of the ritual.
Blots/Fainings are often celebrated outdoors in what is called a Vé or sacred grove. Though more often than not they are celebrated in public parks and in people’s backyards. Blots are mentioned frequently in the Sagas, though few give details of any specifics. An exception is Eyrbyggja Saga, which describes a Blot in some detail. Though the authenticity and antiquity of the passage are debated, it is the best source we have got, and the essentials of the modern ritual derive from it.
The Basic Blót/Faining is very simple. Its purpose is to connect to, renew bonds with, and honor the God/desses, Ancestors, and Vaettir around us. It is fulfilling the maxim "A gift demands a gift.“ This is the ritual at its most basic level: Dedicate some food and/or drink to the entity you wish to honor. Have some; share it with the entity(s) through libation, burning, or throwing it into a body of water.
More complicated Fainings do occur. Generally, these more elaborate rituals tend to correspond to the seasons and four “markers” of the year: the Equinoxes and Solstices. They may focus on a specific deity, on an activity such as planting or harvest, or they may simply be celebrating an occasion, such as a marriage or surviving winter. Also combinations of these factors occur, for instance during Ostara, which corresponds to the Spring Equinox, celebrating Spring in all its permutations, and the Goddess herself. A Faining’s content may be based on historical example, scripted for the occasion, or may be spontaneous.
The second ritual is called the Sumbel, predominantly for communal purposes. In modern Heathenry, a drinking horn full of mead or ale is passed, or carried by an important woman, and three rounds of toasts are made: first to the God/desses, then to heroes or ancestors. In the third round, participants may make boasts of their deeds, or oaths or promises of future actions. Oaths said over the horn are seen as binding, and affect the Luck and Wyrd of all in attendance. The Thyle’s role really becomes apparent as he challenges and questions those who make boasts (gielp) or oaths (béot, bregofull), if necessary with taunts or mockery (flyting).
This is question that is currently being worked out and articulated. Where does Authority within Modern Heathenry come from? Simply put, it comes from within the group (Kindred/Sippe/Tribe/Hearth). They have criteria, needs, and wants and if a person is meeting these points … then they are granted the Authority. The question is how does the individuals ascertain if the “officer” (Godhi/Chieftain/Thyle) is meeting those criteria in actuality and in sincerity or are they merely playing at it?
The most active Kindred in this area is Jotun’s Bane Kindred. If you wish to see what a Heathen Kindred does, we have oodles of pictures there. The two largest national Heathen organizations are: The Troth and The Asatru Folk Assembly